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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 Patricia Ryan: Information on Patricia  Ryan Zoom on Patricia  Ryan] There is an unacceptable level of inequality in access to third level education. There are parts of Athy, Portarlington and Newbridge in which the number of students progressing to third level is less than half the county average.

There is widespread poverty and financial hardship among third level students, particularly as a result of extortionate rents. We need to urgently commence a major publicly funded programme of building affordable, publicly-owned student accommodation. Affordable accommodation is a significant barrier for working class people who wish to progress to college. There is also the financial hardship imposed on many students and their families as a result of having to pay what are among the highest registration fees in the EU.

Students should not have to work long hours to keep themselves in college. Students on work placements are doing real work and they deserve fair pay. I cannot believe we are still talking about paying student nurses. Can we not just get it done?

Sinn Féin in government will abolish third level fees. It is a disgrace that while some families make significant sacrifices to keep their child in college, foreign executives can claim tax relief under the special assignee relief programme. Almost 1,500 individuals availed of €42 million in tax relief under that programme in 2018.

Meanwhile, Members are well aware that SUSI, to which the Minister referred, is not fit for purpose. It finds any reason possible to refuse grants to struggling families. It really shows where the priorities of the Government lie. They are certainly not with the working poor of counties Kildare and Laois whom I represent.

Deputy Ruairí Ó Murchú: Information on Ruairí Ó Murchú Zoom on Ruairí Ó Murchú I welcome the opportunity to speak on this issue. I thank Solidarity-People before Profit for tabling the motion. I think it is a fair ask. I agree with it in the sense that there needs to be a greater level of imagination and that we have to look on this as an opportunity to deliver for third level on the same basis that Donogh O'Malley delivered for second level education. It is fair to say that there is an obvious need to deal with the issues of fees, SUSI and, in particular, the income thresholds. I welcome the fact that the Minister stated some of those issues will be addressed. However, we also need to accept the importance of access to third level in other respects. The sad news coming from Drogheda is a reminder of what can happen when kids from disadvantaged areas become involved in a pretty seedy part of this world that impacts on many working-class communities and impedes them greatly. Kids become enveloped and the victims of utterly scurrilous criminals. It is a blight on society that needs to be dealt with. We need to put all those factors into play in the context of what we can deliver for people and the opportunities they can be offered.

As I have stated previously in the House, my father was the principal of a school in Muirhevnamor, Dundalk. He often remarked on the utter ridiculousness of a teacher getting worked up about a kid not having a pencil, pencil case or copybook when that kid might not have had breakfast. We need to look at all the multi-agency interventions that are necessary to ensure that everybody is given a fair start. That begins long before children even get to secondary school. We need this to work from primary school, through secondary school and then into tertiary education.

I refer to apprenticeships. I welcome some of the narrative from the Government in terms of multiple access points to career paths. I welcome the fact that in Dundalk there is access through the Ó Fiaich Institute of Further Education and Drogheda Institute of Further Education, as well as access to post-leaving certificate courses that provide a springboard for many people to get into third level institutions such as Dundalk Institute of Technology, DKIT, as is the case for many in my constituency. We have to consider all these pathways. It is obvious that funding has to be increased, as do supports for access programmes. We also need to look at the College Connect initiative, through which proper connections are made with communities, particularly those that surround these third level institutes and the residents of which do not necessarily have a great tradition of attending third level.

I welcome some of the innovative moves that have been made by Louth and Meath ETB and other bodies. It established the advanced manufacturing and technology training centre of excellence in Dundalk, which provides lifelong training in high-tech and high-spec industries. We need more such initiatives. There is also a need for an audit in respect of employers' needs in terms of the skill sets that are required and should be built into apprenticeships. I know that some experts in the field believe that certain soft skills relating to communication or almost emotional intelligence, as well as certain other skill sets, are sometimes lacking. If that is the case, it would be very easy to incorporate that into apprenticeships and lifelong learning to ensure that we can produce students who have all the skill sets required.

I welcome the fact that the Minister referred to the issue of DKIT and technical university status. I would welcome further communication from him in that regard. I know that a meeting will be held next month with Oireachtas Members representing County Louth. We need to ensure that DKIT does not miss out and that we deliver on technical university status. I welcome the Minster's interaction on other issues that have occurred in DKIT. I would welcome a response from him on those issues. It may not suit him to discuss them in the Chamber.

Deputy Aodhán Ó Ríordáin: Information on Aodhán Ó Ríordáin Zoom on Aodhán Ó Ríordáin Anybody who spends time in my company will learn in a very short time that I was a teacher in, and principal of, a school in the north-east inner city of Dublin. It effectively changed my life and the way I view the world. I learned more from those children than I ever taught them. When I became a school principal I got a wonderful bit of advice from a great colleague of mine named Mark Candon. He told me that regardless of the decision a principal makes, he or she will have conflict with staff colleagues, potentially with the parent body, definitely with the Department of Education and possibly with the board of management and others, but if a child is at the centre of every decision that is made, nobody will ever question the principal's integrity and, therefore, make sure that a child or children are at the centre of every decision made. If one analyses the education system from beginning to the end, it is very difficult to come to the conclusion that we have constructed a system that has a child, children or students at the centre of decisions that are made. If one was to start with a blank sheet of paper, which is what I believe should be done, one would not construct an education system like the one we have now.

The second level system ends with the leaving certificate if the student gets that far. Many young people do not get that far. As a result of this pandemic, we have lost a generation of young people at risk. There is no legal requirement for these vulnerable young people to be in school after the age of 16 and, as a result of the pandemic and the lack of in-school learning, they have been lost to the system. The leaving certificate is outdated and no longer fit for purpose. It needs to be overhauled radically because it does not have young students, human beings, at its centre.

We have an education system that perpetuates inequality. It is rooted in inequality. If one asks Finnish politicians about the education system in Finland, they will say they had a discussion in their society about their education system and tried to find the theme or belief system that should underpin it. They came up with an answer. It is this radical idea called equality.

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