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Young People and Access to Further and Higher Education: Motion [Private Members] (Continued)

Thursday, 11 March 2021

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 1005 No. 2

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  6 o’clock

(Speaker Continuing)

[Deputy Simon Harris: Information on Simon Harris Zoom on Simon Harris]  We have published 36 specific actions we want to get done this year, including a review of the student grants scheme. I will be attending a virtual meeting this evening with students, parents, guidance counsellors, teachers and principals in Longford to talk about how we can make the SUSI system much more comprehensive. I accept that it needs to be radically overhauled to take account of issues like part-time learners, adjacency rates and non-adjacency rates, and income thresholds. We will have the output of that review this summer, which will give an opportunity to consider it in advance of the budget.

I have talked already about the CAO reform process. I had a very good meeting yesterday with representatives of the CAO on that issue.

We also need new legislation to reform higher education governance. We are putting €1.83 billion a year of taxpayers' money into universities and higher education and we need to be able, as Oireachtas Members, to see that we have fit-for-purpose, 21st century governance. Legislation on that issue will be brought forward and, I hope, passed by the Houses this year.

I firmly believe in the importance of an integrated and connected third level system. I am passionate in my view that there must be diverse and progressive pathways into education. There cannot just be a right way of doing it and a wrong way of doing it. There must be multiple ways that work for learners of different ages and from different backgrounds. The CAO system works effectively in taking people from secondary school to university but it leaves out whole swathes of opportunity. We need a single portal through which students can apply for further education opportunities and apprenticeships, for which the points system does not apply, and for higher education as well.

In regard to extra places, we have already set aside €18 million in the budget this year to provide 4,100 additional places, having already grown the third level sector last year. I accept that the scramble that had to be made last year to try to find those places was a little unedifying. That is why I have set up a working group, now that we have clarity on the leaving certificate examination, to see whether we can do even more in this area. The point Deputy Gino Kenny made in this regard is a really interesting one. As a former Minister for Health, I know only too well the shortages there can be in nursing, speech and language therapy, occupational therapy and so on, and the challenges they can present for the delivery of public services. One of the issues we are looking at is that if we want to train more nurses and doctors, we need to match each of them with clinical placements. That will involve sitting down with other Departments to see whether if we create an extra university place here, they can create an extra clinical place there. I hope to have that work done by Easter and to update Cabinet and the House on what more we can do, above and beyond the 4,100 additional places. Last year, I gave a commitment that we would maintain the ratio of students who got their first choice or a choice from their top three. That is my intention again this year.

In regard to funding, it is important to say that the Exchequer currently contributes €340 million a year to meeting the tuition costs of students in higher education. It is also important to say, and very few people say it, that some 44% of our students have their registration fee covered in full or in part by SUSI. The idea that everyone is paying €3,000 is not correct. As we improve the SUSI system, I hope fewer people will pay that registration fee. It is also important to point out that the OECD's latest Education at a Glance report, which is based on 2018 data, indicated that this country is investing more per full-time student than the EU or OECD average. As we know, funding for third level has increased further since 2018. I look forward to the up-to-date data being reviewed.

Having said that, we need to have a really honest conversation about funding. In fairness, Deputy Boyd Barrett is being honest about it in saying that he wants to follow the Donogh O'Malley route, that is, the concept that access to at least an undergraduate education would be free as part of a natural extension of the education system. There is serious merit in that proposal. We will soon have the economic evaluation from the European Commission of the Cassells report. The last Oireachtas was a bit cowardly, quite frankly, in kicking that report down the road and into another review. That was done on an all-party basis. There was an attitude of, "Sure, is there anything to be said for another review?" That other review is about to come to an end, in quarter 2 of this year, when we will have the final report on the options set out in the Cassells report. Let us then have a very honest debate. I instinctively want to see any barriers removed to students being able to access undergraduate education. The Deputy is right that Donogh O'Malley was told back in the 1960s that he was mad and wrong and he could not do what he proposed to do. As we know, he went ahead and did it anyway. Let us have that debate this year.

In regard to access, it is a personal goal of mine to make sure that the third level education system is more diverse. When we look at it, it should be like society looking back at us. That is not the case and it needs to be more diverse. We are currently working on our third national plan for equity of access to higher education, identifying groups that are currently under-represented in higher education. The consultation for that has begun and I would appreciate Deputies' support in order that we can have the best plan possible. More than 79,000 students were assessed by SUSI in 2020, up from 71,000 in 2019. We have increased the postgraduate allowances, which were paltry, and I want to do more on that issue. In addition, we have doubled the student assistance fund.

The past year has been a really difficult one. I do not have time to get into all the challenges for students, but I know it has been difficult for them. They have sacrificed and suffered a lot. I want them to know that we are working on making sure they have a more meaningful, on-site college experience in the new academic year. We have set up another well-being and engagement group chaired by students to look at what more we can do in this area.

Deputy Paul Murphy referred to the difficulties being experienced by postgraduate students. I will meet with them to discuss the allowance for postgraduate workers. I apologise that such a meeting has not taken place so far.

Education is a great leveller. We should be ambitious and we should use this new Department to drive an ambitious programme of reform. I am really excited about what we can get done. It will include reforming the CAO, creating an integrated tertiary education system, overhauling the SUSI grant system, making big and brave decisions on a sustainable funding model and bringing forward new governance legislation, an adult literacy, numeracy and digital skills plan, and a new national access plan. We have lots to do. The debate today, importantly, puts a focus on a number of those important issues. I look forward to continuing to work with colleagues on them.

Deputy Mick Barry: Information on Mick Barry Zoom on Mick Barry I ask colleagues to consider what is the essence of the Minister's remarks and his key line of argument. In effect, he is saying that we are all in agreement in this House on these issues and we are headed towards the same place. We are agreed on the goal, according to the Minister, and the only debate is over the speed at which we travel. The facts contradict what he is saying.

According to Universitas 21, which measures government expenditure on third level education as a percentage of gross domestic product, Ireland was 46th of 50 countries measured recently, which is a fall of 29 places since 2017. According to Mr. Jim Miley, director general of the Irish Universities Association, State expenditure per third level student is down more than 40% since 2008. The Minister points to an increased budget for mental health services in third level institutions, giving a figure of €5 million, but from what base is that starting? In University College Cork, UCC, the year before last, there was one counsellor for every 2,340 students, compared with a recommended best practice ratio of one for every thousand students or, at most, 1,500. The situation at Cork Institute of Technology, CIT, is considerably worse than that. In UCC in 2019, there was more money spent by the college on flights for staff than on mental health services for its tens of thousands of students.

What is the Government doing this year? It is pitting leaving certificate students against each other in a battle for a limited number of third level places. That would be unfair in any year and it is especially unfair and wrong in a pandemic year. There are 61,000 leaving certificate students, most of whom are part of a cohort of 80,000 CAO applicants for approximately 55,000 places at third level next year. It is scandalous in a pandemic year that students would be forced to compete with each other for a limited number of third level places. The Minister said that he attended a virtual meeting with students in Cork and he spoke about how wrong it is that there is an obsession with the points race etc. He is one of two Ministers in this Government with responsibility for education and he is in charge of a machine that is forcing students to compete against each other this year.

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