If Solas is the new FÁS, can it make a difference?
Apprentice plumbers Stephen Feeney, Andrew Fahy and Micheal Burke competing in the Ireland's Skills National Competition Final 2013 at Bolton Street, Dublin where Ireland's top apprentice plumbers, sheetmetal workers, cabinet makers and brick layers competed for the top titles. photograph: alan betson
The traditional degree-focused model may not suit students or employers
Minister for Education and Skills Ruairí Quinn has published a new Bill which provides for the establishment of Solas (Seirbhísí Oideachais Leanúnaigh agus Scileanna), the so-called “new FÁS” under the aegis of the Department of Education and Skills.
Solas will be responsible for commissioning and funding the delivery of service from the 16 new education and training boards (ETBs), which have replaced the 33 existing VECs.
These boards will be responsible for the planning and delivery of all the vocational training and further education in their region. Solas will also have the freedom to commission private-sector providers where it deems appropriate.
The challenge facing both Solas and the new ETBs is enormous.
We are all familiar with the scandals of waste of the past. Unaccountability and incompetence led to the downfall of the current education and training body FÁS and its former head, Rody Molloy. It is sobering to consider how the organisation was spending almost €1 billion of taxpayers’ money every year during the boom at a time of full employment.
There is still enormous duplication of courses regionally, both within the PLC sector and between it and the parallel FÁS training system. There are currently 180,000 further education and 75,000 training places provided in FÁS training centres.
Are taxpayers getting good value from the investment we are making in these 255,000 people? If current teaching and training staff are identified to be no longer capable of delivering to the needs of current employers, can they be moved on, as they are almost all protected public-sector employees?
Last year, FÁS provided 81,500 market-led and client-focused training interventions for unemployed people. It is also rolling out a labour market and training fund worth €20 million which it says will provide 6,500 training places for the long-term unemployed. Much of this budget is being awarded to private-sector providers.
The key questions
Do the teaching staff within the further education and FÁS training services have the skills to educate and train people to the high standards required by multinational and domestic employers, particularly in ICT, foreign language skills, international business, engineering and technology?
Will those educated and trained within the new structures meet the employability needs of those who are thinking of creating jobs in the Irish economy?
If the new ETBs do not deliver to these standards, will Solas gradually award a growing share of their budget to private-sector colleges and trainers?
I am very critical of the duplication and labour-market suitability of many courses currently on offer from both PLCs and FÁS.
That said, it is also important to flag the successful programmes currently on offer in areas such as personal training, outdoor pursuits, accounting technicianship and access programmes to university.
There are also some very successful institutions: Dublin colleges such as Coláiste Dhúlaigh, in Coolock, and Ballyfermot College of Further Education, have international reputations for the quality of their graduates. How can these progressive and productive colleges be supported within the new framework?
There are also speed bumps ahead when it comes to the integration of FÁS and the further-education sector.
How are we going to integrate them when the terms and conditions of employment of the teachers within the further-education sector are so different from those currently employed within FÁS training?
Teachers have contracts which currently see them on holidays for two weeks at Christmas and Easter, mid-term breaks and three months in the summer.
FÁS trainers enjoy higher pay scales than teachers but do not enjoy anything like the same holidays. How are these two groups of public servants to be integrated into a single service under the management of the ETBs?