- 14 Sep 23
The beginning of the college year has always been an exciting time, whether you were a Fresher embarking on a new adventure, or a seasoned student entering your last year in college. Now, however, tens of thousands of students across Ireland are facing into a winter of discontent, with the accommodation a crisis making life extremely difficult for many. Molly Cantwell sits down with Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Simon Harris, to get his views on where all this is heading.
As we enter the 2023/2024 college year, students who have just received their Leaving Certificate results are faced with circumstances that are more challenging than ever before. Indeed, it is not just first-years who are feeling waves of doubt and paranoia. Because a huge number of students of all ages – and across the full spectrum of disciplines – are still trying to figure out where they’re going to live, or how they are going to travel long distance to college every day.
The good news is that we now have a dedicated Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Simon Harris. He has put forward plans to reduce the cost of university education across the country and has other ambitious plans to streamline and improve out post-secondary school education system. But that’s for the longer term.
What about the here and now? That was the starting point for what is a fascinating and revealing interview...
You recently announced plans to encourage colleges to provide accommodation for students. Can you explain what’s going on here?
Traditionally, in Ireland, student accommodation had been provided either by the universities borrowing, or using their own resources – or by the private market. Objectively, that had resulted in a lot of extra student accommodation being built, but not nearly enough. Also, I had a particular concern when I became Minister, that if you’re too dependent on the private market to provide the accommodation, it often becomes unaffordable for students. And on top of that, I was meeting students who were telling me that private accommodation was being built to a different spec than they required, so actually, what a student wanted from accommodation wasn’t being considered.
So a new initiative was needed?
Well, when we had established this new department – the first time there’s ever been a department dedicated to this area – we thought it’s time to have a new kind of policy and approach. And we got the go-ahead for effectively 1,100 student accommodation beds, with funding of about €61 million. The approach is that we’re putting in some of the money 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.
So, you’ve promised to provide more beds for students, yet my understanding is Mary Immaculate College in Limerick is actively preventing further student accommodation from being built near their campus. Are the government planning to step in to advocate for students here?
Being truthful, I hadn’t heard that yet, but I’ll follow that up now. What we’re definitely doing – and we’re literally doing it as we speak – is a study of how many student accommodation beds are needed in each part of the country. What I want to know is: how many beds does Limerick, to take one example, need? And whether you’re a student of Mary I or the Technological University of the Shannon or the University of Limerick, that is really secondary to that question. We should be saying: this is the number of beds Limerick needs for students, and here’s how the three universities working together with the government is actually going to provide them.
Why isn’t the shortage of housing declared a national emergency – which it clearly is – and an appropriately fast-moving response put into effect?
It’s very clear that it is an emergency. It’s a crisis. But that doesn’t necessarily change the reality in terms of what we actually need to do. I mean, that’s why I am beyond obsessed with making sure that one of the things we can do in my department – which is training enough people to work in construction – is done. I feel very passionate about housing. I feel very passionate about making sure my constituents – people my own age – can buy their own homes too. But I also know that to build homes, we need about 50,000 more people working in construction. I’ve just literally come back from opening an apprenticeship centre in Drogheda, which provides capacity for 300 more people to train in construction every single year.
That would have to be seen as a long-term response...
So, just be really, really clear, it is an emergency. 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. So, if we can do more on student accommodation, it has two benefits – you’re providing the student with accommodation; but you’re also maybe freeing up a house that somebody else, maybe a family, could potentially rent. So we got to come at it from absolutely all angles. To be fair, I suppose, we do have to say also that there is between 400 and 500 new people now buying their first home every week and I think that’s a significant number. We couldn’t have said that as a country a few years ago.
Speaking of the apprenticeship programme, you recently announced further apprenticeships in the public service. Is there a risk here that you’re turning jobs into apprenticeships?
No. It would only be that way if you got it really wrong! So this isn’t about replacing a job with an apprenticeship. This is about allowing students – which is what an apprentice is – access to the public sector workforce. 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 themselves. 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…
What happened to change that?
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 other people who simply want to learn a trade. There’s people who want to learn and earn at the same time. So it’s definitely not taking away jobs, it’s about saying that every year there should be 750 people who have an opportunity to study as an apprentice – and use the public sector as their workplace.
Could that extend, for example, to apprenticeships in a place like RTÉ?
It could. So in the 750 figure, commercial semi-states aren’t included. Many of them are already doing it. So, for example, the ESB is such a big commercial semi-state – even they have a number of apprenticeships. Coillte have a number as well. But absolutely, I mean, an apprenticeship in RTÉ would be particularly interesting at the moment. So, yeah, it could and it should be done. I mean, I don’t know, truthfully, whether RTÉ have apprentices yet or not. But absolutely it should be done.
Were you shocked at recent revelations about governance there?
Yeah, I found it really troubling because I passionately believe in journalism. I passionately believe in public service broadcasting. I look at what happens in other jurisdictions where confidence or trust gets shook in the integrity of independent free media. The last thing this country actually needs is for confidence in RTÉ to be undermined, but that has happened.
Were you happy about the way the debate progressed?
I think there’s a bit of a risk that the conversation about RTÉ has been limited to a conversation about personalities. That’s missing the point, really. Of course, household names became a part of the story with RTÉ, and that’s understandable. But actually, the bigger issue in RTÉ, I think, was a clear lack of proper governance, and a real confusion over public service broadcasting versus commercial activity.
What are your thoughts on that?
It’s perfectly appropriate for RTÉ, or any media organisation, to be doing commercial activity, 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. But I think we’re beginning to see encouraging signs now with the new director general.
Despite the increase in SUSI, student unions say that it isn’t enough. Are there plans to further expand or overhaul the SUSI grant system?
Yes, of course, they’re right. I mean, I’m really pleased that we’ve been able to increase SUSI and students supports every year since this Department was set up and I became Minister. But we have a lot more we need to do. So – two things really. Firstly, I think we need to look at the cost of living challenge that faces everyone in this country. And I’m going to make sure, as their Minister, that students aren’t forgotten in relation to that. So last year, you’ll remember, we managed to reduce the fees by €1,000 for everybody. We also managed to get a double student grants payments. All of these are matters for the budget. But I’d like to see similar approaches taken where if there’s a cost of living package in the budget, students and their parents need to be a part of it.
What about the exorbitant cost of student accommodation?
When the rents tax credit came in last year, I made sure that students were covered by that. The Minister for Housing is talking about wanting to increase it, make the credit more money. If that’s the case, I want it to apply to students.
Isn’t SUSI still a key element here?
You asked me about reforming the system, and overall, I think it is beyond unfair that at the moment, if you study part-time, you can’t access SUSI. 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.
As a Minister, earning a very good income, how do you keep in touch with the needs and concerns of students?
I do earn a very good income, but I’m also conscious that it’s a transient job. These are not jobs for life. I’ll be here for a period of time, and then I won’t, and that’s the way politics works. It’s precarious in that way. But I think in Irish politics, the fact that you’re so close to your constituents – I’m at weekly constituency clinics in my office in Bray on a Saturday morning – makes a big difference. The fact that I meet so many people out and about is also really important. But I also regularly engage with students – student unions absolutely, but also individual students – as I go around the country and visit college campuses and the likes. I like to think that I’m accessible.
Is there any way students can let you know what they think?
As people know, I use social media to try and get messages out there, and while I can’t reply to every message, I see comments coming back and can take them on board. I work very hard to try and keep my finger on the pulse. The best bit of advice I’d give to anyone wanting to be a Minister is that you cannot do your job just sitting behind a desk in Dublin. You do have to get out and about and travel around the country.
People talk about nurses – and doctors in particular – disappearing off to Dubai or Australia to make money, having been hugely subsidised through their education by the State here in Ireland. What do you think of the view that people should have to commit to a period of five to ten years working in Ireland – or pay for their third level education themselves?
I’ve mixed views on this is the honest answer. I don’t ever think you should constrain somebody and what they might want to do with their own life. And for different reasons people can want to travel at different times. I do also think there’s something in that idea, though, that actually, in return for being heavily supported, you might give a period of time to the Irish health service. What generally happens is most people who are trained in Ireland do give time to the health service. It might not be immediately – some might go, some might come back. But I would have an open mind on that.
I know that it’s more expensive in, say the US, but is education too expensive in Ireland?
Being honest, my priority is reducing cost of going to college for everybody. 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. That’s why – in 2022, when we published the plan for funding higher education, called ‘Funding our Future’ – we committed to publishing a Cost of Education paper every year. That poses the question: how can you reduce the cost? What are all the different ways? We only published that, again, for this year, last week. So, the bigger priority, I think, should be to make this an attractive country to live and to work and to access education in.
There’s a perception that majority of the students and young people you’re advocating for voted against you and your party in the last election. Is it disheartening to try and work for people, a lot of whom are actively opposed to your party?
No, not at all. I mean, it’s a democracy. The way our parliamentary democracy works is you get elected – people in my constituency elected me to Dáil Éireann – then Dáil Éireann elects a government and then the Ministers within the government work for the people of the country. I work for everybody in my country – those who vote for me, those who don’t – to the best of my ability. But I do think it’s really important that my party recognise and is honest about the need to renew the social contract, particularly with younger citizens.
How can that be done?
I spoke about this a couple of weeks ago when I was giving an oration at the Collins-Griffith commemoration. There’s a whole generation, of which I’m a part, that are still bearing the scars and paying the cost of the mistakes that were made by previous generations in terms of the economy. Some of them pay it in higher mortgage repayments, some of them in the fact that we couldn’t build homes in this country for a period of time because the construction sector collapsed and the banks largely did too. I do think a question people are rightly going to ask at the next election is this: the country’s going reasonably well now, with full employment, and an economic surplus – so what are you going to do with that now, to make it work for me, to make it work for my family? I think that’s a fair challenge.
If the numbers stack up a certain way, will Fine Gael go into government with Sinn Féin?
I categorically know that Fine Gael would not go into government with Sinn Féin. I wouldn’t either and I don’t think that should actually be seen as controversial. It’s perfectly okay in a democracy – in fact, it’s really healthy in a democracy, to have different configurations of government. If people vote for Sinn Fein to be in government, they don’t want Fine Gael to be in government, if people vote for Fine Gael to be in government, they don’t want Sinn Fein to be in government. There is a different set of policies. I don’t need to hark back to times gone by, I can talk about current times. Fine Gael and Sinn Fein have very different policy views. In the next election, there’ll be a choice.
Between what and what?
These are not labels that everybody would agree with, but in my view of the world, you’ll have parties of the centre, if you like, and you’ll have what I do believe to be populist parties. There’ll be an election, and whichever grouping has the biggest number of seats could form the government. So no, my party won’t form a government with Sinn Fein. But I don’t think that’s particularly controversial. We have very different policies.
You’re three years into this role and this department – you put together a five year plan when you started. If you could go back now to the start of the Department, what would you do differently in the three years?
That’s a really good question... I’m frustrated about the pace of reform of the SUSI system and of part-time education. That’s bugging me. Because there are people – I don’t want to categorise people, but for example, I meet lone parents who tell me they need to study part-time, because that’s the only way they’ll get a degree – and our system is still saying no to that in terms of SUSI support. I’m frustrated we haven’t moved quicker on that. But I’m determined that we will. I also believe, and I don’t mean this about me as Minister, but I believe the fact that we have a dedicated department has genuinely allowed progress to be made on issues that simply didn’t get the attention or the bandwidth before.
You have a particular interest in the area of special needs.
I got involved in politics because of my own family connection, and experience, with autism. We’ve tried to do a huge amount of work now to make sure that universities are given money to develop courses for students with intellectual disabilities. We’ve launched a National Literacy Strategy, as well. We all talk about how well-educated our population is, and that’s largely true, but we still live in a country where one in five adults can’t read; one in four struggle with numbers; and one in two lack digital skills. These are issues that don’t make the front of the newspaper. They’re probably not going to be featured on Primetime. But they are genuine issues that I spend so much of my time actually working on.
Am I right in saying that you’re not a big fan of the points system?
I was in about 80 secondary schools last year and you can just see the pressure and the stress and the strain on the faces of young people, where the country has created this system where it’s all about the points. How many points did you get in your Leaving Cert? What points did you get for your course? And look, that works for many, but it doesn’t work for some. That’s why you can actually access a degree in further education now and finish in university without anything to do with their points. Five hundred students will start from that position this year. What you can probably take from that is: I’m really proud of the work that lots of people have been doing in this area since the Department was created. But I’m also conscious of the huge amount that is left to do.
What about mature students?
Sometimes when people, rightly, talk about the success of our education system, they forget that the world has changed. Education now is not just about school leavers but more and more about someone in their 40’s 50’s or 60’s going back into education. And we’ve more to do on that. So I think that lifelong learning, SUSI reform, and student accommodation are the three big challenges that this department faces.
Do you have a message for students going into the college year now – or finding out if they got their college place?
Well, my first message is to genuinely live in the moment here, and be proud of the fact that you’ve actually achieved this. And I say that quite sincerely. This is the generation that has lived through a pandemic. They’ve had really difficult times. They’re living through a war on the continent of Europe and all the upheaval that has caused, and now they’ve made it to college – and I think they rightly should be proud of that achievement.
And your second message?
The second thing is that university and college is of course about learning, it’s about the academic side. But it’s also a really important chance to develop and to try new things as well. And I’d encourage people to enjoy that college experience and that opportunity to grow and to develop. I’d encourage people to look out for each other. This might sound a bit twee when a Minister says it, but I actually really believe it. We’re putting a lot more funding into mental health, as we should, but I do think we need to all live in a world that’s just a little bit kinder to each other. I do think colleges have a role to play in that, with trying to create inclusive colleges.
The last thing I would say to people is no matter what offer you get in the CAO or don’t get, in five years’ time no one will ask you what you got in the Leaving Cert. There are so many different pathways to get to where you want to get, and now there are so many routes to start in one place and get to the next. So, you know, it’s a really important milestone in your life, but you won’t actually be defined by it.
A final question on housing – is there anything that’s going to be available in the immediate term to help students who are under pressure finding a place to stay?
I’s a statement of fact that when the colleges reopen, there’s 938, I think, more college-owned beds than there were last year. So it’s a lot of extra beds. There’s also about 2,000 more private beds. So it is a statement of fact that when students go back to college in Ireland this year, there are quite a lot more student beds than there were last year. However, I fully accept that there’s a lot more needed. What I would say to people… I’ve talked to student unions, I’ve talked to others about the rent a room scheme, and as of Friday’s figures, there were over 1,800 rooms available to rent on college websites.
Renting a room can be a bit messy for some people...
I’ve been working with the Students Unions to try and make sure we can put some protections in place, because one of the complaints that I’ve heard is that a student sometimes signs up to rent a room, and all of a sudden finds out this wasn’t what they thought it was going to be. Sometimes I’ve heard the homeowner has a similar experience. It does work for lots of people, but sometimes it doesn’t work. So, I do want to develop a licence agreement in the coming days that will be made available to students. So, if you’re going to rent a room, or indeed, if you’re going to offer to rent out your spare room, everyone can see the piece of paper – here’s the expectation – and sign on the line. I think that will provide a degree of protection.
But it is not a long-term solution...
Look, what I’d say to people about ‘rent a room’ is, whilst it may not be ideal for everyone, it’s certainly better than some of the scenarios that people have experienced, and it did work for many, many students last year. But we’re building at a pace that simply hasn’t been built before, so we should see a lot more student accommodation go into construction in 2024.
Read the full Student Special in the current issue of Hot Press – out now: