Secretary General Jim Breslin participates in panel at the FET Colleges Ireland’s (FETCI) third national symposium on ‘FET College of the Future – Key Issues for Implementation’
From Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science
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Thank you Carol.
It’s a great pleasure to be able to join you today. I would like to thank Dr Rory O’Sullivan and Michael Cregan for inviting me to participate in today’s panel.
In a previous life in the Department of Children and Youth Affairs I had some experience of working with the National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals. I found the Association to be hugely progressive, grounded in educational practice and always ready to bring that informed perspective to policy.
In the run up to today’s event I was delighted to go through the Discussion Document on the Vision for the FET College which Rory shared with me. Again the document is positive and constructive in its outlook, while adding great richness to the major task of implementing the FET Strategy. It is a very considered and serious piece of work and I want to thank FET Colleges Ireland for all the work that has gone into it.
I am not going to try to tell those on this seminar – with all the expertise and experience you have – what’s involved in providing further education. I am here to listen and learn for that part of the discussion.
But I thought it might be useful for me to touch on some key drivers that I think provide a unique opportunity to progress both the FET Strategy and the Vision for the FET College set out in the Discussion Document.
The first, I believe, is the quality of the FET Strategy launched in July last year. When I was given the document and briefed by Andrew I was singularly impressed with the strategy, its ambition and the care taken to address the key elements required to be successful.
I joined the new Department in July and I was really excited to find this work complete and ready for launch. At the time I believed that the new Department has a great opportunity to add impetus and weight to the change that will be required to implement the FET Strategy. In the interim I hope you will have seen the prominence given by the Minister and the Department to FET’s role within the Tertiary Education sector.
Our recently published Strategy Statement commits to:
- improving the transition to further and higher education for school leavers and the transition between further and higher education
- next month we will conclude a new 10-year strategy to improve literacy, numeracy and digital skills, which a number of the panellists have been instrumental in developing
- later today Government will consider the approval of the new Apprenticeship Action Plan which will commit to increasing apprenticeships to 10,000 every year
- growing apprenticeships will from part of a much wider reform of skills training and investment in upskilling and reskilling opportunities, particularly in areas of economic growth including green and digital skills
Even strategic priorities, which at first seem separate to the development of FET, will be considered as opportunities to contribute to the implementation of the FET strategy. So for example, in the coming months the EU review of Higher Education funding will conclude and be submitted to Government for decision. Comparison with European peers would say – whereas we have very high levels of participation in higher education – there is a need to consider the balance between the FET and HE systems, and to further develop pathways between further education and higher education. Acceleration of such reforms will be a key part of commitment by the Exchequer of increased funding for higher education.
Of course it is also important to recognise the policy contribution the Department of Education has made in recent years to enhancing the focus on FET, as is recognised in the Discussion Document. Sponsorship of the first FET Strategy, the first Action Plan on Apprenticeship and inclusion in the NDP of the first dedicated capital programme for FET of €300m all took place under the Department of Education.
The new Department is determined to build upon this commitment and these achievements. We are perhaps better positioned to address the recommendation in the Discussion Document to see the new FET College of the Future as separate from the post-primary sector while appreciating the complexity of this change and the vital importance of working with our colleagues in the Department of Education on the transition for learners.
Lest you think I am not seized of the implementation challenges for the FET College of the Future it is important to acknowledge that the set-up of the Department and the implementation of the second FET Strategy are taking place in the teeth of a global pandemic. Approaching 20% of the labour force are out of work, when those unemployed are combined with those in receipt of PUP.
Of course some sectors – such as ICT and pharma – have continued to power ahead but others such as retail and hospitality have been hit incredibly badly and will remain so for some time. The make-up of those working in such sectors means that the young, the low skilled and part-time workers are most affected and most at continuing risk.
Unfortunately these are patterns we have seen for some time. High skill jobs rebounded quickly after the last recession and expanded significantly. Medium skill jobs held their own or expanded modestly. But the number of low skill jobs has actually fallen while the economy steamed ahead over recent years. COVID has and will accelerate these trends. Digitisation and use of online channels, automation and artificial intelligence is going to displace many low skilled jobs.
As well as preparing school leavers for this changed world of work, FET will have a crucial role in upskilling and reskilling displaced workers if they are not to be left behind. The opportunity and responsibility is there for FET to support people with much needed skills. For example:
- digital skills needed to operate in all sectors,
- health and social care skills needed to care for an ageing population using new care models
- green skills needed to transition to low carbon, and so on
It is particularly important that we instil environmental awareness and green skills for all of our FET learners and this will involve applying the principles of sustainable development across all FET operations.
All of this will require a very significant upgrade of the facilities and ICT available to FET Colleges. This will involve leveraging the existing estate more effectively, getting maximum return from the €300m set aside in the NDP and, as part of this year’s NDP review, further increasing that investment. It will also require us to continue to work with Solas and the ETBs on our capacity in areas such as capital investment, estates management and ICT.
In the context of the pandemic I want to recognise that the FET sector has demonstrated enormous agility and responsiveness in the adoption of new methods to support remote and blended teaching and learning. There is much which we can apply in the future as part of more Technology Enhanced Learning. Of course there is lots of education which is not conducive to online delivery, such as practical elements or extra support for learners, and with the removal of public health restrictions we all want to see FET Colleges operate again as hubs of community engagement.
As recognised in the Discussion Document, in order to develop a highly skilled workforce, highly skilled educators are required. Central to the development of a robust staffing network will be the recognition of continuous professional development to embrace the evolving technological advancement and digital transformations within FET.
Finally the need to address the barrier of programme based rigidity regarding the delivery of FET resources and operational regulations is called out in the FET Strategy and the Discussion Document. The FET College of the Future will use an Integrated Funding Model which will maximise FET funding and guidelines across the whole FET sector to replace the previous programme specific focus. The funding model will be reformed to move away from approaches that reinforce programme silos and to allow the use resources flexibly to support outcomes and facilitate much simpler pathways for learners.
Finally, as identified in the Discussion Document, this complexity is not just an issue for those of us working within the system it is very disconcerting for those seeking to plan their own development. In the space of a month from the launch of the Right Course website there were 1.6m views. Over 600,000 of these took place in the first 3 days after the launch earlier this year. There is a great appetite there. We need to continue to enhance the profile of the opportunities provided by FET and provide direct support to prospective learners and those already enrolled to take the right course for them.
Thank you Chair.