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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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  7 o’clock

(Speaker Continuing)

[Deputy Mattie McGrath: Information on Mattie McGrath Zoom on Mattie McGrath] I could mention a university for the south east, which is badly needed. Clonmel is affected by the move of Limerick Institute of Technology, LIT, from its current site at the bypass to the old Kickham Barracks, which is a wonderful site. While there are great plans for it, we need that move to be supported.

I spoke to my daughter, who is in University of Limerick, UL, before coming into the Chamber. She said college is like having a website provided. There could have been much more in terms of learning online. It is not fair. More should be done for students. We are now a year into the pandemic and we should be able to adapt and have more functions on campus. For sixth year students going into first year, the world is their oyster. They had a tough year in sixth year, when the leaving certificate had to be changed utterly. All campuses need to do more to allow young people to express themselves, be able to learn more and fulfil themselves in spite of Covid. This is an opportunity to do things differently.

While online learning should have been a wonderful experience, it has not been. People are going on to websites to work. Much more needs to be done by management and those responsible in third level institutions to be more interactive and to physically engage with students as much as possible. They should be allowed on campus and not stuck in their rooms on computers all day. It is the same as giving them a website.

Deputy Thomas Pringle: Information on Thomas Pringle Zoom on Thomas Pringle I thank the Ceann Comhairle for the opportunity to contribute briefly to the motion on access to higher and further education. I commend Solidarity-People Before Profit on bringing it forward. It is a wide-ranging and detailed motion and to cover all of it would probably take an hour. That is as it should be.

  I want to talk about a couple of issues in my contribution. I would like to begin by welcoming the Minister's announcement of a revamp of the Central Applications Office system and its expansion to allow applicants to access options such as apprenticeships and further education and training, a strategy which will be led by SOLAS. I will touch on this in my contribution.

  I want to discuss SUSI. In mid-February I raised the need to address issues with the SUSI grant system. I have raised this important matter a number of times, but inadequacies remain. Last month, I called for the eligibility requirements for SUSI grants to be broadened for higher and further education. All students whose parents earn less than €24,500 a year should qualify for a top-up SUSI grant. It is hard to believe that parents who earn less than that do not automatically qualify. The reality is that unless part of a person's income is made up of a qualifying social welfare payment students will not qualify for a top-up, and parents are affected by that rule. The figure of €24,500 is appallingly low for parents to have to depend on.

  There are many issues in how the SUSI grant is decided on. One thing which has always been a bone of contention for me is the fact that self-employed people can manipulate the system much better than PRSI workers who cannot hide their income. A PRSI worker can earn a lot less than a neighbour who is self-employed but whose children will qualify for grants.

  I have not received any assurances that the impact of coronavirus pandemic on incomes will be taken into account in eligibility assessments for SUSI. This issue relates to those who are in receipt of the pandemic unemployment payment, as well as those who might have experienced changes in self-employment during the pandemic. Assessment of SUSI eligibility should be determined for PAYE workers on net, rather than gross, income, and deductions should be given for childcare and medical expenses.

  It is unfair that students must be over 23 years of age to be classed as independent. I have worked with students aged in their 50s and 60s who are still classed as dependent children because it is easier to qualify for the SUSI grant that way as the system does not accommodate them otherwise. It is absolutely crazy.

The relevant age should be lowered to at least 21 years. Young people may live at home longer in Dublin due to skyrocketing rents, but in rural areas they are more likely to live independently than their Dublin counterparts and should be treated as independent students rather than having to rely on their parents' incomes.

I have raised the issue of young graduates in Donegal on several occasions. The Government must actively create opportunities for graduates to remain in rural constituencies. Many of us in Donegal have encouraged our young wains to go to college and university, knowing that it is highly unlikely they will return to their home towns to live and work after graduation. That is the sad reality of the situation. I have three children in college and it is probable that none of them will live in Donegal after they graduate. We are raising our children to go to college and move away. That needs to be reversed.

  Where are the job opportunities in the forgotten county? Many people work in the North and are used to travelling back and forth between Donegal, Glasgow and Scotland, but Brexit and Covid have changed all of that. There have been some initial positive reports of people moving back to their home towns during lockdown while they can work from home. The repopulation of rural Ireland is very welcome and I hope the necessary infrastructure and resources are put in place to continue this trend. A train to Donegal might be a bit of a stretch.

  My concerns about the working from home phenomenon is that employers will continue to blur the lines of when they expect work to be done. As long as proper boundaries are put in place around the right to switch off, the pandemic creates an opportunity for job opportunities to be decentralised. Workers have to be careful what they wish for because employers will abuse it and make sure they are available at any time of day or night.

  I wanted to talk about a number of other issues but I have to give way to my colleague.

Deputy Michael McNamara: Information on Michael McNamara Zoom on Michael McNamara I wish to raise a couple of points. I thank People Before Profit for the motion and facilitating this timely debate.

  With regard to universal access to third level education, I do not have a problem with that per se but we need to be cognisant of what is possible. I studied briefly in Belgium - most of my studies were brief – where everybody could go on to third level education. There, they had started to transfer the pressure that we want to avoid in leaving certificate year to the first year of third level. Everybody gets into first year in third level and there is then massive attrition. The hardest and most stressful exams students in Belgium will probably do in their lives are at the end of first year. There was a huge dropout rate. Allowing people to go to university is not necessarily the solution.

  I accept that we need greater access and equality of access, but merely allowing people in does not necessarily negate all of the other inequalities. The same cohort who got through the leaving certificate will probably get through the first year of college with exactly the same unequal assistance that their socioeconomic background can provide. We need to be cognisant that the idea that merely abolishing the leaving certificate as it is and allowing people into first year would be a panacea is not necessarily the case. In certain professions, people are expected to work for nothing or next to nothing for a very long time, and are supported by their parents. That is open to some people in society but not to the vast majority. It is a difficult thing to address but one we necessarily have to address.

  The next issue I want to raise is apprenticeships. I appreciate what the Government is trying to do by including apprenticeships into the CAO system. They will not be based on points, but we need to give greater weighting to apprenticeships and not just in the construction sector which is what we typically think of when we talk about apprentices.

  I cannot think of the name of the particular series, but RTÉ used to make nuanced, slow and good documentaries about crafts in Ireland, from weaving to saddlery, that we do not find any more. We want to move increasingly to a circular economy and have fewer disposable products. What proportion of shoes are now repaired? Are they are worn until there is a blemish in them and then thrown out?

  I do not suggest that people should work for nothing or cheaply, that the type of labour people traditionally carried out should be cheaper or that people should not be paid as much as any other professionals in our economy. They should be. Rather, I am pointing out that there are dwindling skills that need to be protected. Saddlery, wood turning, weaving and other highly intricate skills, which existed throughout our State until about 20 years ago are now dwindling and need to be protected.

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