Wednesday, 8 June 2011
Post-Leaving Certification Courses
Question 15: To ask the Minister for Education and Skills if he will consider the implications of charging €200 for potential students accessing PLC courses; and his views that this will deter many persons from re-entering the education system. [14458/11]
I am aware that having to pay this €200 per annum charge presents a challenge for some learners wishing to participate in post leaving certificate courses. However, I would point out that the charge is modest and will be met by the Exchequer in respect of an estimated 50% of students who can claim an exemption from it. The following categories of learners are exempt from paying the charge: full medical card holders and their dependant children, those who are eligible under the student grant scheme and those in receipt of the back to education allowance or vocational training opportunities scheme allowances. These exemptions should ensure that those who are less well off will continue to access post leaving certificate courses.
The Minister of State said that €200 is a modest amount. It is only modest relative to the amount of money one has in one's pocket. Like many teachers in this sector I am concerned that the people who do not have this €200 will not be able to upskill. While €200 may be a modest amount to some people it is quite a lot to others, bearing in mind cuts in people's salaries and so on. I am concerned that this charge will discourage rather than encourage people to upskill. I accept we are in a crisis in terms of resources. However, this charge does not send out the right signal to the people in this sector and does nothing to assist in encouraging the knowledge economy. People who participate in these courses also incur costs in terms of transport and so on. A €200 per annum fee is a big stake for those wishing to upskill. I believe this is a negative step in regard to educating and upskilling people. Also, it contradicts what the Government is trying to do in terms of its jobs strategy.
In an ideal world, Members on both sides of the House would seek to protect the most vulnerable in our society from the biting winds of recession. However, it is not possible to exempt any sector, including the education sector, from the painful adjustments that are necessary. There are in place provisions to allow the State pay this charge on behalf of the most vulnerable.
I do not believe that a person for whom education is a priority would consider €200 per annum an obstacle to gaining that education or upskilling which could provide him or her an with an opportunity get back into the workforce. While PLC learners are generally from the lower socioeconomic categories than are those in higher education, students from less well off families are being protected. That is the ambition of this scheme. I believe that this contribution should be seen in the context of the more significant levies applying to higher education.
Like in many other areas, there is a grey area here. Anyone who has dealt with social welfare issues will be aware of those people who because they are a little above the threshold do not qualify for exemption. These are the people who will be heavily affected by this charge. I accept what the Minister of State said in regard to people on lower incomes. However, it is the people in the grey area who will lose out. While I accept the Government's hands may be tied on this matter, this charge is a contradiction in terms of what it is trying to do in the educational sector. Those who will not qualify for exemption have been already hit in so many other ways. While they will want to upskill and get a job, they will not be able to afford this charge and will not qualify for exemption. I do not know how the system could be changed to accommodate these people. The people required to pay this €200 per annum charge are the same people who have been hit in so many other ways.
The Minister of State will be aware that participation on PLC courses has grown incrementally over the past number of years giving rise to huge demand for places. The recently announced jobs initiative provides for additional places on PLC courses, which I welcome. Given the high level of unemployment here and the need for people currently out of the labour market to upskill, there will be increasing demand again this autumn for places on PLC courses. PLC and other further education courses have been extremely important as a conduit in the area of progression to third level education. I know from constituents whose children are the first in their families to go on to further education of the importance of these courses in terms of access to third level education.
I ask the Minister to, if at all possible, provide additional resources again this September for the further education sector. It is a worthwhile investment which benefits individuals, society and the economy.
There is no denying that the courses delivered through the PLC programme seek to restore people's dignity and to provide them with an opportunity to get back into the workforce. As mentioned by Deputies, the jobs initiative provides for an additional 1,000 PLC places this year. We will shortly make a decision in regard to the allocation of those places. In making that decision, I am aware that nationally, the number of PLC places are more often than not over-subscribed and that demand far exceeds what we are capable of providing. In the context of the difficult financial circumstances in which we find ourselves we had to limit the additional PLC places to 1,000. They will be allocated to areas where demographically it can be shown that unemployment is a major issue and in areas where in the past demand has substantially exceeded provision. These areas will be prioritised. The additional places will be allocated in the near future.
The Minister of State, in making those decisions, should also take into account the geographic ingredient. Counties like mine do not have ready access to institutes of technology. The Minister of State will be aware that geographically we are some distance from the nearest institute while other counties have the benefit of institutes of technology or higher level colleges.
I understand that there is excess teaching capacity in some of our institutes of technology. If so, can that additional capacity not be given to the PLC sector under the Croke Park Agreement?