The Government is considering plans to provide free or subsidised upskilling courses for thousands of workers in areas with acute skills shortages, such as green energy and the digital economy, by tapping into a “colossal” surplus in a State training fund.
It follows a recent OECD skills review for Ireland which warned that many Irish adults are at risk of falling behind as they do not have the right skills to thrive in their current employment and are unprepared for changes in the world of work.
It recommended using a €1.5 billion surplus in the National Training Fund (NTF) to address these risks and improve incentives for employers to take advantage of education and training.
The NTF, which is funded by a levy on employers, has been growing due to growth in employment and the fact the funds are defined as normal expenditure and subject to the Government restrictions on spending. However, Government departments are reviewing options for tapping into the surplus and have requested submissions from education providers and employers on how these funds could be used most effectively.
The Irish Times understands that among the options put forward so far from an advisory group of education and industry stakeholders include:
* Free or low-cost courses in further or higher education in areas such as green and digital skills;
* Courses ranging from micro-credentials up to doctoral research;
* Providing greater subsidies for employers to take on apprentices, especially for small and medium-sized enterprises;
Minister for Further and Higher Education Simon Harris said Ireland needed to boost lifelong learning and the Government hoped to have a policy position finalised in advance of the budget next autumn.
“Employers all across the country, public sector and private sector, are effectively paying a tax or levy into the National Training Fund and that fund is getting larger and larger at a time when we have very acute skills needs in the country,” Mr Harris said.
“I published the OECD skills review for Ireland earlier this month and it talks about where Ireland is doing well, but also the need to do more on lifelong learning. We’re above the EU average but we’re nowhere near best-in-class. I want to see a scenario where we can agree as a Government how to address the issue of the NTF surplus over a number of years.”
Mr Harris confirmed that his department was engaging with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform and the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment with a view to finalising policy in the coming months.
“Fundamentally I believe that employers have paid that levy in to see additionality in terms of education provisions, access to skills – and that has to be the test that I need to see in order to address what to do with the surplus.”
The scale of the surplus on the National Training Fund – which has increased from €1.1 billion in 2021 to almost €1.4 billion last year – has drawn comment from members of the Government and Opposition.
Fine Gael TD David Stanton, a member of the Oireachtas committee on jobs, enterprise and innovation, recently described the scale of the surplus as “colossal” and “mind-blowing”, and said there were huge opportunities to do positive things with the funds.
Sinn Féin TD Rose Conway-Walsh, a member of the same committee, has questioned why the Government has treated the surplus as off-limits at a time when it has spent “billions” elsewhere outside its own spending rules.
While the share of Irish adults with a college degree is well above average, participation in lifelong learning to facilitate essential upskilling falls far behind the top EU performers. While 14 per cent of Irish adults over the age of 25 are engaged in education and training, this lags behind top EU performers such as Sweden and Finland, with rates of 35 per cent and 31 per cent respectively.