Further education has been reorganised, but on the ground little seems to have changed

Colleges still working independently to fill course places and retain teachers

The Government’s further education and training strategy was devised at the height of the economic crisis in 2012, to upskill the labour force and so drive economic and employment growth. This was designed to increase productivity, leading to more secure employment and reduce unemployment.

Now, less than two years into the five-year further education and training (FET) strategy, the economic context has changed totally. Unemployment is down to 9.5 per cent, at 206,500, although youth unemployment is 20.7 per cent. Is this an indication that the Government’s FET strategy has been a success?

In many ways, the strategy has been successful. Springboard has provided free, part-time higher education re-skilling from certificate up to master’s levels in areas of skill shortages such as information and computer technology.

The Momentum programme offers similar upskilling to the long-term unemployed. The JobBridge internship scheme, for all the criticism, has enabled tens of thousands to gain work experience to help gain a foothold on the employment ladder.

The annual Action Plan for Jobs continues to signal success. On September 7th, the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation Richard Bruton, announcing 270 new jobs for the southeast region, claimed the plan could help create 25,000 jobs in this region over the next five years.

But at a strategic level the further education and training strategy still has major deficiencies and structural weaknesses.

Solas was established to deliver a five-year strategy for FET. It operates under the aegis of the Department of Education and Skills and in conjunction with the newly established 16 education and training boards (ETBs), and is responsible for the integration, coordination and funding of FET programmes.

The current five-year plan is to provide an integrated system of FET in Ireland, responsive to the needs of learners and the requirements of a changing economy.

Integrated FET sector

Although at an organisational level the 16 ETBs are now in place, replacing all VECs, and the former Fás training centres have been transferred, along with their staff, into the management of their local ET – to enable development of an integrated FET sector – in reality almost nothing has substantially changed.

Structures have been put in place to bring all course providers around one table to plan such an integrated strategy, but to little practical effect, as every person present has as their first priority the protection of the jobs of their existing staff members.

A senior ETB manager described attending these planning meetings as being like what would happen if all county hurling managers were brought together, under the chairmanship of Brian Cody, to plan a coordinated and integrated approach to improving all players' skills for the coming year.

The staffing allocations for every post Leaving Cert (PLC) course in the country is determined by the number of students who have signed up for their courses by September 30th of the previous year.

The existing staff in the former Fás training centres are keen to protect their employment positions, and according to further education college sources, the referral process from advisory staff in the Department of Social Protection offices directly to the former Fás training centres, seems to be continuing unchanged, bypassing any coordination or integration of services within the ETB.

Given how teacher and trainer job numbers and allocations are determined, it’s not surprising there is still little effective strategic planning in the delivery of FET programmes in ETBs across the country. Therefore, each college continues to plan its courses solely on the basis of attracting the maximum number of students onto its own campus by the cut-off of 30th September each year.

Success of Springboard

Ironically, the success of programmes such as Springboard, Momentum and JobBridge has exacerbated the problem for PLC providers, by attracting many potential students away from their programmes. PLC colleges have to charge a € 200 fee to students without medical cards, which makes it difficult for them to compete with other providers, which offer free courses and sometimes payment while on training programmes.

Even as PLC colleges seek to fill their course places this month, the institutes of technology (ITs) and many private colleges operating within the CAO are still offering college places through the “Available Places” section on the CAO website. Many prospective students are tempted by a CAO place rather than study in a PLC college, which may in fact offer as its ultimate prize a reserved place on just such a CAO programme in a year or two.

A crisis can arise for a PLC college when its student numbers start to drop and it is therefore over its quota of teaching staff. This blocks the college recruiting additional teachers to respond to labour market needs by developing new programmes which would boost their student numbers. It becomes a vicious circle.

Job security

So although unemployment numbers have dropped over the past four years, the attempt by Solas to develop an integrated and coordinated further education strategy – delivered throughout the country by an ETB structure bringing together the PLC and Fás course providers – is failing to make meaningful progress, because the job security of teachers and trainers is dependent on their college attracting sufficient students.

An integrated local and national strategy to meet Ireland's further education and training needs will be possible only when the Government can take the fear of job loss out of the equation, for teachers in PLC colleges and trainers in training centres. Resolving this dilemma may require both a redeployment and redundancy programme for some existing staff, alongside upskilling and retraining for others. Any such proposals, hinted at by the former Minister for Education and Skills Ruairí Quinn in an address to the TUI congress in 2014, would raise industrial relations issues in the Teachers Union of Ireland and with unions in the training centres.

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