'The Future of Further and Higher Education in Ireland': Speech by Minister Simon Harris at IIEA Young Professionals Network – Gov.ie

From Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science 
By: Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science; Simon Harris
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Good evening everyone.
Thank you for having me here today.
I am really pleased to be here with you all. Thanks to Daire, Hannah and Lorcan for inviting me and working with my team to pull this together.
This I am told is the first of the Young Professional events in 2022.
I want to start by thanking you all for the sacrifices you have made over the past two years.
When I stood in those many press conferences in Government Buildings in March 2020, I never believed we would still be feeling the effects of COVID-19 today.
Many people have suffered. We have lost too many loved ones.
We all missed milestones in our lives and for the younger generations, we did sacrifice a lot over the last few years.
Thank you for putting your lives on hold to help others. Never do we need to wonder whether this generation is caring or compassionate or will prioritise family or community. We have our answer.
I think that is the brightest starting point as we rebuild and tackle the challenges ahead of us.
It is that generosity which has brought us to this point and I want to say thank you.
We are here to discuss shared European values, particularly around the common good of education.
I must first start by addressing the horrific situation in Ukraine and our collective action.
For the first time since its formation, the European Commission enacted the Temporary Protection Directive. For those Ukrainians arriving in Ireland this action has ensured much easier access to social supports including of course, education.
I imagine countless Directive and Regulations have been discussed within the hallowed walls of the IIEA.
For many experts, this Directive was considered a ‘dead letter law’ or one to sit on the shelf. Not so. There is and was no doubt that we faced the “dramatic numbers of persons fleeing to the EU”.
The swift activation of the Directive and decisive action by EU neighbours acting in concert shows us that the European project is alive and thriving.
We remained unified on the massive challenge of Brexit, and we came together to alleviate the pressures of COVID.
Now, as Europeans we have acted in solidarity to defend and uphold our very foundations.
Freedoms and human rights, democracy and its institutions, rule of law and multilateralism.
The EU, the Irish Government and my department are all acting in support of that goal.
In practical terms that means the government as well as, agencies, public servants, Parliamentarians and civil society partners need to deliver for Ukrainians seeking international protection here.
For my part, I have three jobs.
First to ensure people arriving can access English language supports. This is vital not only to get information and connect with people. It will be crucial to integration and good social and mental health for Ukrainians while they are here.
The second is to ensure Ukrainian students who wish to access third level can and that is happening already. There has been an open response from Irish Universities in terms of facilitating the further studies of those arriving from Ukraine.
And thirdly, ensuring those who wish to work here can do so by recognising their qualifications here and while that is tricky, it will be done.
Just last week, I was pleased to be able to attend an extraordinary meeting of European Education Ministers on assisting people leaving Ukraine. I wrote to Commissioner Gabriel not long after the Directive was activated to share my strong view that EU Ministers should share information on national efforts, and develop a common understanding of the educational and training supports required by Ukrainians coming to the EU.
I have also proposed an EU third level scholarship programme for Ukrainians to continue their studies should be urgently established.
This may have a specific gender focus and be constituted with particular supports such as access to childcare.
By establishing an EU-wide scholarship fund, we will take concrete steps as a Union to ensure that the education, knowledge and skills of the Ukrainian people can continue and develop while they are in the EU.
As an optimist, I genuinely hope that they can return to their homeland and with our continued support, can reconstruct and build all aspect of their civic society. We must do everything we can to empower Ukrainians to shape a positive collective future for themselves and their country.
Education – in all forms – is the greatest leveler in society.
It opens new doors and ensures nobody is left behind.
Access to second level education transformed our nation and enabled our economy and society to become resilient, ambitious and progressive.
I want to achieve that same scale of change at third level.
The purpose of this new department is simple. We are here to nurture the future and to provide a pathway for everyone.
Whether that’s through education or employment.
Whether you are reskilling or upskilling.
Whether you are re-entering education with prior experience in education that wasn’t so positive.
What I want to achieve for third level education in Ireland is a web of interconnected, dynamic institutions and industry partners, responsive to the needs of the learner, accessible to all and of the highest quality.
I’m travelling the country at the moment talking to fifth and sixth years about their choices when they leave school.
I say to them, “When you think of the Leaving Cert, I want you to think of it as the exam at the end of your second level education”.
It will not define you for the rest of your life.
You have so many options to a fulfilling life and career.
And I go on…I tell them…
Our third level system will respond as you develop.
If you want to learn insurance expertise or be a plumber, there’s a pathway to an apprenticeship.
If you want to test the waters of a discipline before committing, further ed. is there for you in a nearby town or city.
If you get the points for the higher ed. course you want, great. If you don’t you can try another course and transfer or do a further ed. course.
I want our younger people to know that I believe they should be in a position where they cannot put a step wrong when they leave school. Their options will not be guillotined by a bad exam or because they just don’t know what they want to do at 17 or 18.
Listening and talking to school goers about their hopes and ambitions, and giving them information about their range of choices is an important part of my role. So too is changing how families and students interact with the third level application process.
That is why, in 2022, for the first time ever, logging onto the CAO website, people also see options under further education and apprenticeships. This most simple of first steps is working. More and more people are considering apprenticeships and further education. We can see this from the website traffic on and from cao.ie/options since the launch of the new website with all three options last November. The results are encouraging with 14,276 site visits to fetchcourses.ie and 26,439 site visits to apprenticeship.ie by 1 March.
Our country needs this. We have a housing crisis, a climate breakdown emergency. We need people to build homes, to retrofit houses. We must ensure that the skills and expertise needed to meet these challenges are developing through our educational pipeline.
Next month, I will bring a policy statement and action plan to Government outlining my vision for a unified third level system, along with the key steps to achieve this.
I want to share some specifics of change I have prioritised since I took office in higher and further education, and apprenticeships. Before I do, there is another very important aspect of education equality to highlight. Particularly for adults who fell out of the education system in their earlier years, for whatever reason.
In my travels around the country, I have learned there are no right or wrong ways to learn. I have learned too that education is not and cannot be for young people only.
I admit to feeling some shame as I say this. There are hundreds of thousands of people who cannot read in Ireland.
There are more who do not have adequate digital skills.
Imagine how keenly felt the loneliness and isolation of lockdown must have been for those people without a digital connection – the only safe connection for months on end.
We cannot progress as a society if we continue to lock people out of our workforce and civic participation.
That is where my department comes in. We oversee the work of Solas – our national training agency.
And right now, we are rolling out a new literacy strategy to help people gain those essential skills.
We also have to ensure once they have those skills that they can progress into further and higher education.
This strategy is the first of its kind in Ireland and we have developed a long term vision and plan over ten years. It will deliver new structures, supports and learning to people, with a specific focus on community-accessible learning.
Now, I want to share with you some of the key reforms we are delivering in higher and further education as well as our new Apprenticeship Action Plan.
I am excited about the reform of our Higher Education sector currently underway.
This week I will bring the HEA Reform Bill to Committee Stage in the Dail. This once-in-a generation reform will deliver a university sector with a modern governance system which is competency-based, transparent and accountable. While promoting academic autonomy, the new law will enable codes and policies across specifics matters such as diversity, equality, sexual harassment to be applied across universities. Students, staff and governing authorities will have roles enshrined to ensure universities are inclusive and participatory, while promoting the common good of education.
Another big ambition we have realised is the strategic programme of reform for technological universities which will deliver a road to learning for the regions. Just as learning takes place at all stages of life, the opportunity to study should not be only about Dublin or our major cities.
TUs have already been established in Dublin and Munster with more to come. The South East Technological University will be established on 1 May, which will see the first ever university presence in the region. The Atlantic TU, will be established in the West /North West across Donegal, Galway, Mayo and Sligo on 1 April. This will bring to 5 the number of TUs nationally.
In the relatively short timeframe the higher education landscape has radically altered and consolidated from 14 Institutes of Technology to 5 TUs and 2 Institutes of Technology (IoTs). Those 2 remaining stand-alone IoTs are Dundalk IT and IADT Dun Laoghaire. Both IoTs are working on a trajectory towards TU status with the expert assistance of the HEA and Transformation Fund support.
TUs will significantly enhance progress towards national priorities in the areas of access to higher education, research-informed teaching and learning, supporting enterprise and enhancing regional development.
This is also an exciting time for Further Education and Training in Ireland. The FET Strategy – Future FET Transforming Learning, acknowledges the key role of FET in driving both economic development and social cohesion. This roadmap for the sector is built around three core pillars of building skills; fostering inclusion; and facilitating pathways.
My department has a vision of a FET future of enhanced penetration of FET across the population of Ireland.
One where a greater share of school leavers will be choosing FET or apprenticeship as their first destination.
One where people will be able to move seamlessly between FET and higher education in large numbers.
And finally, one where a digitally transformed FET system will offer a large choice of flexible, online and blended opportunities.
Our education and training system must be able to respond quickly and positively to the many challenges we face – the accelerated pace of technology, digitalisation, the consequences of climate change, Brexit and, of course, the economic and social dislocation cause by the COVID-19 pandemic.
I’ve mentioned that Apprenticeship options were included in the CAO for the first time for 2022. This is already helping to increase the profile of that training option for school leavers in particular, supported by dedicated guidance resources.
We have set a target of 10,000 annual registrations across a wide range of Apprenticeship programmes by 2025. The Action Plan for Apprenticeship 2021-2025 sets out new ways of structuring, funding, and promoting apprenticeships to make this option more accessible to employers and learners. We are building on existing progress to advance our goal of creating a single unified apprenticeship system which presents a value proposition for apprentices and employers alike.
Expansion to date has widened the impact of apprenticeship to areas of skills shortage such as engineering, technology skills, logistics and fintech.
And we plan to do more. This will include increased online visibility and supports for employers who wish to develop new apprenticeships. For the first time ever, government supports have been extended to all employers. A new employer grant of €2,000 per eligible apprentice has been introduced to encourage more employers to engage with a wider range of apprenticeships and to help encourage the development of new programmes.
There are currently 62 apprenticeship programmes on offer: 25 craft programmes and 37 programmes introduced since 2016. Eight new programmes were launched over 2020 and 2021, despite the pandemic in as fields as diverse as Arboriculture, and Supply Chain Associate. More programmes are in development. A further two programmes have come on stream in just the last month or so, a bar manager apprenticeship which is a 3 year level seven apprenticeship and a wind turbine maintenance technician which is a level six apprenticeship and 3 years in duration. There have been 114 apprentice registrations in post 2016 apprenticeships so far and 887 apprentice registrations in pre 2016 craft apprenticeships.
In 2021, there were a record 8,607 registrations- up from 6,177 for 2019, the last pre-COVID full year. This was the highest annual registration since the 2006 figure of 8,306, showing the high degree of interest in this career option amongst both employers and potential apprentices. At the end of 2021, the overall apprentice population was 24,212.
The increase in registrations, despite the pandemic, provides us with a solid pipeline of new talent coming through the apprenticeship system and highlights the huge interest in this area of training.
Finally, for people who are keen to join the public service, our target of 750 new apprentice registrations per annum is to be delivered across the public service by 2025. We have started to embed the apprenticeship model within the national employer base with the development of the Public Service Apprentice Recruitment Plan by summer 2022.
I have (hopefully) just painted an exciting picture of the developments in further and higher education systems in Ireland.
However, these are very much framed against the backdrop of our engagement in Europe and the wider international context. There are a series of initiatives which play to Ireland’s strength of building institutional partnership, which grow from strong person-to-person relationships.
For example, the EU Commission have launched a third call under the European University Initiative, which aims to build academic and research partnerships between groups of European universities. Already, there are Irish universities involved in 7 partnerships – these are designed to facilitate student and academic mobility members of each partnership.
We have seen a huge increase in Horizon funding, which will enable further growth in Ireland’s research capacity.
Funding for the Erasmus programme is being almost doubled over its lifetime, which will provide opportunities for both further and higher education students and staff to travel to Europe.
I am particularly anxious that partnerships in further education are increased – we all associate Erasmus with higher education. It is more than that. We must do more in that space.
While I do paint a positive picture of our place in Europe, I must also talk about our engagement with the UK. I have always been adamant that Brexit should not define or restrict the rich history of engagement between our education systems. I want that to continue and grow. I recently visited university campuses in Derry and Belfast, and I am struck by the enthusiasm to collaborate on both sides of the border.
I have met with my counterparts in Scotland, England and Wales, and again, the appetite to work with us is there more than ever. Those connections will remain a constant in the Ireland-UK relationship, as quite rightly they should.
My department‘s objective is to ensure that Ireland maintains an education and skills system that is highly agile, responsive to shocks and opportunities. One that will ensure learning, reskilling and upskilling opportunities are as accessible as possible to all.
We share an ambition to enhance human capability and productivity, so that every person in this country, including those Ukrainians new to our shores, has the ability to pursue opportunities and deliver on their full potential.
That is, every person regardless of age, gender, ethnicity, background or postal address.
For now and into the future, education is the most robust, transformative and lasting means to prepare and reorient in response to changes we have experienced and the changes coming.
Furthermore, and quite crucially, a lack of access to education can mean that opportunities for the development of talent are being lost to individuals, society and the economy.
We are living in rapidly changing times.
In Ireland, we have so much to help navigate us through the next decades.
We should be proud of our education system which is a cradle of ideas and innovative thinking. It is well placed to develop graduates who can respond to this rapid rate of change and anticipate future challenges.
It can equip future generations with the knowledge and skills to navigate the 21st century. Despite the dark times we are experiencing now, because of that, we have so much to be hopeful about.
Thank you again for inviting me to join you this evening and I look forward to your questions.
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