Seanad debates

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Reform of Further Education and Training: Statements (Resumed)


12:05 pm

Photo of Denis O'DonovanDenis O'Donovan (Fianna Fail)
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Let us get back to the business of the day. The next speaker is Senator Mark Conway, who has five minutes.

Photo of Martin ConwayMartin Conway (Fine Gael)
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Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit go dtí an Teach. This is an important debate because for a long time I have believed that we should re-orientate our education and training system to balance it somewhat. For too long it has been rather weighted on the points race at second level. As a result, important and key skills which can be acquired through effective apprenticeships in myriad areas have not received the type of attention they should have. The Minister of State referred to it as being haphazard or ad hoc but I consider it to be a mishmash and not fit for purpose.

I welcome what is in train at the moment and what is happening with all 16 education and training boards. There is a focused strategy which, I hope, they will develop and implement in the coming months and years. I hope this results in the reorientation to which I have referred.

We have suffered greatly in recent years as a result of a significant economic downturn. In some ways, this has provided an opportunity for people to upskill but I do not believe we have exercised that opportunity to its maximum because of the mishmash that has been the entire training and apprenticeship structure in this country.

One legacy the Minister of State could leave when he eventually moves on to another Department could be to have a proper coherent workable structure of apprenticeships in Ireland and not only in the general areas where apprenticeships tend to arise. The Minister of State should push the boat out and extend the boundaries to areas which may not necessarily be typical for apprenticeships at the moment.

I saw an interesting television programme on a tailor in Tullow, County Carlow. His son took over the tailoring business. That was a skill in itself. I believe there are many young people who are creative in design and who would be keen take the opportunity to avail of an apprenticeship in tailoring, for example. Apprenticeships could be arranged for any job that requires the use of hands, including all areas of manufacturing and not only the traditional areas associated with construction.

In recent years we have seen the evolution of all sorts of internships. Unfortunately, most are unpaid. We have seen interns coming into this House and into the offices of the Deputies and Senators. We have seen some fantastic young people who, as part of a third level masters course, got the opportunity to spend several days a week working in the offices of Members of the Oireachtas. The majority of Members gave them constructive research work to do but others not so, unfortunately. That is one example of internships. The idea has percolated throughout industry at this stage and we also have JobBridge and so on.

As part of an overall educational and training review, we need to consider putting proper structures in place for interns and the people who employ interns. We have a certain structure with JobBridge but I believe we need to have a conversation on internships. My fear is that some in the private sector are taking advantage of young people who find themselves unemployed after graduating from college. This is something that should be considered.

I have been involved in an organisation called the Association for Higher Education Access and Disability, AHEAD. I sit on the steering committee for the Willing Able Mentoring, WAM, programme, a paid internship programme for young people with disabilities who have graduated from college. In recent years over 100 such graduates have gone into a paid internship, which has led to getting full-time permanent paid employment within the organisations concerned or, in the case of banking, within the banking industry but not necessarily with the organisations concerned. I wish to pay tribute to some of the leading companies which take part in this, including Dell, Citibank, Abbott and so forth.

As part of any development of training programmes and apprenticeships we should be mindful of equality and ensure that people with disabilities who have the skills, qualifications and ability are given the same opportunities as everyone else to get apprenticeships and internships and the same opportunity to get on to training programmes as well.

Photo of Marie Louise O'DonnellMarie Louise O'Donnell (Independent)
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I welcome the Minister of State, for whom I have two questions. The first question relates to Quality and Qualifications Ireland, QQI - I call it "The Bridge on the River Kwai" because it is a way I can remember it. We know what happened to that bridge; it was well built but blew itself up in the end. The question also relates to the education and training boards, the city guilds and SOLAS. How does the Minister of State intend to challenge and counteract the caste system that has built up between academic education, mar dhea, and vocational education? What is the plan to do that? The Department can have all the systems it wishes within vocational education but how will the Minister of State challenge that? Will he do it in schools, with parents or in shops? How will he do it? It is remarkably important because there is a terrible divide and there is only one way to pass the leaving certificate. At meetings of the Joint Committee on Education and Social Protection I have heard people referring to only seeing one route to education, development, training or employment.

It is so narrow. What is the Minster of State's big plan? What are the plans of QQI, the ETB, SOLAS and the City and Guilds to counteract that caste system? It is a very definite caste system, especially since we have to ask vocational education to help us build a sense of skill and form for employment and training in our country. That is something the Germans have done brilliantly, and that brings me to apprenticeships.

I have written about this and I sent most Senators a piece of work on it, which they might not have had the time to read, but it was centred on apprenticeships. In Germany there are 384 apprenticeships, England has developed around 170 and we have about 25 and they seem to be all in construction. They are not in forestry, inland waterways or the artistic constructional life-giving force workaday world. We are not creative in our plans; it is a little bit of this and a little bit of that, but we should have national and county projects that evolve all these great apprenticeships, be they from construction, water, forestry, greenery, life enhancing, or whatever. I read the report on the apprenticeships, but I did not see many apprenticeships coming out of it. It was employer led, consultative and they would be well functioning apprenticeships. What are they? Where are they? When are they? When will they happen? It is not enough to say they have to be employer led. We have massive resources in this country including water, land, agriculture and trees. I cannot begin to describe the amount of facilities we have here. One of the best reports came form Forestry Ireland, which stated that so much of our forestry needed young people to work in it. I am not talking about cleaning up, but about world class work in the preservation, maintenance and panelling of our forestry and what we can do with it.

What is the big idea? Why can we not come up with a massive creative idea county by county for these apprenticeships, training, education and employment? When young people go out, with a leaving certificate, or BAs, or MAs or no MAs or no BAs, they want to be engaged and they want work that is psychologically, humanly and physically worth while and that they are engaged with and passionate about, and not a filler in. We need to look a few major creative projects. We seem to be tinkering around the edges of all these new QQIs, but what are the really creative things that we can do county by county, city by city, area by area? I have gone down to these organisations all over Ireland and they need something a little bit more focused.

How is the Minister of State going to counteract the appalling caste system between vocational education and academic education? I am delighted to see some young people coming into the Visitors Gallery, and I welcome them. It is their future education that we are talking about, and the fact that many of them might move into politics and change things. We were only talking about that yesterday. The young people in the Visitors Gallery are the visual aids for the future, and everything we say in here about education and vocational education affects them. It does not always have to be academic. I was an academic all my life, but I never believed in the word. I believed in great teaching and great learning, because that is what it is all about. In the end, a person walks away with some kind of skill, not matter what institution the person is in, and it is skill he or she can bring to this country or abroad. We make these appalling distinctions and we are absolutely dreadful about it. I would like to know the Minister of State's plan and I would like him to tell me about the apprenticeships, because I am here and ready for the next two years until the election to help him out with it.

12:15 pm

Photo of Feargal QuinnFeargal Quinn (Independent)
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I welcome the Minister of State back to this House, having been demoted to the Lower House. The Minister for Education and Skills was in here recently, and I got the feeling there was something less than enthusiasm for the leaving certificate applied. I am a great believer in the leaving certificate applied for further education. I am not sure where we are going with that. The Minister stated that the numbers have dropped, but if we are going to have employment in the future, it will not just come from construction and from the high-tech business. They will certainly be big employers, but retail, hospitality and catering are all important. In the leaving certificate applied, I saw youngsters at the back of the class who were left behind at the age of five or six, and then discovered in the leaving certificate applied they were the best in the class at something. It could have been debating, cooking or anything else. I could see them growing in confidence.

Could we have tax breaks for businesses to provide training? As somebody who spent his life in business, I am well aware of the benefits of further and continuous training, which means that if we invest in people, we can make them into very successful managers who are loyal and passionate about their job. One of the keys of a successful business is to have people who are passionate about their work, and we must develop that in some form or other. It is well known that with the economic crisis, businesses have cut back on further training for employees. Therefore, I would like the Government to consider a tax break for companies, especially SMEs, which send their employees for further training. That is something we should do something about.

There should be more financial support for private universities in terms of provision for further education, which may play a part in tackling youth unemployment. We need to realise that people are going to move much more to online education. I am not sure we are doing enough in that area. The whole area of online education is going to be very important in the future. Mr. Clayton Christensen of Harvard Business School is the author of "The Innovative University", and he predicts wholesale bankruptcies over the next decade in standard universities if we do not exploit the online market. This is also the thinking of the Brazilian Government, which provides a 10% subsidy to private colleges, with the obvious payback that they have a more educated workforce. I would be interested to hear if we can do something in this area to encourage online education.

Senator O'Donnell spoke clearly about apprenticeships. We need to get young people closer to the job market and to be instilled with a work ethic from a younger age. Our system encourages people to stay in education for an awfully long time, and Senator O'Donnell touched on that well. Universities benefit financially from people who stay on and do master's degrees or PhDs, but this often is not beneficial to the young people in getting a job. Practical skills are much more desirable to employers in the future. We have to learn from countries that are successful in apprenticeships and we talk a lot about Germany, but in Denmark selected schoolchildren spend two six month stints to work as apprentices in companies with four or five weeks at school in between. The Danish system has been described as follows.

Companies turn teenagers into adults: they get responsibility, trust, use expensive machinery, play a meaningful role and gain self-confidence...They learn the values of adults. You can teach that at school but you cannot teach it first hand. Some things can only be implicitly understood from experience.
I think we can do an awful lot more about apprenticeships.

In the past few years, South Korea created a network of vocational "meister schools" - meister is the German word for master craftsman - to reduce the country's shortage of machine workers and plumbers. The Government pays the students' room and board, as well as their tuition. We have a massive shortage of computer professionals here. Should we be considering something similar to address that particular shortage? Much can be done. Rather than trying to invent something new, let us see what is being done elsewhere. There are enough examples around the world of things from which we can learn.

I encourage the Minister of State in what he is doing, and I would like to see a lot more of it and more innovative thinking.

Photo of Paul BradfordPaul Bradford (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister of State. I am sorry I missed his speech, but I read his script with interest. In particular, I have listened to the previous speakers, Senator Marie Louise O'Donnell and Senator Feargal Quinn.

If the Minister had commissioned no report but simply took on board what those two Senators have outlined, we would be going in the right direction. The kernel of what both Senators have presented to us is a system to get people into the workforce, engaged and involved. We must recognise that one size does not fit all. Not everybody either desires or has the skillset to obtain 600 points in the leaving certificate and to pursue a conventional degree, postgraduate, masters type education. The strong economies across the European Union - forget about Asia, the US and Canada - such as Germany have a traditional form of education, and traditional apprenticeships and schemes to employ people's skills. There was a time in this country when every town had a number of garages, apprentice mechanics, apprentice electricians and apprentice fabricators but in our wisdom with the advent of the Celtic tiger those careers were almost designed not simply to be surplus but non desirable, so to speak, and we thought that everybody should be a computer engineer or a programmer. Good luck to the people with those skillsets. However, there are tens of thousands of young people whose skills have not been suitably employed and deployed.

What Senators Quinn and O'Donnell have pointed out is not a radical alternative but it goes back to what previously we did very well, namely, taking people whether 14, 15 or 18 years of age and giving them opportunities to use the skills which best suited them. I hope that in going forward - to use that awful phrase - we can look back to what we previously did very well. Previously, we allowed people to have trades and professions. There were qualified builders in the construction industry, qualified mechanics, qualified fabricators, qualified electricians and many more skills right across the country. I hope we can look at those opportunities again.

Senator O'Donnell mentioned Quality and Qualifications Ireland, QQI. I have had a limited amount of engagement with that office recently. There appears to be an over-emphasis on the administrative side and maybe not sufficient emphasis on the practical side. Following a query from a constituent about QQI, I checked its website and structures and wondered where was the practical side rather than the theoretical side. I might engage with the Minister after the debate on QQI.

I am aware the Minister has commissioned all these report which are necessary and I am sure good will flow from them but we need to get back to basics. There are people in the junior cycle who may want alternatives, perhaps non-academic practical skills which have not been provided in the past ten to 15 years. I hope the Minister will consider that issue.

I appreciate the modern economy must be high-tech, high-spec, but it must also have a place for people whose skills and qualifications might be seen as traditional but are still required. I hope the Minister will keep the thousands of young people for whom those skills are appropriate to the forefront of his planning and that there will be openings for apprenticeships in traditional areas.

12:25 pm

Photo of Fidelma Healy EamesFidelma Healy Eames (Fine Gael)
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I have come here for one reason, namely, to ask the Minister to lift the status of further education in Ireland. As Senators O'Donnell, Bradford and Quinn have said, for too long further education has been seen as the poor relation in the education system. The reason it must not be that is that every child, every student and every learner is valid and young people learn differently. For the six years before I came to this House I earned my living working with learners up and down the country in my own business. While I had been an academic previously - a teacher and then a lecturer - when I decided to go into politics I knew I needed a more flexible approach and set up my own business. I worked with students, parents and teachers around how to help them achieve in education.

I learned that one third of our children know exactly what they want and can find that through the CAO system, another third have an idea but can make poor choices, and the other third do not have a clue. The final third can end up in further education but, by and large, they are learners by doing. This ties in completely with what Senator Quinn said. They are valid learners. They are very exciting. By doing a number of assessments with them I found that they are some of our most creative learners and have the greatest potential if their creativity is harnessed for entrepreneurship in the future. They can be lost in the education system because it has stopped valuing them. I ask the Minister to lift the status of further education.

I support completely the apprenticeship model, the employer-led learning and agree that incentives need to be found for employers to support them to have work-based learning and offer apprenticeships, be it tax breaks or innovation vouchers. I am aware there are innovation vouchers worth €5,000 each but I do not think there is a huge take-up. If that could be transferred, as a benefit or a gain to these employers, it would be great. At the end of the day what matters is that all our young people feel they are valued in this country and have a place. There is a need for more cost-benefit analysis of our education system.

Let us look at the CAO system and the drop-out levels after first term. A huge amount of money is lost to families and to the State because of poor choices and lack of appropriate career guidance in early second level. There is a dearth of appropriate early guidance. It even needs to start in sixth class. There are others here who would probably support me on that.

In Europe there is the artisan and the craftsperson who are valued in a way that they were probably valued here 20 or 30 years ago but that had fallen out of favour and out of fashion, so to speak, with the drive to a more academic approach. I think I heard Senator O'Donnell say as I came into the House that the vocational education system had been dumbed down, that is because the vocational education system has moved to a more academic approach as points became so valued. I was the chair of County Galway VEC from 2006 to 2008, having come from a voluntary secondary approach and a third level and academic approach, but I learned about the vocational education system being the only provider for all types of learners. We need that approach as a learning level but we also need to show how that can be converted into jobs. This is where I believe the apprenticeship model will come into its own in a way that is not yet realised. When I see young people get a job that is linked with their learning, and even when it is not linked with their learning, they grow, they get self-esteem and find a new purpose.

This is one of the best things we can do for Ireland. We are not getting the return we need. We need to lift the status of further education and by using incentives to shine a light on it.

12:35 pm

Photo of Ciarán CannonCiarán Cannon (Galway East, Fine Gael)
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I thank Members for engaging so passionately on an issue they find exceptionally interesting. The reform of further education and training deserves the focus it is getting, having been conferred with a status under the SOLAS legislation.

I thank Senator Power for her kind words on my attendance at the St. Pat's For All Parade. I congratulate her, Senator Bacik, and Deputies Buttimer and Halligan on the video they put up on YouTube the day before the parade. I congratulate the people involved in the parade on its exceptionally open and inclusive ethos. The main point I made in my speech in New York before the parade began was that the Ireland of 2014 is evolving and changing and becoming a more caring, inclusive and equal society. The parade reflected the real Ireland with which we are familiar in this Chamber. That needed to be extended to other parades, which I am sure will happen over time as we engage with the diaspora worldwide.

All Members stressed the importance of giving the further education and training sector a unique identity, conferring that special status on it. The establishment of SOLAS and the education and training boards, ETBs, finally gives it that. It addresses what Senator Martin Conway described as the mishmash delivery in the past. I was surprised at the level of communication in the sector. If someone developed an excellent course on aquaculture, as might be appropriate for its location in County Donegal, the vocational education committees in other seaboard counties would not be made aware of the content of that course and would not be able to access it or deliver it. Significant public funds would have been expended on designing the course in County Donegal but no one else would have known about it. Under the umbrella of SOLAS, ongoing consultation and communication will now take place. This will ensure this will not happen in future.

Senator Power quite correctly raised the issue of relevant on-the-job opportunities for young people while they are engaged in further education and-or training opportunities. She is also correct to point out that employers have a responsibility to engage in that process and to be proactive in their engagement. Accenture published a report last year on the skills deficit and how we should go about addressing the skills deficit in the country. One of the conclusions it drew is that employers, as well as being consumers of talent in the country, need to play a proactive role in creating talent. That was a theme that emerged from much of the discussion today.

Senator Jim D'Arcy raised the issue of workplace training and the need to ensure those in work have as many high quality opportunities as possible to access training while at work. I commend the work of Skillnets. This is a very powerful tool of the State in aiding and abetting employers to deliver high quality workplace training opportunities for their own people. What we have seen emerging in the past ten to 15 years is Skillnets clusters, in which industries within the same sector come together, be it in pharma, food science, technology and medical device manufacturing, determining what their skills requirements are within their own cluster and then working hand in glove with Skillnets to deliver the training. Two years ago Skillnets was charged with expanding that provision not alone to people in work but to those who are unemployed. The curricula and workplace opportunities that were developed through the Skillnets model were equally valuable to those who were unemployed in the region. I am delighted to say this work is ongoing and Skillnets have been especially effective in reaching out to the unemployed as well as the employed.

I was at an event organised by Engineers Ireland, at which the head of Engineers Ireland stressed the need for ongoing workplace training opportunities. As he described it, the half life of an engineering degree is about a year and a half. As the sectors are evolving and moving on, once one is out of college a year and a half, the qualification is essentially out of date. If Ireland is to remain at the cutting edge of all these different technological opportunities, we need to update constantly the skills of those at work as well as those who are out of work.

How do we determine where the skills shortage will occur? The expert study group on future skills needs is still doing exceptionally valuable work, producing very valuable data and reports on the existing skills shortage and what they will be in five years or ten years. They are continually updating that information to ensure every piece of education and training provision in which we engage somehow ties in with their assessment of the skills environment of the future.

The education and training boards also have significant autonomy under the legislation, and rightly so, to carry out their own research at regional level to determine the skills shortages in their regions and how they can best respond to those shortages and encourage people in their area to take up the skills that are relevant to their region. I will give an example. In Galway some 8,000 are employed in medical devices manufacturing and it is rapidly becoming one of the world's biggest medical devices manufacturing clusters. Two months ago, I opened in the SOLAS training centre a new training facility for that sector in Mervue on the edge of Galway city. We have recreated at considerable expense, and rightly so, a fully fledged clean room, similar to where one would work in a medical devices manufacturing facilities. From the very first day, trainees will walk in off the street to receive the training in that environment. They will be fully gowned up to work in the clean room. Their experience will be the same as if they were in any one of the medical manufacturing facilities that are in Galway. We hope the training will ensure they have a long and sustainable career in that sector. It is an exceptionally important opportunity for them but it shows how forensic one must be in determining where the skills shortages are in each area and responding to them in a very meaningful way.

Senator Wilson as well as Senator Jim D'Arcy raised the question of how ETBs with no training centres will meet the needs in their areas. I assure both Members that as we speak, a unit in SOLAS is setting out to address that challenge and how we can ensure a child, young person or unemployed adult living in the areas to which they referred have an equal opportunity to high class training provision. I visited a wonderful campus that is being developed in Cavan- Monaghan which I would argue is a role model for other parts of the country. I agree wholeheartedly with Members that we do not want to see any degree of inequality creeping into the provision throughout the country because we are trying to shoehorn a new service into what was the geographical footprint of FÁS. We cannot allow that to happen. We must get it right from day one.

Senator Barrett raised the issue of apprenticeship opportunities in Germany versus Ireland, a matter I also raised in my contribution. In Germany one can take up an apprenticeship opportunity in 300 to 350 areas whereas in Ireland there are 25 to 26. We need to look at what Germany and Austria are doing. Senator Marie-Louise O'Donnell also raised the big question, and it is a significant one, of how we encourage people to become an apprentice. I argue this is a problem for parents, and we must figure out a way to reach out to them and convince them of the absolute merit of their children engaging in the apprenticeship process. We need role models who have been through the apprenticeship process and have gone on to long, happy, fulfilling and rewarding careers. I visited Dublin Aerospace recently, which is a wonderful organisation employing 250 people. Every single employee has a shareholding in the company and everyone is working towards a common goal. The CEO of Dublin Aerospace was an apprentice, starting out as an aircraft mechanic, and has risen to the top of the industry. He is highly respected not only in Ireland but worldwide for the knowledge and experience he has accumulated.

If one were to set out to have a person lead an organisation, I would argue that someone who has come up through all the different ranks of the company is exceptionally valuable at its helm because he or she is acutely aware of every single part of the process of delivery and makes him or her more than suitable for the role of chief executive. I am sure if one were to look deeper one would find many men and women throughout the country and worldwide who have taken a similar path. Senator Barrett referred to the role of Neven Maguire as a participant in leadership training.

We must find some way of ensuring people who have assumed leadership roles in their own sectors are part of the provision. I know that the Senator has raised the issue with the Teaching Council. Unless one is a member of the Teaching Council and stands over the quality of one's professionalism and delivery, one cannot technically be part of the delivery process of further education and training. We are looking at the matter but the question is how to incorporate industry expertise in provision yet stand over the quality of the delivery on a day-to-day basis.

Senator Barrett mentioned that we should use technology and perhaps we could. Neven Maguire does not need to leave Blacklion to be in every classroom in this country. He, and others like him, could dovetail into delivery at a local level and there is an opportunity for doing so.

I shall move on to Senator O'Donnell's contribution. I agree wholeheartedly with her that we must reach out to parents and convince them of the merits of the scheme. Quality and Qualifications Ireland can play a critical role as it oversees the national framework of qualifications. People need to see that there is a clear uncomplicated progression route that goes all of the way. There should be a clear progression route for someone who wants to progress all the way from a junior certificate to a PhD and it should be obvious, uncomplicated and straightforward. As the Senator pointed out, we must challenge the divide that exists. Why does it not exist in Germany and Austria? It is because both countries have provided a suitable path for centuries - not decades - particularly in Germany. My Department and I will work on the matter. The initiative will be part of the SOLAS vision for the future and the further education and training strategy. How do we convince people about the merits of this engagement? We constantly stress, as I do when I travel abroad to market Ireland as a destination for international education, that we have the highest level of third level participation in the whole of the EU. We have strived to reach that goal and parents have demanded it but we are faced with the challenge of convincing parents that there is another route available as well as third level.

12:45 pm

Photo of Fidelma Healy EamesFidelma Healy Eames (Fine Gael)
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Unemployment will convince them.

Photo of Marie Louise O'DonnellMarie Louise O'Donnell (Independent)
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Unemployment of their educated children and a aeroplane trip to Australia will convince them.

Photo of Fidelma Healy EamesFidelma Healy Eames (Fine Gael)
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Drop-out levels will also convince them.

Photo of Ciarán CannonCiarán Cannon (Galway East, Fine Gael)
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Yes, that is a factor.

Photo of Diarmuid WilsonDiarmuid Wilson (Fianna Fail)
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There is no need for the Minister of State to be here at all.

Photo of Pat O'NeillPat O'Neill (Fine Gael)
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Please allow the Minister of State to continue.

Photo of Marie Louise O'DonnellMarie Louise O'Donnell (Independent)
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I am sorry to have interrupted him.

Photo of Ciarán CannonCiarán Cannon (Galway East, Fine Gael)
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The Senator said that there needs to be a county-by-county focus on delivery at local level. That is exactly what the legislation underpinning the education and training boards has set out to do. It gives them the autonomy to be that granular in their own county, to determine what the skills shortages are in the particular region and to respond to them in an effective manner.

Senator Quinn sought tax breaks for businesses who provide training. Every year between €15 million and €20 million of my Department's resources is invested in Skillnets. We have yet to fully realise the value of the Skillnets model across all of industry here. Some businesses really get it, understand it, are passionate about it and actively engage with Skillnets. However, we must again reach out to industry. Perhaps we could ask other sectors that do not engage in the Skillnets model to get involved and show them the merits of the scheme. Such an initiative would expand industry participation in training and further education in the future.

Private universities were mentioned. Earlier I mentioned that I travel abroad to market Ireland as a destination for international education. Enterprise Ireland now has an exceptionally successful unit called Education in Ireland which has engineered, along with officials in my Department, a 35% increase in international participation in our education system over the past two years. Colleges like the Dublin Business School and Griffith College are very much part of the family of institutions that travel with us abroad on trade missions to attract more students to various places. There is a significant and ongoing participation by private universities and support is provided.

The Senator mentioned the issue of online and digital learning and massive open online courses, MOOCs, and I agree wholeheartedly with him. It is interesting to note that one of the world's largest MOOCs is based in Galway and is available at It is the largest provider of education in the African continent, has 2 million users online and gains about 100,000 extra users per month. Without question, all of our second and third level institutions involved in education need to acknowledge the powerful role that technology can play in delivering education in the future. Ireland needs to lead the revolution that is taking place in technology and education rather than traipse along on its coat tails. Ireland has all of the necessary ingredients to be a world leader in digital learning innovation.

Senator Moran wants the apprenticeship system expanded to other sectors and she is right. She mentioned the fact that we have a strong tradition here and we do in certain crafts such as mechanics, plastering and electricians. Apprentices have won major awards. Every year the young apprentices who travel abroad to compete in world craft competitions always come home with a plethora of medals. We must use and build on the expertise and wisdom that we have accrued over the decades in those few sectors and expand it to other models.

Fast Track to IT is funded by SOLAS and does wonderful work. Last year and the previous year it engaged with every single multinational and indigenous company involved in the ICT sector and asked them to produce a map of the skills shortages that occur. Fast Track to IT has responded to the information by designing courses in conjunction with those industries in order for young people to access and occupy current vacancies. As Senator Bradford pointed out, the scheme does not refer to computer science graduates or software engineers but operates below that level to technicians, sales people and back-office support. Such occupations are just as important to the sector and to its success in the future as software engineers.

Senator Moran also mentioned data collection. I was very strong about that issue with the SOLAS implementation group. We do not collect enough data from learners and trainees. We need to ensure that every single participant benefits so we must immediately determine from them how successful the intervention has been. On a personal level, we must discover whether he or she found the intervention rewarding, inspirational or invigorating. On a qualification level, we must discover whether the qualification a person has attained will empower him or her to go on to a higher level of education or go right back into the workforce. We do not collect that data in a meaningful manner but the technology exists for doing so. The data could act as an incredible and powerful tool to design and strategise provision for the future. SOLAS will have a major role to play in collecting that data and will use it in the most effective way possible.

I acknowledge the issue raised by Senator Wilson about training in Cavan and Monaghan.

Photo of Diarmuid WilsonDiarmuid Wilson (Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Minister of State.

Photo of Ciarán CannonCiarán Cannon (Galway East, Fine Gael)
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I agree with Senator Bradford that one size does not fit all and flexibility is key. He is correct that the strong tradition of apprenticeship delivery, which dates back over decades, must be expanded to other areas.

Senators Healy Eames and O'Donnell raised the same issue, namely, how to improve the status of further education and training and the apprenticeship model among learners and parents. How do we raise their awareness of the unique value of such schemes and the ability to lead people to very long and rewarding careers? SOLAS is now in existence and has brought together the two disparate entities of further education and training. SOLAS has done a huge amount of work in conferring that status upon it. Obviously SOLAS will be tested - as it should be - by its future success in encouraging many others to become involved in the particular area of provision that it is responsible for.

A Senator mentioned learning by doing and I agree with the philosophy. One can ask anybody in business what is the one skill that all people will need in the future and he or she will answer without thinking that it is creativity. Some people do not need to try hard because they are innately creative. We must nurture, foster and raise creative people up as key participants in the Ireland of the future which did not happen in the past.

I hope that I have not left anybody out. I have tried to cover, as best I can, most of the points raised by Senators.

There is no question but that this will become a crucial part of our educational delivery in future. The advent of SOLAS and the educational training boards, ETBs, provides the machinery whereby we will deliver it. From my own engagement with those involved in SOLAS, including the board of SOLAS, the CEOs of our ETBs, as well as the teachers and tutors, I know they acknowledge that this is a particularly powerful mechanism for delivering high quality outcomes. Everybody knows that it is a particularly powerful mechanism for setting people on the road to long, rewarding and fulfilling careers and lives.

We finally have that kind of unity of purpose now that we did not have before SOLAS was created. We are all working towards the best possible outcomes for every single person we set out to support, which is how it should be.

12:55 pm

Photo of Pat O'NeillPat O'Neill (Fine Gael)
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I ask the Acting Leader, Senator Jim D'Arcy, to propose the suspension of the House until 3 p.m.

Photo of Jim D'ArcyJim D'Arcy (Fine Gael)
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Just before doing so, I want to thank the Minister of State for his remarks. He is well on top of his brief and I give him ten marks out of ten. We will be looking to see if the changes happen, however.