Statements on Further Education

Statements on Further Education

A document on well-being measures is progressing through the Cabinet. It is based closely on the OECD Better Life Index. One of the factors measured is education. One of the other things measured in the OECD framework is the idea of different forms of capital and of human capital being one of them. Investing in education is investing in people and in society. I went to college at the same time as Deputies Ó Ríordáin and O’Reilly. I benefited from those structures as well. Much of the economic jump forward we experienced at that time, especially in the early 2000s, before it ran away from itself, was predicated on heavy investment in third level education and in the young people who came through that system at the time.

Like Deputy O’Reilly, I was in the first generation of my family to attend university. I was afforded the opportunity to do that because it was financially achievable for my family. We must maintain this ability, because the best possible investment we can make in our society is in education. While I might not share Deputy Ó Ríordáin’s depression today or go so far in stating it, I agree with a central point of his regarding having an authentic, honest and genuine discussion concerning taxation and what taxation does. Nobody likes paying tax, but if we have an honest discussion about what it is our taxes pay for and go towards achieving in our society, and, strange as it might be to say it, realise that taxation can actually be a force for good in our society, then we might be able to have a more honest discussion about those things we decide to invest in.

This brings me to my first point about the future funding of third level education, which is what this debate is about. I welcome the €307 million investment in core funding. We have discussed this at the joint committee and the Minister appeared before us just last night in the context of this provision and the Ukrainian provision. I said then, and I repeat it, that we must be careful to disambiguate the two things we are talking about in respect of core funding and the affordability we should provide for in respect of students. All the measures the Minister lists in this context, including the SUSI grant review scheme, are welcome. An opportunity to access third level education will certainly be afforded to a wider range of students. I also welcome the Minister’s suggestion that we might examine the income disregard.

Like Deputy O’Reilly, I worked my way through college. It was an important facet of how my family was able to afford third level education. If that cap has been in place since 2016, this is something we should be examining.

This sector has benefited from having a senior Cabinet Minister addressing it. There has been an injection of new energy. The Higher Education Authority Bill 2022 is a once-in-a-generation piece of legislation. It has been 50 years in the making and it is exceptionally valuable. The other thing the Minister has driven forward is the agenda concerning the technological universities. I have referred to my family. All four of the children in my family had to leave the south east to access a university education. That is no longer the case. There is now a university in the south east. The Minister will not be surprised to hear me repeat that we need to make that a university of scale and substance. Appointments have been made to the posts of president and chair of that institution. These appointments have set out the scale of ambition in this regard and it has been welcomed across the south east. We must, however, do this in the context of beart de réir ár mbriathar. I refer to having those quality appointments without following that up with the commensurate funding that will be required.

I mention the research capacity of technological universities as well. Along with the Minister of State, Deputy Ossian Smith, I met with people in the Walton Institute in Waterford. They are driving research capacity forward in the south east. It is extremely important. The staffing arrangements that apply to technological universities, however, are different from those that apply to regular universities and this makes it more difficult for people in these technological universities to engage in research. It is important that we consider this situation and ensure we find a way to address it in future.

Returning briefly to the Higher Education Authority Bill 2022, we scrutinised it on Committee Stage. As was said, I think it is due to come back to the House on Report Stage later this month. If we are talking about the future funding of third level education, and I raised this issue on Committee Stage, it must be recognised that the State makes a significant contribution to the funding of our third level sector. In that context, I would like there to be transparency concerning where the other funding comes from for the sector. If we are investing this much money in education as a State, and it is proper that we do so – I believe we should go further in investing in education – then we have a right, as a State, to see where the other funding is coming from as well to ensure it is commensurate with the values of our State and that we are happy for those sources of funding to be accessed in providing for the third level education of our children in future.

Turning to the provision of third level education for Ukrainians arriving here, the Minister gave an impressive overview of the provisions that have been put in place in a short time for the relatively limited number of students who have been coming in. We identified at the joint committee approximately 3,000 students who might fall within the traditional age range for attending third level education. I think the figure for those now accessing third level education was about 600 people. It seems like we have good structures in place. The Minister spoke about how the Erasmus scheme might be used to help people access education. This is all welcome and all to the good. Another aspect, which the Minister referred to at the joint committee meeting yesterday, was that this is an opportunity for lessons to be learned. We are seeing many people coming into the State now who are accessing things like, for example, English as a second language, ESL, courses, and the education and training boards, ETBs, are becoming involved. We must hold on to what we learn from this experience to enable us to provide the same support to people who may be arriving here from Afghanistan, Syria or wherever. We should certainly be learning lessons from these endeavours.

The announcement just this morning of third level access support for students with autism and students with an intellectual disability is extremely welcome. The impact of these supports will be felt in many families. It will make a great difference. If we are serious about being an inclusive society, and Deputy Tully spoke about this aspect, then we need to provide pathways into third level education and onwards into the workforce for people with disabilities. Therefore, this funding is very welcome.

That is more or less what I wanted to get through. It was important to have this debate. Substantial steps in the right direction are being taken. Having a senior Minister at the Cabinet table to drive this agenda forward has re-energised the sector. I hope to be able to work with the Minister at the education committee on the Higher Education Authority, HEA, Bill to make sure that we put forward the strongest possible legislation to safeguard the sector into the future.