Wednesday, 7 February 2001
Seanad Eireann Debate
That Seanad Éireann calls on the Government to put an end to the scandal of the two tier education system in Ireland brought about by the inequality within higher and further education and training; and demands a fair and equitable grant system to facilitate this.
I welcome the Minister to this beautifully refurbished House and I hope we will have a stimulating debate. Nobody could disagree that the education system must play a more effective role in breaking the cycle of inequality and deprivation which still exists in Ireland, despite the enormous economic advances.
In theory, the primary and second level sectors in education prepare young entrants for third level education. We know that at every stage of the education system young people fall away from the path of achievement because of poverty and deprivation. It is a scandal that so many young people can be deprived of an education which would help improve their quality of life.  This is partly due to their parents' inability to meet the very real costs of ongoing education. We know – it is repeated like a mantra in society – that educational disadvantage lies at the heart of poverty and marginalisation. We also know that when other societies talked about improvements in the socio-economic realm the mantra was “education, education, education”.
Fine Gael is determined that every young person should have equal access to all stages of the educational process and that every school leaver should have an equal chance of receiving an effective third level education. This is not the case at present. We cannot talk about third level in isolation. I support high quality pre-school education because early intervention is essential. Early remedial intervention is also required, in addition to sufficient resources for primary schools to provide an adequate system and to ensure that disadvantaged children do not fall between the cracks.
At second level Fine Gael has identified coherent policies which underline the partnership approach to embrace all those within the education system and the wider community. Tackling educational disadvantage is a priority and we have called for existing policies to be tested for their effectiveness and to ensure that the successes we identify can be built upon. One of the policies set out by Fine Gael is the establishment of an education development authority to support teacher training, new methods and new policies in school. We have pointed to the fact that over 30 State agencies provide support and advice to small businesses, their managers and staff, yet no State agency provides support and advice for schools.
According to the USI policy paper on student financial support, students from poorer backgrounds “are still grossly underrepresented in third level education”. We all know this is true. Participation at third level by pupils from disadvantaged family backgrounds is chronically low. We have identified key policy initiatives which will help to combat this. The first is the development of a coherent alternative entry system for students from disadvantaged backgrounds who have not come through the leaving certificate points race. This would include a quota of places and a coherent accreditation system for establishing that eligibility. All third level colleges should be required to develop strategies for the successful attainment of targets in terms of the intake of pupils through this system and to integrate the students into college. Back-up services must be available for them.
Third level colleges should form relationships with particular designated disadvantaged schools to ease the transition to college and provide an orientation programme to help students adapt to third level. Each year the cost of accommodation and other elements should be assessed to decide the structural amount of maintenance grants payable. Many of us who operate at county council and local government level know that timing is  an important aspect of the provision of grants. We are too familiar with cases of hardship where the up front costs of students cannot be met because they have not received the grants on time. This has been alleviated to an extent, but it is still a problem.
The lack of adequate financial support has been identified as one of the most fundamental barriers for students from less socially advantaged backgrounds. Proof of this is the most recent figures which show that groups that have traditionally the lowest participation in higher education, that is, the children of other so called manual and non-manual workers, have had the lowest increase in participation in higher education. Although there have been increases in participation at higher level, the rate of increase for those less advantaged groups is far less than what is acceptable.
The Minister has a great grasp of detail and he will know that income limits for grants are judged on the basis of joint parental income, regardless of whether students are financially dependent on their parents. The limits are far too low, particularly in view of the real value of the grant. Figures provided following a Union of Students in Ireland survey on the cost of attending college show that rent amounts to 41% of the total monthly budget of a student living away from home in the Dublin area. Maintenance grant increases from 1997 to 2000, inclusive, amounted to 9%, while the rent increases amounted to a whopping 94%. What does this mean for students who make it to college and try to survive on a grants system which provides a measly £49 per week? They must take up part-time work to ease the financial burden. This pressure can result in much higher non-completion rates for these students. In other words, those who find it most difficult to get to college are then faced with even more barriers to the successful completion of their courses. This is perpetuating a cycle which must be broken.
A report based on a research project emanating from the Educational Research Centre in Drumcondra in August 2000 was cited in the Irish Independent. This suggested that within institutes of technology, the non-completion rate was on average 40% for students who began their courses in 1995. For example, of 11,175 students who enrolled in 11 institutes of technology in the academic year 1995-96, 42.61% did not finish their courses. The vast majority either dropped out in first year or failed. In engineering and computing courses, half the students did not complete their courses.
According to the Union of Students in Ireland, finances are a key cause of these non-completion rates. However, there are other issues. A survey carried out by the head of counselling services at the Dublin Institute of Technology followed the progress of 262 degree students during their first two years in college – not a happy experience for some of the students. Some 40 of them experienced some level of distress by the second year,  ten were at risk of becoming severely distressed, dropping out or even at risk of committing suicide, 30 had left college and the non-completion rate over the two years was 11.5%.
The most vulnerable were not necessarily students who struggled academically. The major factors were age, which I found interesting. It seems the older we get, the harder it is to change our spots. Mature students found it more difficult than younger students to adapt to student life. The second major factor was finance. Students with little or no financial support from home were also at risk. There were other issues such as unstable family backgrounds and first generation students, that is, students from families without a tradition of post-compulsory education. If one aligns that to those who are financially strapped, one can see the great problems that arise.
In 1999 a study in Carlow, Dundalk and Tralee Institutes of Technology also found that finance was a central cause of non-completion of courses. Lack of finance also deterred students from accepting college places in the first place. Presumably this also deters others from attempting to secure a college place. In 1999, the Higher Education Authority published a report by Professor Pat Clancy based on a postal survey of over 11,000 students who turned down the offer of a college place from the CAO. The report showed that one in ten applicants rejected an offer because of concern about the financial cost of going to college.
In comparison to the rest of Europe, Ireland is one of only six countries who give support solely to the students and, of those six, we have the lowest level of support. We have the worst system of student financial support in Europe. Grants need to be realistic, covering the basic cost of living for the students. It is not right that access to university, in particular, is still so heavily weighted in favour of the relatively well off. We do not need any more pilot schemes. We must insist that the proportion of young people going on to third level education is the same regardless of their background.
Proposals from the Union of Students in Ireland are that grants should be increased immediately in line with social welfare levels to cover basic costs. I am aware their proposals would double the cost of student support schemes which amount to more than £80 million. I am aware also that the Minister is on record as saying he would favour increasing the level of grants if resources became available. I would urge him to honour that promise, as resources are available, by providing realistic increases in grants. A very good argument has been made by the USI who say this would represent real value for money. They say that if 33% of first year students in the IT sector alone are not completing their courses, this represents a loss to the taxpayer of almost £25 million. Increasing the grants substantially would help to realise the potential of our invest ment, including savings at PLC and university level.
I ask the Minister to take cognisance of these points and realise that we cannot perpetuate disadvantage. We must use every means to ensure we have a fair, just and equitable society. Education is one of the key means to ensure this.
Before becoming a Member of the Seanad, I was a teacher for many years in a second level school in Sexton Street, Limerick, a disadvantaged area. It was a great boost to the school recently when the Minister visited it to open a science block. All my teaching life I had the experience of a tiny number of girls from that school having an opportunity to take up third level education. This is now changing, given that students have access to post leaving certificate courses run by the teachers in the school who responded to falling numbers and looked at other educational possibilities for the students who could not take up third level education, by which I mean universities and institutes of technology. Perhaps these students may have an opportunity to do PLC courses but it does not mean they do not have the intelligence to go the University of Limerick, for instance, of which I am a member of the governing authority. It is difficult to tell students they have the choice to go to third level college when we know they will not survive there.
Senator Keogh referred to the fact that there should be liaison between third level and second level education. A mentoring process operates between the University of Limerick and St. Enda's whereby the university students help the second level students with their homework. They also try to give them the confidence to fill in their chief executive officer forms and apply for university places and, if they go to college, they are given a support structure within the college. This is to be lauded, but when we consider the returns in the University of Limerick, there is very little progress each year. Despite all the positive action by the second level colleges and universities, there is little or no progress. I am not saying it is all doom and gloom but things are moving very slowly.
Given the Celtic tiger economy and the fact that the prospects of employment are so great, the option of taking up third level education is diminishing because economically and socially people feel they must take up employment. It was different in the past when people may have been pushed into third level education. They knew they needed further education to get employment but nowadays they are being employed instantly. If one comes from a low income family, while the grants system will enhance the prospects of going to college, it will not realistically allow a student to remain there. The prospect of employment is very attractive.
I have received feedback from the students who are sitting the alternative leaving certificate  which one of the Members present, as part of an Oireachtas committee, was responsible for developing. I know there is a skills shortage and I accept that the alternative leaving certificate is designed to address this problem and allow students to develop these much needed skills. At present, however, we are obliged to bring in workers with such skills from overseas. We have reached a watershed in terms of whether we should encourage students to make the choice between entering the workforce – this, perhaps, is the easiest option – or taking up third level education. These students are already being enticed, on foot of newspaper advertisements, to enter the workforce. I am not saying that is not a good development but it is removing the option of entering third level education from their grasp because they have seen what happened to brothers or sisters who may have taken the plunge and who were forced to drop out not because they failed examinations but because they could not survive financially.
I regularly meet past pupils who inform me that they were obliged to leave third level education because they had to work so hard to earn the money to supplement their grants and because their parents had made huge sacrifices to support them. My heart bleeds for these individuals because, as students, they worked tremendously hard to obtain a third level place. It must be very disheartening to have to leave third level education because one cannot study and work the long hours one is expected to work. Many of the individuals to whom I refer earn less than £4 per hour.
I have in my possession statistics provided by the Union of Students in Ireland which show the amount of time students spend working. I do not know how any of them can combine work and study, particularly at a young age when their health may not always be 100% because they are obliged to skip proper meals and eat junk food. By and large, these students cannot continue with their studies.
I had understood that the special project team investigating grants was to present its report before the end of March. I hope that still is the case. I believe the group was charged with considering the level of grant increases and also the method of payment. I spoke to a student recently who only received the grant due to her from September in January. As local representatives, we receive many telephone calls from people asking us to contact vocational education committees or county councils to find out when they will receive their grants. I do not know how people survive until they receive their grants. It is as if they do not have physical needs. This is such a complicated matter that we could debate it at length on another occasion.
I represent in the constituency of Limerick East in which are situated the University of Limerick, Mary Immaculate College, the Limerick Institute of Technology – of which the College of Art and Design is a part – and many PLC  colleges. I have spoken to many students; therefore, I am not solely dependent on the statistics provided by the USI in respect of this matter. However, those statistics show that for accommodation students at the University of Limerick, who receive a grant of approximately £49 per week, pay £45 for a single room in a house with five other occupants. In addition, they spend £30 on food, £22 on electricity, telephone and refuse charges, £15 on books and college materials – this figure fluctuates at different times throughout the year – and £25 on entertainment and transport. One could argue about whether they should spend £25 on entertainment, but it costs quite an amount to go to the cinema or have a few drinks. In any event, I was shocked to discover that each week they spend £137. Even if they cut out their entertainment costs and remained at home to study, these people would still have to pay their other costs and it is unrealistic to expect them to do so on a grant of £49 per week.
The level of grant available does not reflect increases in inflation, neither is it cognisant of the weekly costs incurred by the average student. It is much more attractive for some students to claim a social welfare allowance of £76 per week and a rent allowance rather than making a commitment to spending three or four years living off £49 per week. That is another consideration in respect of which I would have liked to have had more time to develop my arguments.
“Seanad Éireann commends the Government for the steps it has taken to increase investment in further and higher education, to broaden education opportunities and to ensure that our education system responds effectively to emerging skill needs, thus contributing to continued economic success.”.
I welcome the opportunity to commend the Government on the steps it has taken in respect of this matter. I have worked as a teacher and career guidance counsellor in one of the most disadvantaged areas of the north inner city and I am in a position to state that the position has changed dramatically to that which obtained ten years ago. Nothing was done by successive Governments and I do not see how Opposition Members can suddenly state that they are the people who will solve this problem. I intend to list the improvements that have been made since the Government took office. I will concentrate on only a few of these because so many have been introduced that one could spend an hour and a half listing all that has been done and what will be done in the future. I cannot agree with suggestions that nothing has been done and that we are at a standstill.
The Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Woods, has given priority to the allevi ation of disadvantage in higher and further education. He has done this through the provision of a special fund for students with disabilities which in 1999 amounted to £700,000 and which has risen to £1.2 million this year. That is a significant increase. The special fund operates under the aegis of the Department and provides funding to students with disabilities who are attending courses in third level institutions and those taking post-leaving certificate courses. It provides grant assistance towards the cost of special equipment, special materials, technological aids, targeted transport services, personal assistants and sign language interpreters.
The Minister also increased the provision for the student assistance access fund which is administered by third level institutions and provides direct financial support to disadvantaged students to assist them in remaining in college to complete their studies. A sum of £1.96 million was allocated to this fund in the year 2000. This significant increase on the previous allocation of £1.26 million will allow greater support to be immediately given to disadvantaged students.
Since 1996 the Department has provided funding, through the Higher Education Authority, to the universities for the targeted initiative which is aimed at widening the access for young people from socially and economically disadvantaged backgrounds. This initiative involves links with second level schools which are designated as disadvantaged and includes liaison and outreach work. There are two aspects to the programmes which operate under the initiative. The first involves the provision of assistance to students to meet the points requirement for courses, thus enabling them to obtain a college place through the standard CAO entry procedure. There are, for example, monitoring programmes and summer schools for potential students. The second aspect of these programmes involves a number of special entry arrangements through which more flexible entry criteria are applied. Various supports are put in place for students entering by this method.
The initiative to which I refer deals with second level schools and third level colleges. It provides after school study to help students from disadvantaged backgrounds and allows them to access and become familiar with third level institutions. That initiative was only put in place six years ago and it is now being taken on by many schools throughout the country. Parents who cannot provide study facilities at home welcome the fact that such facilities can be made available after school in order to allow their children to gain access to third level education.
The national development plan makes provision for a third level access fund, the allocation for which is £95 million. This fund will meet the specific needs of students with disabilities in terms of making possible the provision of equipment and support services. It provides financial support to disadvantaged students by way of  additional support to existing maintenance grants. It also develops outreach initiatives currently undertaken by a number of third level institutions which involve links with second level schools and community groups designed to assist students to meet the points requirements for the standard CAO entry procedures and to provide complementary special entry arrangements. This project also expands the provision of particular services such as counselling and monitoring services to meet the needs of non-traditional students.
Last September the Minister announced the establishment of a millennium partnership fund for disadvantaged people, providing £1 million in 2001. This fund will be administered by the Department in conjunction with area partnerships. It will build on the experience of the support schemes for students from disadvantaged families and will be operated by Dublin Northside Partnership which assists students to participate in higher education. The area partnerships will be invited to submit proposals.
When the Minister established the action group on access to third level education he announced as an initial step and pending the group's recommendations, the introduction of a special maintenance grant payable to disadvantaged grant holders targeted at those most in need. The full rates of the special maintenance grants include increases over the standard rate from £1,775 to £2,000 for students residing more than 15 miles from their college and from £710 to £1,000 for students residing within 15 miles of the college.
Some 40% of third level students qualify for maintenance grants and almost 120,000 students are involved in third level education. Last year expenditure on the schemes was in the region of £90 million which does not include the free fees initiative.
Many more issues and projects could be outlined. In the past few years there have been significant improvements regarding the socially excluded. This Government has introduced many projects to include disadvantaged people. I see this at first hand on the ground. I work with career guidance teachers, home-school liaison officers, higher education authorities and third level institutions in defining how best we can provide easy access for students who feel ill at ease in third level education and who cannot take such places due to financial constraints. We are on target to achieve this objective.
Minister for Education and Science (Dr. Woods): I welcome the opportunity to set out the measures taken by the Government to increase investment in further and higher education, to broaden educational opportunities and to ensure we meet the skills needs of the economy.
I wish to put this debate in perspective. Much has been done over the past three years. Many other good measures were introduced before that but in the past three years there has been an unprecedented increase of over 40% in expendi ture on education. Last year 62,000 students sat the leaving certificate and there were 57,000 places available to them on further or higher education courses. The number and range of options for students has been increased significantly.
Senator Jackman welcomed the manner in which the number of PLCs have been increased. Such courses have been valuable to many students. Not every student wishes to go to university and not every student will receive the best education in a university. There are also institutes and further and higher education establishments.
When this Government took office three and a half years ago there were 100,000 students in higher education. Today the figure is almost 120,000, an increase of 20%. Having expanded third level opportunities, the Government has ensured that Ireland is well within the top quarter of OECD countries in terms of under-graduate provision for traditional school leavers. This was the strategic objective identified by the de Buitléir review.
Never before have school leavers had such a multiplicity of opportunities across an increasingly diversified higher education system. Having substantially broadened participation at third level, the Government is committed to ensuring equality of access and participation at that level. In further education, the numbers enrolled on PLC courses increased from 18,000 in 1996-97 to almost 24,400 in 1999-2000. Over the same period the number of approved places on Youthreach programmes run by FÁS and vocational education committees increased by 2,600 to over 7,100. The number of participants in VTOS programmes has also increased over the same period from 4,300 to 5,300 in 2000.
Last year the budget for education was £3.29 billion, this year it is £3.7 billion. In 2000 the allocation for higher and further education was £865 million. In 2001 the allocation for higher and further education will exceed £1 billion for the first time. This represents an increase of 18.5% on the previous year.
Since 1997 capital funding at higher level has increased from £36 million in 1997 to £123 million last year and £173 million this year, a massive increase of 370% over the 1997 figure. Expenditure on further education in the period 1996-2000 increased from £38 million to £87.6 million. It is estimated that expenditure will reach £107 million in 2001. This does not include teaching costs or PLC student grants costs. These figures show the priority the Government gives to education and its commitment to education as a means of promoting social inclusion and social and economic development.
When I took over the education and science portfolio in January 2000 I pledged to give priority to alleviating disadvantage as it related to under-represented groups at third level. I have kept this pledge. I am tackling disadvantage as a priority and will illustrate this commitment with some comparative financial provisions.
 In 2000 the allocation for disadvantaged students at third level was under £3.5 million. For 2001 I have increased that allocation by £12 million to £16 million. This is more than a fourfold increase. By any standards this represents a quantum leap in support for disadvantaged students. In addition, the provision for the Higher Education Authority now includes over £3 million for initiatives in the university sector.
However, I am not content to simply funnel additional funding into the area of disadvantage. I am anxious that such funding becomes available in the context of a co-ordinated framework to promote access by disadvantaged students. Notwithstanding the significant reduction in inequality, participation in higher education remains skewed by social class, with disadvantaged students continuing to be under-represented. The goal of achieving equity in higher education is, therefore, a central pillar of my education policy.
The Government has provided for a third level access fund totalling £95 million over the period up to 2006. This is aimed at tackling under-representation by students from disadvantaged backgrounds, mature students and students with disabilities. I established an action group on access to third level last September to advise me on the development of a co-ordinated framework to promote access by students from disadvantaged backgrounds, mature students and students with disabilities to third level education. I expect to receive the report of this group shortly.
In the further education sector, a guidance, counselling and psychological service was introduced on a pilot basis in 1998 and has since been expanded. A survey conducted in 1999 revealed that more than 1,700 trainees and almost 400 staff have benefited from this service. As regards VTOS programmes, an extra allowance of £25 per week on top of social welfare payments and other allowances was introduced in September 1999 as an incentive to encourage the most marginalised to return to education and training.
The provision for adult literacy has been increased substantially from a base of £0.85 million in 1997 to £10.7 million this year. Our plan is to provide £74 million over the next five years for adult literacy. This will provide for an estimated 113,000 clients.
Over £1 billion will be invested over the period 2000 to 2006 on a back to education initiative aimed primarily at adults in the population who have not completed upper second level education. This will be provided through the expansion of Youthreach, traveller, post-leaving certificate courses and the vocational training opportunities scheme options on a part-time basis. An adult information and communications technologies basic skills programme will be implemented as part of this measure. Over the lifetime of the national development plan, more than 320,000 participants will benefit from the back to education initiative.
 As regards student maintenance grants, my approach has been to follow the practice of recent years and increase the reckonable income limits in line with movements in the average industrial wage in the previous year. In 1997 the previous Government increased the grants by only 1.6%. In contrast, last year I increased them by 5%. This Government has also ensured better treatment of mature students studying at third level by revising the schemes so that, with effect from the 1999-2000 academic year, all eligible mature students now qualify for the higher non-adjacent rate of grant, which is £1,775.
I also announced late last year that I was setting up a special project team to carry out a comprehensive review of every aspect of the maintenance grants and other student supports to ensure their relevance to the needs of present day third level students. This review will include the level of grants, the methods by which they are paid, eligibility and income limits, accommodation needs, student support services, the most suitable paying agency, the provision of an appeals system, student loans and taxation measures. Issues relating to the implementation of the team's recommendations will be addressed when its report has been completed.
The development of the post-leaving certificate courses has been one of our great successes. During the life of the previous Government, there was definitely a two tier system in operation – eligible higher level students qualified for free fees and maintenance grants while their counterparts in PLC courses did not. We fulfilled our pledge in the programme for Government and ended the total neglect of this sector by the previous Government. Accordingly, since September 1998 participants on all PLC courses now have free fees and they are eligible to apply for means tested maintenance grants. The rates of grant, income limits and other criteria for eligibility are similar to those which apply to the third level student support schemes. In 2000 the cost of this measure amounted to £7.830 million. In this academic year there are 24,900 full-time PLC places available compared with 18,700 in 1996-97.
The free fees initiative under which the State meets the tuition fees of eligible students who are attending full-time undergraduate courses has made a real difference in the lives of many parents and of their children who wish to attend higher and further education. Last year expenditure on free fees was in the region of £158 million. When combined with the cost of other student support schemes, the total cost to my Department in 2000 was almost £250 million.
The Government also introduced special tax incentives in the 1999 Finance Act to encourage the provision of student rented residential accommodation. This was in recognition of the difficulties being encountered by students with rent costs and following consultation with third level colleges. The availability of tax incentives in the past resulted in the provision of a significant number  of student residences. As the tax relief will be available for expenditure up to 31 March 2003, the opportunity exists to create significant additional accommodation for third level students. As indicated in the Programme for Prosperity and Fairness, the Government will be evaluating the impact of these tax incentives and will consider further action in the light of the results of the evaluation. These tax incentives are intended to increase the availability of dedicated student housing and represent a targeted response to the underlying issue of an accommodation shortage. These Government incentives have been highly successful. As a result, there are now 1,925 bed spaces completed and 10,744 in planning. This gives a total of 12,669 bed spaces being provided through the direct action of the Government as a result of the tax incentives.
A number of important tax reliefs have been introduced in recent years in respect of fees paid for third level education for approved full-time undergraduate courses of at least two years duration in approved private colleges, approved part-time undergraduate courses in approved private and publicly funded colleges, approved full-time third level courses in other EU member states and full-time and part-time approved postgraduate courses in private and publicly funded colleges in the State and similar courses in a university or publicly funded college in another EU member state.
I launched the designate National Qualifications Authority of Ireland last November. The authority will establish and maintain a framework of qualifications based on standards of knowledge, skill or competence to be acquired by learners in all institutes, colleges and places of further and higher education and training. It will also facilitate lifelong learning and promote access, transfer and progression for all learners, including those who have special needs. An important feature of the work of the new authority will be to ensure the recognition of Irish qualifications internationally and of outside qualifications here. It is also my intention to establish the Higher Education and Training Awards Council – HETAC – and the Further Education and Training Awards Council – FETAC – on a statutory basis within the next few months.
The inextricable link between education and economic development is well recognised. A prerequisite to sustaining the unprecedented rates of job growth experienced over the recent past is the ongoing output of highly qualified personnel. Without the expansion of our education system, the recent growth experience would not have happened. However, it is not sufficient to expand educational provision in isolation. We must ensure this expansion is relevant to the changing business environment and the emerging skills needs.
In this context, the Government established the business education and training partnership in November 1997. The partnership's role is to  develop strategies to tackle the issues of skill needs, manpower forecasting and education and training for business. The partnership has provided a framework within which business and education co-operation can be fostered and channelled into joint action. For its part, the Government has responded quickly and positively to each need identified and has allocated substantial additional funding, both capital and current, to provide extra places in PLC courses and at third level to meet the skills needs of the economy. In the PLC sector, I provided £2.1 million to equip 37 centres to deliver courses in applied languages and information technology and electronic technician programmes.
New institutes have been established in Blanchardstown and Dún Laoghaire, and the Tipperary Rural Business and Development Institute has been opened. The range of courses offered has been increased dramatically and links with industry have been developed to ensure the relevance of the programmes offered. The accelerated technician programmes, which were introduced by the institutes of technology in January 1998 in manufacturing technology, have since been expanded to include information technology. Building on the success of the accelerated technician programmes and summer courses I am making provision for the launch of a new technician programme in the near future. This programme, the institute trainee programme, will aim to further develop national skill provision in areas identified and emerging skill shortages. The institute trainee programme will be a study and work based programme and will involve close partnership and co-operation between industry, employers, institutes of technology and the Department of Education and Science.
In the area of apprenticeships the Government has taken steps to enable qualified apprentices to adapt more readily to the increasing demands of the current labour market while also providing opportunities for further education and training. Since 1996 the total apprenticeship population has been increased from 6,500 to over 24,000, an increase of 270%. These are dramatic and huge increases. To cater for this rapid expansion, apprenticeship provision in the education sector has been increased significantly. In the 1997-98 academic year we had capacity to train 4,000 apprentices in the institutes of technology. This capacity was increased to over 9,500 in the academic year 2000-01, a 130% increase.
Our competitive advantage is firmly rooted in the strategic development of the economy as a knowledge based technologically advanced one. This requires the development of our knowledge capital, which is our human capital, namely, our people. The Government inherited a situation where the level of funding for third level research in Ireland was among the lowest in the OECD. Clearly, this is not consistent with our economic and social policy needs and aspirations. Recognising the strong link between investment in the research and innovation base of the economy and  sustained economic growth the Government is intent on creating a world class research environment in our higher education sector. Investment in research in recent years has been increased significantly. There was no dedicated funding for research under the last Government. Under the national development plan this Government is providing £550 million for research in the education budget alone over the period 2000-06.
The measures I have outlined are proof of our unmatched and undeniable commitment to education. The increased investment is a very clear demonstration of the importance the Government attaches to the role of education in promoting equality of opportunity and social and economic development. We will forge ahead with our plans in education to tackle social inclusion and the skills needs of our buoyant economy. We aim to ensure that every young person has the opportunity and support to benefit fully from either higher or further education and training. From what I have outlined in brief it can be seen that there has been an enormous increase in investment in further and higher education. It is crucial at this stage that we provide support for those who are seeking further education and training as well as those seeking higher education in the universities. We have made outstanding progress to date and will do much more in the years ahead le cúnamh Dé.
Mr. Norris: The Minister ended with the words “le cúnamh Dé”, with the help of God. There was another old expression which said with the help of God and a toothbrush, and I think in the light of what the Minister said, he might need the toothbrush as well as the help of God.
I compliment Senators Keogh and Jackman for tabling this most timely motion. Like my colleagues on the Independent benches who represent the universities, I am sure we all received material from student officers. I received material from the education and welfare officers in Trinity College, making a very strong case along the lines of the motion. There is no question that in the middle of the period of the Celtic tiger we are developing a two-tier society. I am sure this is not what the Government wants, but it is happening. We see it dramatically in the health service, as illustrated on “Prime Time” during the week, and we see it in education. The current maximum level of the grant paid to students whose parental home is more than 15 miles away is £49 per week. A copy of Trinity News shows a person sitting over a banner which says “How would you like to try to live on £49?”. That is the maximum grant while many qualifying students only receive £9. There is a mass of people outside the system. Thousands of students struggle every year to survive on pathetically low maintenance grants which do not even cover rent, while others get no assistance. What would happen if they all went on social welfare, even for six months? If they did  so the cost to the Government would be much more.
The cut off limit for parents with less than four dependent children is £20,200. If both parents are working this represents an hourly rate of £5.50, which would be a scandal. Obviously, we have a two-tier system which must be addressed. No amount of waffle of statistics will cover the fact that such a situation exists and affects students.
Without doubt there has been some improvement. It is clear that from the mid-1980s there was a detectable and consistent rate of increase of access from the most marginalised groups, but this has dramatically slowed down in the past six years, an unparalleled irony. We are in the most booming economy in Europe and we continually pay tribute to the fact that the driving engine of it is our education system in which we have invested substantially since the 1960s. However, we are still not doing what is required. This is not just the view of students or the university representatives in the House. Rather it is a view which has been expressed by people such as Garret FitzGerald, who looked at it from the point of view of an economic statistician. The title of his article in The Irish Times in support of the thrust of the motion read “We preserve exclusive third level education at our peril”. Indeed we do. As a distinguished visitor to the House remarked to me this evening, is it a healthy society if we continue to have judges, for example, drawn exclusively from Foxrock, one of the hidden effects of which is that we preserve a kind of class justice?
I wish to quote what some other leaders of education have had to say. Danny O'Hare, the former president of Dublin City University, speaking at a commencement ceremony in 1998 said: “I am ashamed to say university access in Ireland is still almost exclusively for the relatively well off, this in the light of article 28(c) of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child under which Ireland has committed itself to make higher education accessible to all on the basis of capacity by every appropriate means.”
The Provost of Trinity College, Dr. Tom Mitchell, is quoted as saying at the USI conference in March 1998 that “the provision of grants of at least £3,000 a year to this special group of students from these particular disadvantaged backgrounds is an essential first step of any progress”. He confirmed this view to me this afternoon by telephone. He feels that at a minimum these grants should be doubled.
I wrote to the Minister and got the usual reply which put what the Government had done on record, provided the facts and figures and said that different commissions, committees and special projects had been established. I am not interested in different Governments scoring points against each other, but in students and their welfare. It is clear that the needs of students are not being met.
I would like to ask a few questions. Although I welcome the present incumbent of the throne, I  am sorry that the Minister himself is not here. I am sure there will be answers from the Department although there are no civil servants present. The Minister referred to his announcement last year that he was setting up a special projects team. What has happened? It is supposed to report in March. The principal officer who was the driving force behind it has gone to the Department of Finance. The post has not yet been re-advertised. Where does this leave the report?
I understand that the report of the action group on access has been completed. Has the Minister seen it? Why has he not been more forthcoming about it? Is it because, as I am reliably informed, the recommendations are that the grant should be increased to £3,000? This goes to only 7% of the student population. The Minister promised on 11 October 2000 an initial top up of £200 by January. There has been no sign of it. These are specific questions for the Minister.
The Minister also spoke about targeting resources. They are already targeted at a small fraction of undergraduates. How much further can they be targeted? The Minister's remarks are worrying. This is an important area. There is no doubt that the most significant investment that any Government makes is in education. As the people on this side of the House have indicated, students from less advantaged backgrounds are still under represented at third level. This not the fault of one Government but currently the responsibility rests with the Minister.
The recently published report of Professor Pat Clancy and Joy Wall, the fourth in a series which makes the same point, shows that colleges are failing to attract sufficient students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Progress made between 1986 and 1992 at reducing disparities between different socio-economic groups has suffered a setback. This is extraordinary considering recent economic developments. The participation rate of children of manual workers increased in that period from 11% to 23%, about half of the entrants to third level education. In the past six years participation by this group rose more slowly – barely 30% of them are entrants. Virtually 100% of children from the higher professional group become university students. It gets smaller as we go down the scale until it is a negligible proportion.
There are also concealed discriminations. People from a manual labouring background are less likely to have the advantaged cultural grounding of those from a professional background. For example, books are not so available at home nor is encouragement from parents. A recent RTÉ radio programme focused on people at universities. I was particularly interested in the student at Trinity who came from the East Wall and was the first in the family to reach university. This influenced the family by encouraging the siblings to consider taking up third level education. This should be encouraged. It can be done by the  type of support discussed here. The most privileged group of children, from self-employed and professional backgrounds, increased participation most rapidly, up by 20% above the period between 1986 and 1992 to 82%. This must be close to saturation point.
There is a serious point behind this motion. It has been inadequately addressed by the present Government, but I am not interested in comparing one with another. I am interested in the welfare of students. We must address the inequalities in our system. I would be grateful if in the House tonight or in written correspondence the Minister would answer the specific questions I raised.
Miss Quill: I welcome the debate. I regret that the Minister for Education and Science could not stay to here all the contributions. However, I welcome my colleague from Cork North-Central, the Minister of State, Deputy Dan Wallace.
The issues raised are of fundamental importance. There are two aspects to consider. First is that the amount of the grant has fallen behind the cost of living, particularly for students away from home. Irrespective of which socio-economic groups attend college there is a need to increase the grant in line with the cost of accommodation and living away from home. I appeal to the Minister to target funds in this area.
Students in CAO often opt for a college which they can attend from home. This is the wrong basis to make a choice for third level education and a career. If they prefer a college far from home, the size of the maintenance grant precludes this option. This is wrong and distorts free choice.
To seek to relate the grant to students from certain socio-economic groups is to over simplify the matter. There is a range of factors involved in whether young people go to college besides the financial. If we are ever to make serious inroads into getting a more representative attendance at our third level institutions we will have to look at those factors. We have evidence for what I am saying. When the third level fees were abolished, that made little difference to participation at third level. Those who always went to third level, from the schools that always promoted their students for third level, continued to go without having to pay fees. The abolition of third level fees made no material difference to those whose parents and older siblings did not go to third level. There are statistics to prove that.
While money is a factor in many ways, it is not the only factor and in my experience it is not the main factor. Other things must be put in place. We need to look at the experience of other countries. For example, in France there was a systematic programme in place at the upper stages of second level to encourage, facilitate and counsel students who traditionally did not go on to third level. By the time they came to entry age they were ready and willing to go to college. That has been happening in France for years and it is beginning to pay dividends.
 In the United States they have mentoring systems and we are beginning to introduce them here. Students at tertiary level are prepared to come and listen to, talk to and encourage students who traditionally have not gone to college in order to induce them to change their minds and go on to third level education. We need to do these two things and we need to do a number of other things also.
The battle to get young people to go to college begins very early on in primary education and is not limited to the schoolroom. In order to have a truly representative group of people at third level from areas where that has not been the practice we must seek to put education into the community. Through adult education programmes, we must build a community that at adult level values education for itself and in so doing values education for its children. We need to break down the psychological barrier that exists in families who have believed for generations that third level education is only for other people and not for them.
We need to put the resources into the community. We need to create communities of education, building them up in particular areas as a scaffolding system to support young people to the point where they will want to go to college. They will be hungry for third level education where they will see the benefit in terms of personal growth, social development and career development.
This is more important now than it ever was before because of the requirement for young people in the jobs market. Throughout the country there are signs in shop windows advertising job vacancies. If learning has become a slog for young people it is very attractive to give up the slog and to start earning money. They do not think in the long term. At 17, people do not think where they will be at 37; they think about having some pocket money to have more entertainment and liveliness in their daily lives without having to get money from their parents. Many of them simply take those kinds of jobs.
That is a huge factor in draining people away from colleges of further education, which were thriving for the past 10 years. Those were valuable colleges for the sort of students we have been discussing this evening – the ones who did not want to or could not go to university. They did not feel that they could go to regional colleges or colleges of technology but went on to post leaving certificate courses – very often one-year certificate courses or two-year diploma courses. That led them on to various emerging jobs but those colleges are now seeing a big reduction in their enrolment. The issue raised here this evening deserves considerable additional attention from policy makers and planners. Whilst the money factor is of fundamental importance, the grants on their own will not bring to third level a cohort of people who have not come there before.
 This is a subject that I would like to see developed at greater length because it is of critical importance. Unless young people have a good standard of qualification, they will be very vulnerable in the future job market. We need to hold them in school and in college for as long and to as high a standard as we can.
Mr. O'Dowd: I will share my time with Senator McDonagh. This is a very important debate. I welcome the contribution on our side and indeed from the Minister and other speakers. Students going to college need be sure they can afford to pay the rent and to live on the very low incomes that they have. Everybody acknowledges that the grants are far too low and need to be improved.
We also need to look after the health needs of those students. Some years ago all students had medical cards regardless of their parents' income. Most if not all students at third level are over 18 and are adults. I believe that all students ought to have medical cards regardless of the income of their parents. That would give security to all of them so that if they became ill they could go to the doctor and get medication if required. It is an important basic point and fundamental right. It is one that needs to be looked at again. It would be fair to everybody.
As Senator Quill said, it is not just at third level that problems need to be addressed but also at first and second levels. A really important issue is the number of guidance teachers at second level and the time allocated to their classes. A school of about 1,000 students would be lucky to have two guidance teachers. Critical in the formation of students' views of what they are going to do, the careers they may follow and particularly whether they go to third level is the availability of the guidance teacher's time to advise the students. We need a significant increase in the numbers of guidance teachers so that they can guide, work with and advise all students. This is particularly true of those in the category whose prospects the Minister and all of us want to improve – people from lower income families, people from working class areas and people who have not historically gone into third level.
When I went into my petrol station this morning there was a queue of ten people and there was only one person working behind the counter. There are no people to do this kind of job, either because part-time workers are not available or the wages are not good enough. In view of better jobs than the kind I am talking about, a lot of people are not finishing their second level education or are leaving early from third level. We need to support the people who have never been through this process. The people from the less well off families need to get more finance than people who are well off.
Mr. McDonagh: There is a status issue in the Irish education system which pits the mainstream system against second chance education. I work  in the adult education sector and feel that the Government is not au fait with the difficulties. One has only to look at second chance education training centres to see those difficulties. Most centres for the Traveller community, young offenders, Youthreach and the vocational training opportunities scheme are in leased or dilapidated buildings, with many in poor condition and not purpose built.
The majority of teachers on these programmes are part-time, and this makes for an unstable system as there is continuous movement of teachers as they try to better themselves with permanent positions. The teacher ratio is also disproportionate. In the VTOS, the ratio is 20:1, while in the mainstream and PLCs a 16:1 ratio prevails. A perfect example of inequality lies in the funding made available for the highly successful VTOS programmes. The total funding for a course with 20 students is £15,000 per year and this must fund the lease of the building, heating and lighting. It is a miniscule amount, leaving those involved in these programmes unable to renovate the buildings.
Despite this, there has been huge success in job placement and job creation on these programmes. Students have no incentive to go to the VTOS programmes because, while they retain their social welfare allowance, there is no additional training allowance. Those on credits and dependent spouses get no payment at all. I was honoured to present certificates at a VTOS ceremony in Ballinasloe recently, and I was informed that 80 per cent of participants on this programme – about 150 people – over the last seven years had gained employment. The Industrial Development Authority tell us it costs over £150,000 to create one job.
There is great inequality. These training centres have no gymnasiums, no recreation facilities, no sports fields. It is time the Government put an end to the scandal of the two-tier education system that has brought about this inequality. The entire adult education process must be looked at. The Minister may mention different Green Papers, White Papers and various promises, but I want to see action. I emphasise the hugely successful but under-funded VTOS programme. I hope the Government will respond positively to this worthwhile Fine Gael motion.
Mr. Kett: I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of the Environment and Local Government, Deputy Wallace, to the House, and I am glad to see that he is fit and well again. I commend the Government for the steps they have taken to increase higher education grants. These will broaden educational opportunities and help meet the emerging skills requirements vital to maintaining our economic success. The grant fund increase for students with disabilities has increased from £700,000 in 1999 to £1.3 million in 2000 and that has enabled 500,000 students to avail of grants, up from 300,000 in 1999. The fund is to assist students with disability attend courses  at third and post-leaving certificate level. It provided much-needed aids in the area of special equipment, special materials and in technology.
Technology has been targeted by this Government over the past three years. The funding given to special and primary schools for computers and laptops is an example. As someone associated with a special school, I have seen the benefits of this policy for children at primary level. These children had no way to fulfil their potential but now, with the aid of technology, they can develop in a meaningful way, as Senator Quill has also said. Children with disabilities can see their potential, as can their teachers, and that is in no small measure to do with technology funding.
Special transport has been targeted by this funding, while it was previously overlooked. Disabled students often failed to take advantage of available facilities as transport requirements were not in place. If they got to the required location, there were environmental impediments to school access. Personal assistance, without which it is impossible for many to attend schools, is also targeted. These matters are being put right, although there is a great distance to go. We have to ensure that the playing field is level and that disabled people have the same access as the able-bodied to all facilities. Stanford University literature suggested that a liaison officer for people with disabilities was helpful. This system attacked discrimination within their network and the Minister should consider the Stanford example. Funding for students with dyslexia is also welcome.
One of the schools in Senator Costello's and my area, Cabra, has benefited from teacher supports and computers. I welcome the funding provided through the Higher Education Authority to the universities to widen access for people from disadvantaged area. It involves links with second level schools that are designated as disadvantaged, liaison and outreach work. In 2000 the funding for this was almost doubled, and this has and will have major significance in the lives of students living in those areas.
I agree with Senator Norris that example can often be given to a smaller child by an older child. If a younger child sees his or her older brother or sister benefiting from the education system, that will be the springboard for those from disadvantaged areas to find their way into third level education.
I was delighted to hear the Minister announce the introduction of the millennium partnership which involves third level schools, industry, communities and other agencies interacting within communities. It is a welcome development and I commend the Minister for it. He suggested that approximately 40% of third level students qualified for maintenance grants out of 120,000, but that is not enough. More needs to be done to bring a greater number of students into the network. The Minister increased the income threshold limit by 5% in the 2000-01 academic year and he also increased by 5% the allowance by which the income limits may be increased in  respect of other family members who are considering entering third level or advanced education.
Senator Keogh mentioned the difference between primary and secondary school levels, but another inequality concerns voluntary secondary schools which are not funded on the same basis as community and comprehensive schools. A submission will be sent to the Minister in respect of the Blackstock report which has examined this issue. It is only fair that all secondary schools should be treated in the same way. Funding should be provided for basic necessities, including insurance, secretaries and caretakers. No secondary school should be without a secretary or caretaker. These areas of inequality should be examined and I know that will be done. I commend the Minister for all his good work and I look forward to having many more debates with him concerning education.
Mr. Quinn: The motion refers to a scandal, and this matter qualifies as a scandal for two reasons. First, in terms of inequality at third level, there has been no significant improvement. Despite all the attention that, allegedly, has been paid to this issue over the past 20 years, the figures show that access rates have improved only marginally. Third level education is still the preserve of those students who come from well-off families. Second, it is a scandal because the importance of third level education is increasing all the time. In the past, a third level degree was something nice to have, no more than that. It has always been the guarantee of a better job and higher earnings throughout a career, but now it has become much more. Increasingly, it has become a necessary feather in one's cap in order to progress beyond the basic stage in almost any occupation.
The time has come to reassess our efforts in this area. For too long we have been saying, “Of course, we're not doing enough but at least we are moving in the right direction and making progress”. I want to hear the Minister say – he did not say it tonight, although I was impressed with what he did say – that what we have been doing has not worked and we are not making worthwhile progress in that direction. I listened to what Senator Ormonde and the Minister had to say about steps being taken and progress being made. The Minister is determined to do something about this problem, but if we are honest with ourselves we should realise that while access programmes are all very well, they are not making an impression on the programme. Similarly, we should admit that free fees for university education have no relevance to the people who remain shut out of third level education. Free fees  work to the benefit of the well off, not the disadvantaged.
We should not lay the blame for this situation solely on the current Government, as the motion states, because previous Governments have failed on this issue also. We should be moving forward decisively on two fronts, the immediate and long term. In the immediate future, the key to increased participation is a totally revamped grants system, and I agree that the motion before the House is correct in that respect. The current grant is simply not enough. It is not enough just to remove the financial barrier that stands between many young people and their entry to third level education. The level of grants should not only properly reflect the living expenses of the student, but should also recognise that when a student is attending college it means an income is foregone to their family. Given the current state of job opportunities, that means that much more income is being foregone than in the past.
The current system of means testing for student grants needs to be revamped to remove the anomaly whereby farmers' children can qualify much more easily than others. That point has not been referred to in this debate. Solving that problem is easier said than done, however, but someone – I believe it has to be the Minister – must grasp that nettle if we are to have equality.
In the longer term, it remains as true as ever that the road to third level education begins on the first day at school, or even at pre-school age. From the beginning the attitudes and accomplishments that will decide whether children set their heights on third level education are rapidly being set in stone at an early age. For that reason, we cannot separate the participation problem at third level from the wider problem of disadvantage in education generally. One leads from the other as surely as night follows day. When I became involved with the leaving certificate applied, which was referred to earlier by Senator Jackman, I was surprised to find that the national target for 2000 was for 90% of children to finish second level education. I was disappointed because that meant that one in ten would not finish school. The year 2000 has come and gone, yet the real problem turned out to be worse because we did not even reach that target. Disappointingly, we only reached 80%, which means that two out of ten students do not have the opportunity of finishing second level education.
Show me a student and I can tell from what stream of our society he or she comes. It remains as true for students completing second level education as for those entering third level. What must happen for this fundamental problem to attract the serious attention it deserves? We must set our sights on achieving greater participation in education for students from disadvantaged areas. The Minister's heart is in the right place, but let us see him determined to achieve that goal.
Dr. Henry: I thank Senator Quinn for sharing time with me. I know the Minister has much to congratulate himself about, but I wish he would explain why grants are not being centrally distributed. At present, local authorities and vocational education committees administer grants, yet it is extraordinarily difficult for people to work out what they have to do to obtain these grants. Into the bargain, local authorities frequently cannot even tell the Department to how many people they are giving grants. In addition, grants may not be paid until after Christmas. “Live horse and you'll get grass” is the old saying, but what are those students supposed to do during the autumn months which can be some of the most expensive in a student's career? I am sorry the Government parties tabled this amendment.
Senator Keogh made a strong point about the two-tier system. I met one of those in that system when I went into a local shop tonight and came across a history student at Trinity College who is working there every evening. Those who have to work to support themselves in college are educationally and socially disadvantaged. Their personal development in college is not the same as those who do not have to work. The £49 weekly grant is impossible to live on. It is automatically assumed that parents are giving money to their children at college, but that may not be the case. It is easier for farmers' children to get grants than those from much more deprived sectors.
While all the universities have access programmes for those from disadvantaged areas, especially for those who may have missed out on education the first time – mature adults as well as young students – it is important to remember that these schemes are local. What is someone from the Trinity catchment area supposed to do if they want to study hydrology and marine biology which are only done in UCG? They have no possibility of getting on one of these access programmes.
I was at a meeting in Trinity last night at which we give out the money we have raised for student activities. It is supposed to help the student clubs and to encourage the drama society but we end up having to raise money to give grants to people because they cannot get one through the grant system operated by the State. This is a very serious issue given the number of students working to put themselves through courses which are 30 hours per week or, if they are in the professional schools, they maybe even more when one takes tutorials and practicals into account. While much is being done, much more remains to be done. I do not like the idea of students having to beg from the welfare officer of their students' union. It is degrading for a person coming into adulthood to find themselves in that position.
It is true that one child in an area going to university may give encouragement but I do not think we should forget the “Educating Rita” syndrome where great jealously was caused in an area. One night in Trinity I spoke to a girl from an area where she was one of the only people  ever to go to university and it was socially quite a hard struggle to keep up with that. Senator Quill talked about going in at a much lower level and telling people that this is their right and that they can expect to go on. However, students are degraded when they have to go to other students to look for money when they eventually make the huge educational leap by getting into one of these courses.
I was very surprised the Minister did not mention the need to encourage people to take the basic sciences at second level. The lack of people taking physics, chemistry, applied maths and maths is a very serious problem. These are the skills needed for the pharmaceutical industry and the computer industry which has become so important to this country.
Mr. Cassidy: We have come a long way over the years in our education system and it is mainly thanks to the present Government but also to Governments over the past 30 years which, through bad times as well as good times, although particularly during the very bad times in the 1980s and early 1990s, allocated funds under extreme difficulty and with scarce resources. It is one of the two things that has changed the Ireland of the late 1950s to 1960s to the Ireland of the 21st century. No matter what country we visit – I came back from a world trade exhibition in France last week – young Irish people are sought after. To be Irish today is, as young people say, hip and cool.
We have shown the way and all Governments can take credit for the great education system we have. I remember only too well in the late 1950s when I finished school that there was no money for books or to go on to second level. That was the norm at the time. Almost 80% of my class at primary school finished school for good at that stage but then one only really starts to learn when one enters the university of the world. One is forever learning, particularly in the computer and technological age in which we live. To its great credit, it is this Government's intention to create new cities anywhere we have a regional technical college, from Letterkenny, Sligo, Athlone, Carlow to Waterford. This is where the brain power of our country lies. We are supporting the young people of the Ireland of the 21st century.
A lot still needs to be done. Senator Keogh tabled this motion which I welcome as it is the first Private Members' motion tabled in 2001. The amendment tabled in my name under the supervision and care of our spokesperson, Senator Ormonde, must also be considered. I know this Minister will meet the challenges. He has put in place many worthwhile projects, particularly for disadvantaged students, which I welcome. I commend the Government on the good work it is doing and may it continue.
Mr. Costello: I welcome the motion. It is worthwhile debating education at any time because, while a lot of progress has been made  and the Minister outlined the number of schemes and projects in place and the amount of funding put in over the years, there is still a very serious situation in terms of inequality at all levels of education, particularly in relation to access to education and grants. Senators spoke about how the self-employed and the farming community have an advantage in terms of access to grants, although the grants are inadequate in any case.
As a public representative representing Dublin Central, the biggest problem I experience is disadvantage and the inability of any Government to address that in terms of increasing the percentage of people from disadvantaged areas accessing PLC courses, further education and higher education or to address adult education where adults in the community have lost out on education over the years.
I do not like saying it but the situation is deteriorating. The Celtic tiger is plucking children from school during transition year and during the leaving certificate applied when they are out in the community on work experience for a week or two weeks. The employer attracts them with money which they never had in their pockets before. They work overtime and then they leave school without fulfilling the educational requirements to enable them access further or higher education. This is compounded by the lack of resources or support mechanisms at all levels of the education system. Our pre-school education system is an absolute scandal. There is no national pre-school, crèche or early school level of education. There are no opportunities for children in disadvantaged areas to do their homework and to have a structure process to enable them to do so. That is missing and there is no support for that in the community. In fact, I have tabled a motion on the Adjournment to be taken this evening to deal with this in the Sheriff Street area.
The whole area of education is unstructured. There is no holistic approach to education. Our structures do not allow education to deal with these problems. It is fine if one comes from a middle class background where parents have enough money to put children through pre-school, Montessori and so on and where there is the motivation. That, however, is not the case for 20% of the child population which never has the chance to access third level education and nothing is being done about that. Children are dropping out of school for a number of reasons, such as employers wanting to get them into dead end jobs in the short term but then leaving them high and dry, or their inability to keep up with the subjects they are studying. There are no education officers on the ground and no link between the primary and second level schools nor between second level and third level to ensure that gap is bridged.
All the items mentioned by the Minister are desirable but they must be related to our proposals at the coalface, to the youngsters to see how they are working. Faced with unemploy ment, we set up the local employment scheme. It catered for those who were long-term unemployed and tried to bring them into the workforce on a one to one basis. We have never attempted to do that in education nor have we any mechanism to enable resources to be made available for those youngsters who are facing difficulties. In terms of the White Paper and the Green Paper on adult education a fine structure is being proposed. We had the White Paper six months ago on adult education. So far as I can see, there is nothing on the Statute Book that deals with this. What is happening with it? There are no guidance teachers in adult education where they are badly needed.
In my constituency the Dublin Institute of Technology has been waiting for the past four or five years for the promised delivery of a new campus in Grangegorman. The land is lying idle while the Department of Education and Science and the Government cannot get their act together to deliver on that campus which would be of considerable benefit to further and higher education in the area.
We have not tackled inequality in education. We project ourselves to the world as the young, educated nation of Europe. That is correct for that proportion of the population that is virtually on automatic pilot but for the proportion of the population that has always had difficulties of access, that problem is not being addressed. That is where the challenge lies. We need to look much more carefully at the situation. I do not think there is the will within the Department of Education and Science to come out of its ivory tower and come to grips with the problems of educational disadvantage in the community, to put in place the new structural mechanisms that are required. Until they are put in place we are throwing money at the problem and paying lip service to it. I have no doubt everybody involved is dedicated to what they are doing but we are not addressing the issue and resolving it.
Mr. O'Toole: I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Jacob, to the House. About 18 months ago we witnessed the closure of the Fruit of the Loom factory in north Donegal. There is much to be learned from that. The most important single issue was that a large number of those out of work, following the closure of that factory, had not finished their leaving certificate. Therefore, they found the whole retraining business almost impossible.
The world has moved on. A third level or higher qualification is now an absolute requirement. A post-leaving certificate qualification is an absolute requirement in terms of moving on. Given that we have failed to convince any Government of the need to tackle disadvantage, could we take a different line tonight and appeal to the greed of people? Unless we invest in our young people there will be no viable future. The reality is that unless we recognise it is to the  advantage of the State to have an investment in the education of young people, in other words to make the business of studying and being a student economically viable and economically attractive, we will lose out. There is a huge problem in that area. For many young people, unless parents can afford to pay for them they cannot afford to remain at college. This is happening at a time when there is plenty of work and there are plenty of job opportunities. It is easy to divert a young person away from the world of study towards the world of work without qualification. These are the people who will fall on the slag heap in a number of years' time when industry has moved on, developed or shifted abroad. They will not be in a position to gain from retraining and will not have a qualification to move on. That is the reality.
The future for Ireland, the post-recession future, will be dependent on our investment in research and development. Investment in research and development means investment in people. Investment in people means the education of people, particularly at further and third level. Unless we get people through that system we will not gain. We are talking about people from across the community.
I want to focus in on the area of disadvantage. I ask colleagues when discussing education for people from underprivileged and disadvantaged areas to remember there are two sides to the story. There is the one that is regularly articulated about the fairness and the unfairness of society and there is another issue. There are the extraordinary talents, gifts, style and experience of children from disadvantaged areas that would bring a new dimension to the area of research and development, which is about innovation, coping, being creative, finding ways out of problems and moving forward. We are losing out as a community by not encouraging and supporting the educational opportunities at further and higher education for students from economically underprivileged areas.
It seems completely wrong, in terms of the amount of money being invested in our future, that we do not invest in the real seed bed of progress, the young people who will create the new ideas and the new industries and wealth of a future nation. That means making it attractive and economically viable for people to continue in third level education. I urge the Minister of State to take that message back to Government. The students' unions throughout the country which are raising this matter are doing a great job. They should be encouraged to speak louder, to take a sharper interest and to insist on a response. They should point out that it is in the interests of decision-making and power mongers to recognise that in the absence of a throughput of students the future will be bleak. In priding ourselves as the island of saints and scholars, we need to put our investment in scholars.
 I believe in education. Education is liberation, it is creativity, it is the way to develop industry. The first basic economic principle is that one needs a well educated and healthy population. To be well educated, there must be State investment. I ask the Government to support the motion, to move forward and give hope to our students. We have reached the situation where a post-leaving certificate, is only a starter qualification and it needs to be improved upon.
The real issue for our economic and social future is investment. It is the way in which we will climb out of whatever recession will inevitably come. Now is the time to invest in education, not in five or six years' time when we see bright young people who left or did not go to college because they were attracted away by jobs in industry where they did not need qualifications. They will be unemployable in the future and will be a drain and a strain on the whole community. We can anticipate that problem now as well as safeguarding our future. I support the motion.
Ms Keogh: I thank all those who contributed to the debate which was lively and stimulating. I am sorry the Minister was unable to be present for the entire debate, even though I welcome my old friend, the Minister of State, Deputy Jacob. The Minister of State, Deputy Wallace, was also present. It is good that a variety of people have heard the general debate. The Minister outlined a litany of measures that have been taken. Nobody will gainsay what has been done. We are involved too much in pilot schemes. We do not want any more pilot schemes but action that works.
The Minister pointed to improvements, but he missed my point. I am concerned with equity in society and not having a two-tier system. The figures prove that people from more disadvantaged backgrounds have a very low uptake of third level places.
It is totally simplistic to suggest this issue is based solely around the provision of grants. Many contributors agreed that the levels of maintenance grants are far too low. It adds to students'  difficulties and means they must work with the result that they are educationally and socially disadvantaged.
If we are to be fair and equitable we must work from pre-school upwards to achieve the type of education system that embraces all of our children. It has been said that the cream of society always rises to the top. Those who are well off and well looked after often think they are the brightest and the best and believe they will rise to the top of the education system. We must embrace and encourage those who do not have such advantages to ensure that they are also the cream of society.
Senator McDonagh made excellent points on the VTOS, yet it is ignored to a great extent. We are not concerned merely with the advantaged few at university but with the whole third level system. We need to ensure that people have access to third level. As Senator O'Toole pointed out, the greater the skills and education people acquire the better the life they will have. It also means that the economy is better served.
We must not let a two-tier system prevail within this society. It is unfair and inequitable. We are losing out on the talents and skills of those people who would add to our society in so many different ways. I am not concerned merely with economic activity but with the impact on society.
The tone of this debate will give much comfort to those students who have the potential to complete third level education, be it in institutes of technology or universities. If we are to have the type of society to which we aspire, we must encourage them. I enjoyed this debate and I hope the Minster has heard what has been said.
We must move away from pilot schemes. If children are attending third level we should ensure that they remain there. We must also ensure that they do not eke out a mere existence, but that they have the opportunity to live and participate in third level life and blossom as individuals. That would make an enormous contribution to our society.
Ó Fearghail, Seán.
Ó Murchú, Labhrás.
Cosgrave, Liam T.
Cregan, Denis (Dino).
| Keogh, Helen.
Ó Fearghail, Seán.
Ó Murchú, Labhrás.
Cosgrave, Liam T.
Cregan, Denis (Dino).
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