Speech on Ministers and Secretaries (Amendment) Bill 2020

23 July 2020

Ivana Bacik

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Niall Collins, to the House. It was a pleasure to serve with him on the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade, and Defence in the lifetime of the previous Oireachtas. I wish him the very best in his important new role in this new Department.

I speak as a Senator for Dublin University and follow my Labour Party colleague and spokesperson on education, Senator Hoey, who has outlined the party's position on this legislation and our support for the formation of the new Department, albeit many of us believe in education as a continuum. It is important we insist on the same principles underlying our education system from preschool years through primary, secondary and third level. To that extent, I have spoken previously on the need to ensure education remains to be seen in that light, as a continuum, and that it does not finish at third level. We also have a commitment to education beyond third level, through postgraduate study and education for mature learners and second chance learners. That is a hugely important principle for my party and all of us on the left in Ireland.

Senator Hoey also set out our position on the amendments. It is unfortunate these proposals have been introduced as amendments rather than being contained in the original version of the Bill. As Labour Party Deputies have also spoken against the principle of the amendments in the Dáil, we will oppose them in this House.

Addressing the general issue of higher education and the Minister of State's speech, I welcome the package of €168 million that has been made available to the sector. That has been welcomed by all involved in the sector, including the Union of Students in Ireland and others. That package of supports for further and higher institutions and students is essential. However, there are still immense concerns within the sector, as previous speakers have highlighted, about how we will address the implications of Covid-19 once term resumes in September or October. The announcement this week that it appears at least that universities and colleges will have to abide by the 2 m rule, when previously there had been indications that might no longer be the case by the time the institutions reopened, has caused immense consternation and anxiety.

It is difficult to see how we can offer the education we would like to offer our students at third level if that 2 m rule remains in place. That is a real concern. It is somewhat at odds with indications from other sectors. I am speaking in particular about indications in other areas of education and, indeed, indications in these Houses that this 2 m rule might be relaxed in respect of, for example, meetings of Oireachtas committees in September, after the recess. I ask the Minister of State for greater clarity in that respect and that he, the new Department and the Minister, Deputy Harris, bear in mind the immense difficulties the 2 m rule will cause for students and educators although, as is clear, public health and safety is top priority for all of us.

I will refer to Senator McDowell's point about the need for a coherent plan for the funding of third level education. Beyond the immense challenge of Covid, the greatest challenge for the Minister, Deputy Harris, and the new Department will be to directly address the recommendations of the Cassells report. My party has stated very clearly its preference for our third level sector to be publicly funded. A previous speaker referred to Donogh O'Malley and free secondary education. We should be returning to the principle of free third level education for all. That is envisaged as an option in the Cassells report. I urge the Minister and the Minister of State, Deputy Niall Collins, to take on board and address this recommendation.

We know there is a funding crisis at third level. The heads of the universities and all of the third level colleges have spoken about this many times. As the Minister of State said, we know how important the third level sector is for our economy and society. We must also invest in research and upskilling.

We also need to invest to ensure inclusion. Students from disadvantaged backgrounds must be given equal opportunities and equal rights to access third level education. I have pushed for this in the law school and across Trinity College, which has an internationally recognised programme, the Trinity access programme. Senator Ruane has been to the fore in pushing for recognition of access rights in universities and other third level institutions. We need to assure adequate funding is in place for access, equality and proper investment in the sorts of technology and skills-building we will need not just at the time of Covid, but beyond.