- 11 Sep 23
In a powerful exchange with Molly Cantwell in the latest Hot Press – available in shops and online – the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Simon Harris, has spoken out on a range of issues affecting students, and those seeking further education in Ireland – as well as discussing the wider political landscape.
In a fascinating interview in the new issue of Hot Press, Minister Simon Harris speaks in depth about the urgent need to provide more student accommodation.
“Just to be really, really clear, it is an emergency,” the Minister says." If you don’t have a home, if you can’t move out of the box room in your parents’ house, or your childhood bedroom, that is an emergency. But we have to come at it from all angles. We need more people to work in the area, we need every government department to say that it’s their job. It’s not just the Department of Housing’s job – it’s my job too."
The Minister explains his current plans in this area, including the co-funding by the Government of accommodation that will be operated by colleges, which will include below the market price accommodation as part of the overall offer.
"The approach is that we’re putting in some of the money,” Harris explains, "and the colleges are putting in money too – but in return for our commitment, they have to agree that a certain amount of the accommodation will be ring-fenced in terms of being provided below market rates."
He also talks about the importance of apprenticeships – and expands on plans he recently announced about apprenticeships in the public service.
"This is about allowing students – which is what an apprentice is – access to the public sector workforce,” the Minister says. "I felt you had the public sector – and me, as Minister – telling businesses that they should take on apprentices and give young people an opportunity to train. But we weren’t doing it ourselves. The public sector is a massive employer. So I want every government department, every county council, every State agency taking on apprentices. It used to be this way in Ireland. It used to be the way that you could become a carpenter or a plumber or an electrician or an accounts technician...
"It’s like the country got nearly a bit too snobby or elitist when it came to education. It all became about going from school to university, and not actually recognising that there’s a great alternative path for lots of people... But also that there’s people who want to learn and earn at the same time.
In addition to discussing the idea of apprenticeships in RTÉ, Harris is outspoken about recent issues of governance and trust at the national broadcaster.
"It’s perfectly appropriate for RTÉ, or any media organisation, to be doing commercial activity,” he insists, "but that’s very different to the public service broadcasting thing. It seems really clear that the two got completely mixed up, and even that the money from public service broadcasting has been getting mixed into commercial activity. I think it’s been really tough – I feel for the people who’ve worked in RTÉ.
"You know, there’s many people working in RTÉ not on big salaries, many people on precarious contracts and the likes. So we have to differentiate between the problems that happened at the top in RTÉ around governance versus the really good, decent hard-working people at RTÉ – and help to rebuild the organisation.”
He discusses the cost of education – and his determination to bring it down.
"Being honest, my priority is reducing the cost of going to college for everybody,” the Minister states. "I don’t believe cost should be a barrier to education. I believe it still is a barrier to too many and I want to drive it down.”
Specifically, as a Minister, he will be pushing for an extension to the SUSI (Student Universal Support Ireland) grant scheme.
"I think it is beyond unfair that at the moment, if you study part-time, you can’t access SUSI,” he says. "I’m a big believer in part-time study, lifelong learning, people being able to study while maybe holding down a job or maybe raising their kids or caring for their parents or whatever the situation that life might throw up. But at the moment, you only get SUSI if you study full-time. Obviously, I can’t announce what’s in the budget, but the big reform that I’d like to bring in – and bring in quickly – is to allow students who do part-time education access to student grants, particularly those most in financial need."
The Minister also talks extensively about issues, including:
- Why Fine Gael will not go into government with Sinn Féin
- Why FG must be honest about renewing the social contract, particularly with younger citizens
- How he personally keeps in touch with students and younger voters
- Educational provision for people with special needs
- His message for students entering college for the first time
- Developing a licensing agreement for 'rent a room’ students sharing accommodation with owner occupiers
Read the full interview in the student issue of Hot Press - available online and in shops now.