Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Wednesday, 14 November 2012
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Education and Social Protection
Forthcoming Education, Youth and Culture Council: Discussion with Minister for Education and Skills
We are having this discussion in advance of the next meeting of the EU Council of Ministers on Education, Youth and Culture which will take place on 26 November. I welcome the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Ruairí Quinn, and his officials. The Minister will stay with us until 2.30 p.m.
Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.
I invite the Minister to brief us on the next EU Council of Ministers Meeting on Education, Youth and Culture scheduled for later this month.
Members of the committee will have been circulated with an information note prepared by the Department on the agenda for the next education Council on 26 November. This is the only council meeting being held under Cypriot Presidency. The next education Council meeting after this one will on 15 February and it will be the first of two to be held during Ireland''s Presidency in the first half of next year. Given the imminence of Ireland's Presidency I will focus these introductory remarks, first, on the agenda items for the November Council and I will then update the committee on our Presidency priorities in the area of education and training.
With regard to the upcoming November Council, there are five substantive items on the agenda. They include the following: a presentation on the state of play on the negotiations of the next generation of European programme for education, training, youth and sport, referred to "Erasmus for All"; the adoption of the Council conclusions on literacy; the adoption of the Council conclusions on education and training in Europe 2020 - the contribution of education and training to economic recovery and growth; the adoption of a Council recommendation on the validation of formal and informal learning; and a policy debate on improving teacher quality and status at a time of scarce resources. In addition, in terms of our incoming Presidency, I will make a presentation to the Council on our priorities in the area of education and training. I will now make some brief remarks on each of these agenda items in turn.
First, let me return to Erasmus for All. As members will perhaps recall, this is the integrated successor programme to the EU's Lifelong Learning, Youth in Action and Erasmus Mundus programmes. The Cypriot Presidency will update Council on the current status of negotiations on the new programme which is due to come into effect from 1 January 2014 and it will run until 2020. The new programme is aimed at developing a more integrated approach between education and youth-related programmes and the various existing EU higher education programmes. The Commission is proposing a major increase in funding to approximately €19.1 billion for this programme over the seven years of its operation. That represents a 70% increase over the existing programme. It is proposed that the majority of the funding, approximately 65%, will fund learning mobility at various levels of the education system, for example, Erasmus higher education exchanges. The other major component of funding, approximately 26%, will be allocated to facilitate co-operation for innovation and good practices within the European Union. The remainder will fund operating grants for agencies and administration.
The final budget will be subject to budget discussions which are currently under way centrally in the Council of Finance Ministers under the multi-annual financial framework negotiations. This is the seven-year European Union budget that falls to be negotiated under the Cypriot Presidency but could very well drift over into the Irish Presidency in the first six months of 2013. The regulation will be subject to agreement by both Council and European Parliament. With that in mind I held discussions last week with the chair of the Parliament’s Committee on Culture and Education, Mrs. Doris Pack, from the EPP group on the regulation. I also hosted a lunch for Irish MEPs to brief them on our Presidency priorities and the negotiation process for Erasmus for All, and to seek their help, support and co-operation with Parliament on the negotiations I will have with them.
The second item of business at Council will be the adoption of Council conclusions on literacy. This document invites member states to tackle low literacy levels, including by increasing awareness of the problem, promoting family literacy, and ensuring equitable access to high quality early childhood education.
The Commission will support European co-operation on literacy issues by developing a European network of organisations working in this field. It will also ensure that its initiatives in ICT and education will facilitate the identification, analysis and sharing of good practices with regard to literacy.
The third item of business at the forthcoming Council meeting on 26 November is the adoption of conclusions on the contribution of education and training towards economic recovery and growth. The main aim of the document is to ask member states to develop and implement reforms based on the specific challenges identified in their education and training systems by the European Union’s growth and jobs strategy - Europe 2020.
The fourth item of business at Council will be the adoption of Council recommendations on the validation of non-formal and informal learning. This recommendation invites member states to establish validation systems for non-formal or informal learning with the aim of recognising the full range of an individual’s knowledge, skills and competences, that is those acquired not only at school, university or other education and training institutions but also outside the formal system. The recommendation invites member states to establish validation systems linked to the European qualifications framework by 2015, with the possibility of obtaining a full or partial qualification on the basis of non-formal or informal learning.
The fifth item of business at Council will be a policy debate on improving teacher quality and status. This discussion is particularly timely in two respects; the first being the current reforms taking place in teacher education in this country and; second, the fact that teacher education will be an area of focus during the Irish Presidency. The contribution to the debate will focus on these two areas.
I will make a presentation to Council on the priorities of the Irish Presidency. These have been outlined in the briefing note which my officials have supplied to the committee. It is customary for the incoming Presidency to update Council colleagues on what they plan to achieve during their Presidency term. I will now outline our priorities for the forthcoming Irish Presidency, starting in January.
Ensuring sustainable growth and jobs will be the main overall theme of Ireland’s Presidency. Education and training have a key role to play in the achievement of this main Presidency theme and in tackling and resolving the current unemployment crisis across Europe. The central importance of education and training to economic recovery is recognised in the Europe 2020 strategy. One of the five headline targets in the strategy relates to education and training. Quality and equity are the two core themes around which we have decided to focus all of the activities of the education and training dimension of our Presidency. Intensive preparations on our programme and calendar of events have been under way for some time.
On the legislative side during the Presidency the two main themes on our agenda will be the following: the first is the Erasmus for All programme, about which I have already spoken and the second is a new directive on the recognition of professional qualifications within the European Union. We have set the objective of obtaining a first reading agreement with the European Parliament on the regulation establishing Erasmus for All. Achieving agreement on the programme is a key task of the education and training agenda and has been the focus of discussion at three Presidencies to date.
The second priority for us will be the directive on professional qualifications. I will also give priority to obtaining early agreement with the European Parliament on a new directive to amend the 2005 directive on the recognition of professional qualifications. The modernisation of the directive is one of the levers to boost growth and strengthen confidence, which were set out in the Single Market Act 2011. It is therefore a priority for the Council, Commission and the European Parliament. The directive sets out the procedures which must be adhered to by competent authorities when recognising the qualifications of professionals migrating from other EU member states.
In addition to the legislative agenda we will give priority to advancing EU level co-operation on a number of key topics, in particular the wider skills agenda, teacher education, higher education and the ongoing implementation of national qualifications frameworks and the European qualifications framework itself. The Department has full responsibility at national level for both education and skills agendas. Hence, we consider we are very well placed to contribute to consolidating the thinking at EU level across the full range of education and training stakeholders. In this regard we intend to continue the process of integrating education and training into the Europe 2020 process for ensuring growth and jobs to a greater extent. An upcoming flagship Commission communication on rethinking education will inform our consideration of the skills issue and, subject to the timing of its publication, I envisage the adoption of Council conclusions responding to it at the February education Council. Under the Copenhagen process for enhanced co-operation in vocational education and training, the assigned semester theme for Ireland’s Presidency is quality assurance and a meeting of directors general of vocational education and training will progress this agenda item.
I wish to make the following point on teacher education, namely, high quality teaching is vital to achieving better student outcomes. This conclusion has been shared by multiple researches in various situations across the world. The Irish Presidency will propose the adoption of Council conclusions on improving policy support for the teaching education profession as well as holding a linked conference on the role of teacher educators. The conference is being organised in this country by the Teaching Council. We will also hold a Presidency conference organised by the Department’s inspectorate on improving assessment and evaluation for better learning and school systems. In line with the overall Presidency theme of quality, the conference will reflect upon and respond to the recent work of the Commission on assessment of key competences in schools and that of the OECD on evaluation and assessment frameworks for improving school outcomes.
I turn now to higher education. In line with the European Union 2020 agenda to step up modernisation of higher education and achieve the headline target that 40% of those aged 30 to 34 should have completed tertiary or equivalent education by 2020, we intend to propose the adoption of Council conclusions on the social dimensions of higher education. Effective strategies to ensure access to higher education for non-traditional learners and students from disadvantaged backgrounds will form an important part of the member states' efforts in working towards the headline target.
University rankings at international level are a matter of importance to the European Union and specifically to me and to Ireland. It is not widely known but 4,000 of the world's 15,000 universities are located within Europe. The current EU university multi-rank project is a priority for our Presidency. Europe must work closer together to provide balance in the current array of ranking systems with which the committee members will be familiar. The EU university multi-ranking conference is being organised by our Higher Education Authority. In addition, a meeting of the directors general of higher education will focus on the value of regional clusters in higher education across Europe.
I turn now to qualifications and the European qualities framework. We will also hold a Presidency conference organised by our new Qualifications and Quality Assurance Authority, the body that brought HETAC, FETAC and QQAI together, on the theme of quality assurance in qualifications frameworks. Linked to the skills agenda, this conference will include a focus on the manner in which employment sector actors are engaged in quality assurance regarding the needs of the labour market. That is the outline of my contribution. I will be happy to take whatever questions members want to put to me.
I welcome the Minister and his officials. I thank the Minister for giving the overview of the education issues he hopes to work on and progress as part of the country's Presidency. As is the case with many Departments there are some issues in education on which we must work together at European level and one of those is the funding for the Erasmus programme. I welcome that that will be increased in the coming period because with our economies integrating and our markets mutually dependent it is crucial that we ensure there is good interaction at an educational level with universities in other countries and movement among students during their education.
Regarding the Presidency, the Minister outlined some of the meetings that will take place and the initiatives on which he will be working. Are there two or three key objectives he would like to achieve by the time the Presidency moves on from us in the middle of next year? He might outline that. Will he expect this committee to engage with him and the Department in terms of work during that Presidency period? I thank the Minister for attending.
I thank the Minister for outlining some of the priorities for the Presidency in terms of education.
On higher education, the Minister said we will be organising a conference focusing on the EU university multi-ranking project. Will he give the committee more information on that? He stated also that a meeting of the directors general of higher education focusing on the value of regional clusters will take place. That is appropriate given that we are awaiting a report on the future of higher education. I am aware some IT companies are examining the question of amalgamating into regional clusters and therefore it would be appropriate if we were given additional information on that in terms of the Minister's priorities.
The Minister has an exciting programme ahead and no doubt he will be busy. He spoke about the Erasmus for All programme and I think he said there were funds of €19.1 billion across Europe for the Union programme for education, training, youth and sport. That is very positive. The Minister might indicate how much Ireland will get of that funding and what he will prioritise. I ask that question because we had a Nobel laureate economist, Professor Pissarides, in the Seanad last week who said that in a recession Ireland should not pull back from education and training. He further stated that it should priorities short courses in particular, which is what we are doing, to make people more market ready. As the Minister is aware, we can have the typical arts or science degree but without a specialism the person may not be market ready or employable. To where will the Minister direct that money in addition to what we are doing currently and who can draw down those funds?
It was interesting to hear that 4,000 out of 15,000 of the world's universities are located within Europe. Deputy McConalogue asked the Minister what he hoped to achieve at the end of our six-month Presidency. I do not know if the Minister is aware of this but there is no university in Europe, including here, that has a smoke free campus. The campuses of 744 universities in America are smoke free. I understand there is a willingness on behalf of universities here in terms of health promotion and student health and well-being to pursue that. Is that something the Minister would examine during this Presidency? It is an opportunity for Ireland to give leadership on this issue, and it is not too difficult to achieve. Ash Ireland is very keen to see it happen. Is that something the Minister would look to achieving? I believe smoke free campuses would be well worthwhile.
The Minister also mentioned the teacher education focus. I welcome the focus on quality of outcomes, but how will that happen? What does the Minister expect to achieve at the end of our Presidency in that regard?
In terms of teacher education outcomes, is the Minister focusing on any particular area? Will it be science or IT education? What teacher education outcomes in particular will we focus on during the Presidency?
I am pleased to hear about the validation of formal and informal learning as a priority of the Presidency. How will that work here? Is that to do with our qualifications framework? What is the Minister talking about in that regard? It is useful that we validate forms of learning that take place in Foroige clubs, for example, because they often reach the children in ways that schools cannot do and if that was validated it would give a new status to those informal learning settings.
I thank the Minister for his presentation. I am glad there is such a spotlight on education as part of our Presidency and that it will be at the heart of the EU's 2020 strategy. That is crucial, particularly in the context of tackling issues such as mobility, youth unemployment and issues in which there is a great deal of value added at the European level. We must have our own strategies, as must other states, but there can be a huge amount of value added when European countries work together.
I have two questions, one of which is on the Erasmus programme. I join my colleagues in welcoming the increase in the budget but my concern is the way we ensure that Irish students avail of it. That is the key issue for me because we have always had poor participation rates in Erasmus compared to other EU states. As part of the Irish Presidency to what extent does the Minister have an action plan to increase Irish participation in Erasmus? What does he see as the major obstacles to greater Irish participation? How does he plan to advance that as part of the discussions with his colleagues? A bigger budget is welcome but if it is a bigger budget for everybody else it does not necessarily give us the payback we want here.
There is considerable untapped potential for Irish students.
With regard to the recognition of professional qualifications, it is stated agreement on the modernisation of the directive has been identified as a priority for Ireland during the Presidency. What are the major obstacles to that? Are there particular professions in question? Do we still have difficulty securing recognition across European states? Are there differences between Ireland and elsewhere? Initially, an issue arose with regard to teachers. The Teaching Council was supposed to have been working to sort out that. What are the difficulties and how might they be addressed in the context of the Presidency?
Let us consider issue 5 on the agenda for the Council meeting of 26 November, namely, improving teacher quality and status at a time of scarce resources. The Minister has referred to our Presidency considering the importance of teacher evaluation. Will he give us more detail on what he plans on telling his counterparts in this regard? What is the up-to-date Irish position?
I presume that, when talking about teacher evaluation, the discussion will include the reform of the junior certificate and the consequent changes to teaching practices.
We had a very interesting meeting recently with the Special Needs Parents Association. The Minister has also engaged with it. An issue that arises time and again is the role of special needs assistants. Can we learn from the approach that applies in other European countries? What are we doing well and what are we not doing well?
With regard to issue 3, the Council issued country-specific recommendations, a number of which the Minister listed. Is there any in particular on which we need to focus? I note a reference to reducing the number of early school leavers. I congratulate the Minister in this regard because the retention figures are pretty good at present.
Does Ireland need to concentrate on its language skills in light of the fact that PayPal could recruit only half of its staff from Ireland because of the shortage of language skills?
We have received a message from RTE's Oireachtas unit stating it is receiving considerable interference from mobile telephones. It wants me, as Chairman, to remind members to switch them off. I have mine off.
The Minister mentioned the European Social Fund, ESF, and the European Globalisation Adjustment Fund, EGF. Former workers with Team Aer Lingus might have received some of this funding. Problems arose over access to funding. Might we have an opportunity to influence reform in regard to the fund? In the 1980s and 1990s, ESF funding was very important to our development. There are a considerable number of ESF-funded courses that predated free fees. Can we get this kind of funding again? It would obviously help with our third level funding issue. This issue could be very much associated with the skills shortages in Ireland.
I will try to answer all the questions. If I miss any, I ask to be reminded of them.
With regard to Deputy McConalogue’s opening question on funding for Erasmus for All, the money is due to double in real terms over seven years. In the past seven years, there have been approximately 18,000 Irish students participating in the programme abroad. However, this is only half the number of foreign students coming to Ireland, which is regrettable. We are going to try to obtain more information on all the factors surrounding this. We hope to have a postgraduate student who has gone through the Erasmus programme talk to second level students on the programme's benefits.
With regard to Deputy McConalogue's second question, it is important to recognise that a good Presidency – the upcoming one will be Ireland’s seventh since joining the Union in January 1973 – is one that gets the business of the Union done efficiently and effectively and which advances the collective decision-making that has already taken place. In the main, Presidencies from larger countries tend to have a double agenda - a national agenda and an overall European presidential agenda, usually in that order. Ireland has been known for running successful Presidencies. It is expected right across the board that our upcoming one will be successful also. Having been in Brussels last week, I noted the expectation is perhaps higher than might be warranted. It is like expecting Donegal to win the all-Ireland two years in a row. One might aspire to it but it may not be easy to achieve.
The second point that is important to recognise, and which has only begun to sink in among many in the permanent governments of all member states, is that the European Parliament now has co-decision-making powers along with the Council of Ministers. It is no longer the rubber stamp it once was. For example, the European Parliament will have the power to reject the next Commission after the European elections in June 2014. Mr. Pat Cox, when President of the European Parliament, threatened to veto the appointment of a new Commission unless one of the candidates, whom I believe was proposed by the Italians, was replaced by another because of questions over his suitability for the role to which he was to be assigned. In referring to the permanent government, I mean no disrespect to my colleagues who are present. Many commentators do not realise that, as with every Parliament in the world, the European Parliament has grown by acquiring an increasing number of powers, to the point that it is now engaged in co-decision-making.
As a politician and parliamentarian, my job is to get through the two items of legislation. I refer to the new Erasmus for All programme, which encompasses a number of other programmes. The relevant authorities have used the brand name of Erasmus in the creation of Erasmus for All. It will be critical to get it through the Parliament. There is considerable work to be done in regard to it. It would be a good day's work for Ireland to have it put in place on behalf of the Union given that the programme will run for the next seven years.
The Parliament has a key role to play in respect of the second item of legislation. I met the rapporteur of the relevant committee and the chairperson of that committee, Mr. Malcolm Harbour, during my visit last week. The meetings were designed specifically to tee up the relationship between Ireland’s upcoming Presidency and the Members of Parliament, in particular. Both meetings were followed by a lunch for the Irish Members, from all the various parties, including Sinn Féin from Northern Ireland, with a view to outlining our agendas. We received many indications of help, support and co-operation.
The second issue, which we discussed briefly, concerned professional qualifications.
Deputy Jonathan O'Brien asked about the multi-ranking issue and the question of regional clusters. Universities, for a variety of reasons, are now subject to a ranking system that is arbitrary and biased and does not measure the full effect of what is happening therein. The Shanghai index, which is the one most known to many of us, was basically constructed within the People's Republic of China to consider the deficit in the third level education system measured against that of the United States. The objective was to set a standard to which China could aspire by way of ranking various universities. Other indices have emerged, including the Times Higher Education World University Rankings, which has appeared in various forms. There are now three or four indices that rank universities. They are very significant, just as a tourist guide is for a tourist visiting a particular location, but one cannot take every tourist guide ranking system at face value. Of the top 100 universities in the QS ranking system, 29 are North American, 19 are British, and eight or nine are from the Commonwealth or the British English Anglo-Saxon sphere. The rankings are biased because those concerned use selection criteria on the basis of which they know they will emerge stronger at the other end.
German and French universities do not feature as high in the rankings or at the same level of strength because one criterion in the ranking system measures the amount of research that is being undertaken within the university. While significant research is taking place in both Germany and France, it is not taking place in institutions that are an integral part of the universities. For example, most research in Germany is carried out by research institutes in their own right that stand independent of any particular university. Therefore, this ranking system does not catch that level of research and, consequently, one might have a British university that ranks higher than a German university whereas in reality, the relative level of the latter is higher. As for how this matters to us in Ireland, as members are aware, our seven universities are within the top 400 of the 15,000 such institutions, which by any measurement is extraordinarily high. However, it can shift in terms of peer review and the reputation the university has with people across the world who may neither have been to Ireland nor be actively engaged or communicating with Irish researchers or Irish universities.
The rankings are significant, are market indicators and certainly affect the attitude of people who wish to come to Ireland to study or who choose not to do so because the rankings are below those that obtain in other countries. They cannot be ignored, any more than can any food or restaurant guide, but nor can they be taken as being verbatim and infallible. With this in mind, the European Union decided there should be some kind of multi-ranking system within the Union and beyond, in the European space as it were. As part of the Irish priorities for our Presidency, I have proposed to advance this particular proposal, which I believe was one of the questions raised by Senator Healy Eames in her contribution. Quite frankly, I do not expect to bring this to a conclusion but I hope to get an open and frank debate about the value of another ranking system. It probably would be more valuable were it to extend beyond the boundaries of the European Union and were to embrace countries other than the 27, soon to be 28, member states.
The second question, raised by Deputy O'Brien, concerned regional clustering and this island would serve as a very good example of same. For example, Letterkenny Institute of Technology might benefit as much from collaboration and clustering with colleges of further education and the new University of Ulster in Northern Ireland as it might with the nearest institution in the Republic, which is the Institute of Technology Sligo. In geographical terms, east-west collaboration and clustering should be considered just as much as north-south collaboration and clustering. By way of example, I suggest this is the kind of point we are making. If it makes sense in a common geographical or common linguistic space, such as, for example, between Flanders and the Netherlands, to create clustering in such areas to strengthen collaboration and achieve better outcomes, that in a sense is what regional clustering means.
I already have referred to Senator Healy Eames's question regarding the Erasmus for All programme. She asked a question pertaining to the observations made by the recent visitor to the Seanad about investment in education during a time of recession or downturn. Ireland, with the Skillnets and JobBridge programmes, has some of the most market-friendly instruments in that area. They basically address people who are actively qualified in the labour market but who have found they no longer are employed in the sector for which they trained. I refer the Senator to the JobBridge website to get the details in this regard but typically, someone like a quantity surveyor who had been working in the construction sector can get, through a combination of placement and training over a 30-week period by educational providers - both institutional public sector and private sector providers because the scheme was invited for tender - the requisite training, work experience and placement and can transfer himself or herself back into a paid job in the market, where there are existing scarcities.
Will other new measures be taken? I wish to follow through on this issue, if possible. It is useful that the percentage of finishers in respect of the JobBridge programme stands at 52%. However, many of them are not continuing and while there may have been 10,000 starters, this does not mean there were 5,000 finishers. What other new initiatives of that nature are being considered? For example, the same Nobel laureate did not really recommend the youth guarantee programme being considered by the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Burton. He felt it was too expensive in the first instance and, second, that simply giving people a four-month employment or training opportunity in this environment is not adequate, given our long-term unemployment problem. I believe this Erasmus for All proposal constitutes a wonderful opportunity if we can get more out of it. I note the Minister did not mention the amount of money by which he believes Ireland will benefit.
Every intervention is an attempt to reverse outcomes and to try to steer the market in a particular way. They do not always work to the full extent to which they were designed and on entering such a programme, some participants find it really were not for them. The Senator, as a professional educationalist, will be aware of such matters with regard to people starting a course and then finding it does not necessarily give them what it is they had hoped to get. I am reluctant to state how much money Ireland will get in this regard because while the aspiration is to increase it by a significant amount, it is subject to the overall multi-annual financial frameworks agreement, which is far from clear at present. At the last Council meeting, Prime Minister Cameron indicated his opposition to any increase in the budget and indeed, he seeks to have the budget reduced. Moreover, the House of Commons recently voted to take a position on the budget which will strengthen his hand in negotiations. A four-day meeting has been scheduled for later this month. Recently, the Taoiseach indicated that if a four-day meeting is intended and is being prepared for but if the British position is they intend to veto it anyway - the budget requires unanimity - then there is not much point in going to the meeting in the first instance. We are in an extremely volatile political space. For example, if no agreement is reached on the budget, a default mechanism within the European institutions will take effect whereby the budget as it currently stands will roll over on an annual basis without any adjustment. In other words, the existing budget will roll over. While it is akin to stopping the clock, the money will be provided. While this position is far from satisfactory, it does not mean there would be no money. It is not like Congress closing down activities in the United States but it means there will be no internal variation or alteration to the allocation on a percentage basis of the money. At present, the money for Ireland is approximately €12 million.
It is out of €7 billion. I will get the full figures for the Senator. As I do not have the full figures to hand here, I will write to the Senator with the full details.
To be honest, were I to give the Senator indicative figures at this point, I would be misleading her. The matter is in flux and we simply do not know. While this is what the Commission seeks, it does not mean the total amount will be increased and nor does it mean that the massive percentage increase that the Commission is seeking under this particular subhead will be increased.
No, I understand. I had intended to allow the Minister to conclude and then to ask whether anyone had further questions, because I also have questions arising from it. I invite the Minister to conclude, after which we will revert to whomsoever wishes to ask further questions.
Senator Power raised a question about the Erasmus programme. In general, I would love to see increased participation in the programme and it is one issue I personally want to try to raise in the forthcoming year. As the Senator is aware from her own previous experience, the original intention was to improve mobility of students within the European space and in so doing, to enhance a sense of cultural understanding, mutual respect and affinity within that activity. From a linguistic point of view, I note that at a recent third level fair held in the RDS for incoming students into the third level sector, the European Commission had at its stand young Irish students in their late teens and early 20s who had participated in the Erasmus programme. I spoke to three young women who had spent their Erasmus year in Leipzig and when I asked them how they had got on with their German, they replied the courses were not in German at all but were all in English.
To a certain extent, it defeats the object of the exercise. Ideally, to get to the sort of skills level we are looking at in other sectors of the education agenda for third level students, it would be for somebody who typically is studying engineering and might have done German in school. They would do an Erasmus year in Germany where they could perfect their linguistic fluency, as well as their engineering skills.
The reality now, however - given that, in comparative terms, we have an exploding student population at third level, compared to others - is that, for example, it is extremely difficult to qualify to do physiotherapy in an Irish college due to the short number of places. In Maastricht, a student can do a physiotherapy qualification, in English, which is recognised at European level, for a fee of €1,700. Quite a number of continental universities are offering courses in English.
While one cannot be definitive about this, all the evidence we have to date suggests that most of the Irish students who go abroad to study do so in courses that require high levels of points here in Ireland, and which they were unable to get into in the first instance. They include medicine and related medical courses such as physiotherapy, either in England, Scotland or Wales, and in some cases in continental Europe.
Can Senator Power remind me of her question on professional qualifications? According to my note, it was on whether we were concentrating on any particular ones.
It concerned what we see as being the challenges. The briefing note identifies it as a priority issue and that we want to see progress in modernisation. What does the Minister see as being the key challenges at present? With the system for recognising professional qualifications that was put in place, mobility has presumably improved. However, are there particular areas that are dragging behind and, if so, how are they affecting us? What are the particular issues in Ireland? Teaching was an issue at the start but I am not sure where it stands now with the Teaching Council working to filter applications to recognise people with degrees from other countries. What are the challenges and what is the Minister's agenda on that issue seeing as it is identified as a priority?
From an Irish point of view, we have no particular national areas that we want to protect or are concerned about. Our commitment is to facilitate the implementation of a European Union decision which has got to this point and which has to be taken over the line - in other words, to get the European Parliament and European Council to agree. However, there is no Irish perspective of areas that we are particularly worried about, either from a national or European viewpoint.
I meant liberalising, not protecting. I probably did not explain it properly. Are there areas where we feel that Irish professionals with qualifications are not getting access in other states that they should do because they have difficulty in getting their qualifications recognised?
To the best of my knowledge, none of those problems has been brought to our attention. As part of our EU Presidency, we will be talking to the various professional institutes here to ascertain if they have particular concerns in that area.
I will deal quickly with one or two other issues that were raised. I have no proposals for smoke-free campuses.
Deputy Harris raised two questions about teacher education and learning from other people's experience with SNAs. Following recommendations from an international review group, called Initial Teacher Education, we have decided to implement a recommendation on the rationalisation of teacher education provision. That is on top of a decision made on implementing the literacy and numeracy strategy, whereby Irish primary school teachers would now have an educational period of four years rather than three. Those four integrated years would focus on acquiring pedagogic skills, rather than getting half courses as quasi university arts courses. There has been an academic drift in terms of course provision to bring colleges historically out of the teacher training space into a university space. This saw a migration within the curriculum towards a third-level arts degree of a generic kind, rather than an educational qualification with the focus on pedagogical skills.
As I said earlier, the quality of teacher training and teachers is universally accepted as being the key to great outcomes. So the period will be for four years with the focus on pedagogical skills and two years for the H.Dip. at second level, again with the focus on pedagogical skills. There will probably be a change in the way that secondary school teachers typically evolved whereby they were in a school and went to the local university. Let us say it was St. Joseph's College in Galway, known as "the Bish"; they are well regarded within the school, go into university, which is the other side of the cathedral in Galway, do three or four years there, come back to "the Bish" to do their H.Dip. and end up being a secondary school teacher in the same space. From cradle to grave, therefore, that is their educational experience. Some of them turn out to be wonderful teachers, do not misunderstand me, but they do not necessarily have a wider life experience. It means that they are not necessarily equipped to teach in other teaching environments.
It would be my objective - and we are still in the process of evolving this - to ensure that in order for teachers, particularly at second level, to be qualified and have experience in their training and apprenticeship period before becoming permanent, they would have taught in the free voluntary VEC sector and possibly in some areas of further education as well. In that way, they would have a range for dealing with a wider community.
I am not sure what we have got from special educational needs assistants. We are conducting research within the Irish situation to see how effective special educational needs assistants are. In theory, special needs assistants should work effectively to make themselves redundant. However, a dependency situation arises. While the recipient of the special needs assistant may become independent in terms of toilet training, other manifestations of dependency may emerge. In some cases, there is a problem at the end of primary school if they have developed such a personal relationship with the SNA - and this has been communicated to me in individual cases - that the SNA should stay with them going into second level. While that is extremely understandable for an individual case, and very emotionally charged, it is not what the SNA was designed to be in the first instance. A new kind of need has expressed itself in that regard. The NCSE is doing some research in this area and I will come back to the committee about the Irish experience. Deputy Harris also suggested that we examine what other countries are experiencing in that area. I am informed that the bi-annual meeting of the European Agency for Development in Special Needs Education will take place here in mid-May 2013, although the venue has yet to be confirmed. That will be an opportunity to share best experience and best practice.
I think I have covered everything, Chairman.
No. The Minister may have answered my question when I was out of the room, as I had to go next door for a quorum. The Minister said there were country-specific recommendations, so was any recommendation made specifically for Ireland? I also asked about the need to focus on language skills.
Because we are in the programme with the International Monetary Fund and the European institutions, we are a programme country and therefore there were no specific recommendations in relation to us. We are being taken out and treated separately until we regain full sovereignty.
On that point, one of the meetings listed for the new year - basically because of Senator Moloney - is multi-lingualism in an EU context. That is scheduled for 10 April 2013.
I wanted to raise one matter with the Minister, which is more of a point than a question. There is an issue about the university ranking system which some say is elitist and ad hoc. If we are to influence an EU system, there should be an element covering the institutes of technology or the technological universities to be. The new chairman-designate of the quality and qualifications body addressed this committee about transfer, access and progression.
These must be part of it. How good is a college if it cannot get language students going from an apprenticeship to a degree, for example, or students from VECs into universities? This, along with social inclusion and access, should be part of the ranking.
I thank the Minister for his presentation and there was a good engagement today about the Minister’s forthcoming European Council meeting.