Thursday, 9 February 2012
Following on from the previous discussion, the key to solving the problem of unemployment is undoubtedly education. However, there is a need to accelerate this, because there is a generation of people who cannot wait around. Their contributions, their talents and their lives will be lost as a consequence of not being able to obtain employment. That motivated me to table this matter on the Adjournment, which relates to our third level institutions. We have had great success in this regard over the past 12 to 15 years, with a 60% increase in the number of students accessing our tertiary education system. That is to be welcomed; in fact, we have achieved one of the highest third-level participation rates in Europe, which should be to the country's benefit in the future. However, it will only be to our benefit if the quality of the education is commensurate with the requirements of the economy and is of a standard that is favourable compared to other international educational institutions. Therefore, the decline in the performance of our universities, as discussed recently in an article in The Irish Times and also in comments by the new president of the American Chamber of Commerce, is of concern. In September last year the new Irish Times education editor said:
The new international league table is a serious blow to the Irish university sector. Two years ago TCD was in the elite top 50 colleges, while UCD was in the top 100. Over the past two years both of Ireland's leading colleges have lost significant ground.
During the course of the past month the newly appointed President of the American Chamber of Commerce Ireland, Mr. Peter O'Neill, also the managing director of IBM, made some arresting comments, of which we should all take note, about which we should be concerned and which we should seek to address in a way that avoids the impact he has foreseen. He spoke of concerns in respect of six of the seven Irish universities falling out of the Times Higher Education World University Rankings. He said that some Irish universities and colleges may need to merge to supply better educated graduates to industry and he expressed concern about the fact that Trinity College Dublin and University College Dublin had dropped out of the top 100, although I am unsure whether that is correct. He mentioned UCC, NUI Galway, Dublin City University and DIT. Some of these have dropped from the top 400 and some from the top 300. The alarming comment was that "Already, some of our member firms in the key Digital, ICT, life sciences, and financial services areas are reporting difficulties in hiring suitable candidates." He went on to say that "55% of the demand for ICT professionals in Ireland is being met by inward migration" at a time when our native population is crying out for jobs but obviously lacking the necessary skills and qualifications. He pointed out that these companies are highly mobile and had been attracted by good policies in the past which focused on the talent available. He noted that there had been a pro-business environment from Government at the time and suggested our position as the only English-speaking member of the eurozone was an advantage. These were among many of the reasons they came here. He went on say that if they could not find suitable talent here, Ireland would not be considered for future investments and, worse, that the existing operations may choose to move on to a competitor country where they could find qualified staff.
We have been warned that US companies may well bypass Ireland in future. This prompted me to put down this motion on the Adjournment to call on the Minister to make a statement on the specific intentions and measures he has in mind to address the concerns expressed by the President of the American Chamber of Commerce Ireland and which, I imagine, are shared by the Minister and by everyone in these Houses. There is urgency about this matter given what has been said.
I thank Senator Walsh for raising this matter on the Adjournment. It is recognised that international ranking systems are referenced by international investors, employers and students and consequently they cannot be ignored. However, it should also be noted that these systems are not infallible and it is widely agreed that they should be interpreted with caution. We can draw encouragement from the overall performance of the Irish system on the latest Times Higher Education system performance tables which place Ireland firmly in the world's top 20. We are ranked 17th overall and sixth in the world relative to our GDP.
The focus in Ireland is on sustaining and advancing performance throughout the system as a whole rather than investing in elite institutions. Earlier last year the Minister, Deputy Quinn, set out his priorities for the development of the higher education system during the next 20 years and endorsed a range of actions to develop the quality of teaching and learning and to ensure the relevance of programme and curriculum design throughout the system. These actions are focused on improving the overall student experience and improving the quality and employability of Irish graduates.
On 30 January the President of American Chamber of Commerce Ireland joined the Minister, Deputy Quinn, the Minister, Deputy Bruton, and the Chairs of the Higher Education Authority, the expert group on future skills needs and ICT Ireland to launch a new action plan to address the high-level ICT skills needs of enterprise in Ireland. The action plan is available on the Department website. It was developed in response to a clear message from industry that there are ICT skills shortages and, more important, that jobs can be created if we have the graduates to fill them. In a highly mobile and global sector such as ICT, inward migration by skilled professionals will always play a key role in meeting the skills needs of companies. However, boosting the domestic supply of graduates for 21st century jobs is a key objective for the education system.
The action plan, published last week, has been developed during the past 12 months with close collaboration between officials of the Department of Education and Skills, the expert group on future skills needs, the HEA, ICT Ireland and the American Chamber of Commerce Ireland. It sets out short-, medium- and long-term actions with specific time-bound targets to meet the skills gap in the short term while, in tandem, building up the longer term supply of high quality graduates. This includes the establishment of an ambitious target of doubling the annual output of ICT graduates from 1,000 this year to 2,000 by 2018.
The skills shortages experienced have not arisen overnight and are not unique to Ireland. There are no quick-fix solutions that will meet all of the shortages overnight. However, the plan includes steps that will be taken to increase the supply of graduates within the next 12 months. The key action in this regard is the immediate roll-out of 750 places on 17 new fully funded graduate skills conversion programmes throughout the country. These programmes have been developed by public and private higher education providers in collaboration with industry partners. Participants on the programmes will obtain a post graduate qualification in core computing skills at honours degree level and will be offered a work placement with one of the companies involved in the design of the programmes. Details of all of the new conversion programmes are available on the BlueBrick.ie web portal. The majority of the programmes will be under way by March and applications can be submitted immediately through the website.
I welcome much of what the Minister of State has said. I realise the rankings are based on four pillars of research, including teaching, employability and internationalisation. Clearly, an element of subjectivity is involved. The first paragraph and other parts of the Minister's response could be interpreted as having a level of complacency. We whistle past the graveyard at our peril. Several issues were not touched on in the Minister of State's reply and I draw his attention to them. The issue of financial resources was touched on but what about the quality of management of our universities, the application of the professors and lecturers and the number of lecturing hours they deliver? There should be a greater emphasis on innovation in our colleges. The structures of the colleges, how they are managed, their quality, and how they are administered represent a large part of what we must address and attend to in order to extract best possible results from the scare resources we have to invest.
I appreciate the points made by Senator Walsh but I do not believe there is a sense of complacency. The opposite is the case; there is a great sense of urgency and there are sleepless nights in respect of how we should address this problem. The bottom line is that one can extrapolate from the Times Higher Education system performance tables. One can delve into the criteria they apply. Criteria for measuring rankings differ from one set of rankings to another. There is no sense of complacency. The data are important and widely reported and when the reports come in we take them seriously. In fairness our work and that of previous Governments with American Chamber of Commerce Ireland stands up. When they send signals across the table we sit up and listen, as have previous Governments; if messages come from them we take note.
It is important to realise that there are many Irish people working in US companies who have had long and distinguished careers in those companies. They are very attuned to the needs as well and they have an ear with Government. In fairness, traditionally Fianna Fáil Governments have set out this approach and have been a part of the process for the science, technology and innovation programmes. This is an apolitical area.
With regard to the points made by Senator Walsh, there is a strong sense of the urgency in respect of dealing with the skills shortages. However, the Senator will acknowledge that there was an over-reliance on construction and many children went into construction studies from second level rather than software engineering or other engineering programmes and one cannot turn around that ship overnight. It is healthy for the system to have world class researchers coming from abroad. It causes us to up our game. I appreciate the points made. There is no sense of complacency; we are moving rapidly to address the deficit.