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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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(Speaker Continuing)

[Deputy Mick Barry: Information on Mick Barry Zoom on Mick Barry] The Minister can wring his hands and say it is wrong but he is implementing it by not having a policy of open access to third level. From the first week of January to the week after 17 February this year I had Zoom calls with leaving certificate students. They practically all spoke of their experience every day during the leaving certificate crisis. Mental health was the issue to the forefront in so many conversations. The crisis pressed down hard on each of those 61,000 students. Many were impacted themselves or knew a friend or classmate who was being impacted severely. They organised, campaigned and fought back. They forced the Government to climb down on the position that there was to be a forced leaving certificate for each student. I do not believe that the predicted grades model is a solution precisely because, like the leaving certificate, it pits students against each other in a battle for a limited number of places.

After that leaving certificate crisis and in the context of the pandemic, it is time to stand back and review the position. The State could not organise a traditional leaving certificate last year or this year. Next year there will be a need for many changes. It is a good time to do a review. We maintain that this examination is outdated. Even in non-pandemic times it is, from a mental health point of view, negative. It is an outlier in Europe in terms of the level of pressure it exerts on young adults. It is riddled with class bias. Most obviously, if a student can afford grinds, that student has an advantage over a family that cannot afford grinds for their children. It is biased against young adults who are not neurotypical. It is time for this examination to go.

More than 50 years ago, the primary certificate was a big thing in Irish society. When the doors were flung open to second-level education and people were invited in and places made available, the primary certificate became a thing of the past. The leaving certificate and the pressure that goes with it could go the same way if the doors are thrown open to third level. The ballpark is 25,000 places. If the Minister says he would need fewer, then there is less of a mountain to climb. There may be 10,000 or 15,000 new jobs. The Minister will not have difficulty finding the staff to recruit because there are already 11,200 part-time or short-time staff or staff on insecure contracts in the third-level system. We can have blended learning next year. We can digitise the libraries and provide third-level students with information technology equipment. We can have a period of two or three years to put the investment in, build the buildings and put the physical infrastructure in place that is necessary. It can be done in other ways next year.

People may ask how in hell it would work. A key would be an omnibus entry operation. Dr. Áine Hyland produced a report for the Higher Education Authority in 2011 on the leaving certificate and college entry. She strongly recommended the idea of omnibus entry. Broadly speaking, in year one there is a general course or courses and the students have examinations at the end of the year. From that point, people go on to second year or other courses to which they are more suited and they become more specialised.

Let us be clear. This would not come cheap. This would cost a great deal of money, perhaps billions - we are not saying anything other than that. However, the wealth is there in society to pay for it. The 300 richest in Ireland own and control €93 billion in wealth. Irish society has 17 billionaires, whose wealth increased by €3.3 billion during the pandemic year. We need a steeply progressive tax system. The starting point is serious taxes on wealth in Irish society.

There is one final point I wish to make. Open access on its own is an empty formula unless we combine it with a living grant for every student, the abolition of fees and decent accommodation for every student who needs it.

We had a scandalous situation last year where we had student accommodation centres run by big businesses, international consortium interests etc. They tried to grab thousands of euro, in some cases five-figure sums, from students. They maintained the students had signed up for a year and, even though there was a pandemic, the students were off home and so the landlords were free to take the money and run. Students fought back, spoke out and campaigned. In most cases, they forced these exploiters to give the money back. However, they could try the same con tomorrow and they are legally entitled to do it. That right should be removed from them. The Bill that the Union of Students in Ireland is backing provides for this to be outlawed and is an important part of this discussion as well. We need accommodation for students which is on the basis of need rather than for profit. It should be publicly built with reasonable rent rather than extortion, as in so many cases at the moment.

Acting Chairman (Deputy Bernard J. Durkan): Information on Bernard J. Durkan Zoom on Bernard J. Durkan The next slot goes to Sinn Féin. Deputy Rose Conway-Walsh is leading off.

Deputy Rose Conway-Walsh: Information on Rose Conway-Walsh Zoom on Rose Conway-Walsh I am sharing time with my colleagues and would appreciate being cut off after eight minutes. My thanks to Solidarity-People Before Profit for bringing forward this important motion. While it might contain some things that we have differences on, I wholeheartedly support the vast majority of it.

The first point arises in terms of removing the barriers in place. I hear the Minister talking, I hear students talking and I hear tutors within colleges talking, but it simply does not add up for me. The first point is in terms of removing the barriers. I know the Minister agrees that we have to remove the barriers to education. I know he realises they are there - the first being the fees charged. I know the Minister would say those entitled to a Student Universal Support Ireland grant do not pay fees and so on. However, we charge the highest fees in the EU. We cannot stand over that and Governments cannot continue to stand over that. Vast fees are charged for international students and post-graduate fees. Yesterday, I spoke about medicine graduates. One young man outlined to me that he will have to end up paying €100,000 to be a doctor. We are a country that is crying out for doctors and we go around the world looking for doctors. Yet, we do not invest in our own in the way we need to. We desperately need more clinicians. The Minister outlined some of them himself. We need to join the dots. We need to ensure that we are investing. We are not looking at the cost of education. We need to be looking at the opportunity cost if we do not invest money where we need to in education, especially third-level education.

We spoke about Donogh O'Malley in the 1960s and commended what he did. However, we know now that for many jobs we need third-level and further educational qualifications. That is what is needed for people to be able to access that type of employment or the type of enterprises we need in this country.

I know the Minister is well-intended but one thing will really show us and the student population if the Minister's intentions are genuine. Let us consider the USI legislation around accommodation. We know students have been fleeced in the past year. Hard-pressed families, some of them single-parent families, are really struggling. It is unforgivable the way they have had to pay over money for something only for us to say they cannot use it. It is like going into a shop and compelling a customer to pay over her money but insisting that if she leaves the shop she cannot bring the goods with her.

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