Good afternoon to you all. And thank you for the invitation to address your annual conference. I am particularly conscious that this is the first opportunity I have had to speak with you at Congress and it is the first time that there has been a Cabinet Minister for a new Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science.
I genuinely believe the establishment of this Department provides us with a massive opportunity to apply a focus like never before to further and higher education and to the research agenda.
I come here today determined, willing and wanting to work with you to make sure we do not squander this opportunity. My Department has a lengthy title but in short, its purpose is simple: make sure everyone in Ireland can reach their full potential – no matter who they are, where they come from, what gender they are or what their parents did for a living.
I am not interested in passing time in this Department. I want to use this time to make a difference. I see it as an opportunity for us to work together to transform our country and to take hackneyed phrases about creating a truly inclusive society and make it a reality.
So today I extend a virtual hand of partnership to the members of the TUI across the country. You are a respected, constructive, robust trade union but you are more than that – you are educational advocates.
In my 9 months in this role, I have heard first hand from TUI members across the country and I have heard from students and learners as I have been making virtual visits to colleges, adult education centres, Youthreach and ETBS.
And today I wanted to be here to say thank you. Thank you for your flexibility, dedication and agility during the COVID-19 pandemic. Thank you for literally putting emergency measures in place over a matter of days to keep the show on the road. Thank you for adapting and learning new ways of working to make sure learners didn’t lose out. Thank you for working with my Department and I to highlight things we needed to put in place like a free laptop scheme or extra funding for mental health services. And most importantly of all, thank you for putting the learner – the student – at the fore of all our engagement and I mean this sincerely.
I want to also acknowledge and thank your Deputy General Secretary, Annette Dolan for continuing to serve on our COVID-19 Steering Committee which generally meets weekly. This is an important forum which brings together management, staff representatives, student and learner representatives and myself to consider the COVID-19 challenges and it crucially is a solution focused meeting.
Since my appointment to this role, I have met with the leadership of the TUI on a number of occasions and I always leave every meeting struck by a sense of common purpose. That doesn’t mean we agree on every single thing and nor should we. But I genuinely believe there is so much overlap in our priorities. At the end of the day, it is the job of my Department to promote and advocate for further and higher education, to secure increased investment, to develop policies that ensure access for all and inclusion, to tackle inequality and to make sure education can be empowered and supported to be that great leveler we all proudly know it is.
And we know to achieve all this, we have a mountain of work to do. Today I just want to touch on some elements of that work and hope that when we gather, fingers crossed in person, at your next Congress that we can report progress on these items.
The days of adult education being overlooked are over. I am here to provide a focus, an energy and a priority in Government and in policy making that is urgently needed, long overdue and essential to our future wellbeing as a country.
Further and Higher Education Funding
So let’s start with funding. You can have all the lofty ambitions and plans you want but to make them a reality we need to properly fund third level education.
Being honest, I feel this is an issue which has been ducked and dodged for far too long.
We have made some progress in recent years and investment levels have increased but it is not where it needs to be.
This new dedicated Department will seek to rectify that. We expect the final report on the future funding of the sector in the next few months and I want you to know two things: I don’t intend to be dusting it or seeking a shelf to stick it on. I intend to act on it with government colleagues and to engage with our stakeholders.
I hope since my appointment, you have seen some encouraging signs in terms of the benefit of a dedicated Cabinet Department and Minister in terms of getting things done. We have had some funding success already – including the €168 million COVID-19 support package which provided funding to help our sector adapt and respond to the pandemic.
We have also seen for the first time ever a dedicated fund to tackle educational disadvantage in the community and I must say I am so encouraged to hear the feedback from the projects being funded. It is a real proof of concept that targeted investments can make a massive difference in the delivery of adult education in the community and can, quite frankly, be transformational in terms of impact. I want to embed this dedicated funding to address educational disadvantage in our funding model.
And of course other measures like the student support payment, the doubling of the Student Assistance Fund and the laptop funding and extra mental health funding I have referred to have made a real difference and we must now build on them.
These cannot become simply temporary pandemic responses but rather ongoing supports we seek to build further on in the months and years ahead.
Return to onsite learning
I have already acknowledged with sincere thanks the work you have all undertaken and continue to undertake in the most challenging circumstances of a global pandemic.
This has caused significant stress and a huge workload. You know how education is about much more than pure lectures or classes. It is about interactions, face to face discussions, brainstorming an idea over a cup of coffee. It’s about development of the person – all of the person.
And all of this has been made so, so difficult when college life has been reduced to a student looking down a zoom camera in a box room in a parent’s house or at the corner of a kitchen table.
So we need to all work together over the coming weeks to chart a way forward. A way that safely seeks much more on site attendance in the next academic year. A way that never risks the health of staff or students but recognises that from a mental health and wellbeing point of view, a shared desire to move to a much better place.
Alongside all the public health work underway, I want to see a number of rapid testing pilots across our sector as another tool in our effort and I am working intensively with Science Foundation Ireland and others to develop a pilot programme and will provide more details of that very soon.
Single system – the vision
Some people believe in incremental change. They believe if you do a little bit this year and another little bit in a few years eventually things will improve. I don’t accept that.
We need a fully integrated third level sector in Ireland. People have been pointing this out for decades but it remains undone. This means we have yet to reach our full potential.
It has allowed a points race get out of control and place appalling levels of pressure and stress on young people in our country.
It has allowed an almost elitist mindset emerge which defines success in some people’s mind on where you went to college rather on what you want to do in life and how best to get to that point.
It has failed to recognise the brilliance of further education and training and how this should not just been a fall back option for students but for many should and can be a first choice.
It has allowed skills shortages in key areas to develop.
It has ignored the worrying dropout rates from higher education.
So things must change. They must change quickly.
We need that one integrated third level system that shows people all of their options and not just some.
A system that properly supports teachers and guidance counsellors.
A system that makes it much easier to move from further education to higher education and that has single transferrable credits.
A system that values the apprenticeship model and understands all of the potential it can offer across such a wide range of careers and professions.
This body of work is a huge priority for me. If we get it right we will, together, transform third level education in Ireland and open up so many more opportunities for students – be they a school leaver or someone returning to education later in life.
I really want to work with you on this and will keep the TUI updated on my plans and will seek to engage in a meaningful way and will look to listen and benefit from your experience across the full spectrum of activity in our sector.
But let’s get it done. It has to happen.
Specifically, on apprenticeships, later this month I will publish a new Action Plan on Apprenticeships. The plan will commit to 10,000 new apprentices every year by 2025 and will significantly expand the number of apprenticeships across the public sector. I see huge potential in this area.
We have made significant inroads in recent years but we have so much more to do.
Our plan will seek to continue to expand apprenticeships across a wider range of industries alongside supporting and growing the traditional craft apprenticeships.
We will take specific actions to ensure more female participation in apprenticeships, more apprenticeships in the regions and crucially, more apprenticeships in the public service.
Any changes to the delivery of apprenticeship programmes within the Action Plan will be planned with stakeholders, including unions, and will be cognisant of the significant investment and strong tradition of delivery of craft apprenticeship programmes in the ETB Training Centres and the IOTs/TUs.
I am conscious of the impact of the pandemic on the delivery of apprenticeship programmes and in an effort to assist I announced an investment of an addition €20 million in capital expenditure on the 26th March to expand craft apprenticeship provision and help address the backlog in electrical, plumbing and carpentry craft apprenticeships and this is in addition to the €12m announced in the last budget to support additional COVID-19 related expenditure.
I know many members here are currently engaging on the issue of Technological Universities in their own areas.
The Technological University agenda will transform the delivery of higher education in Ireland. To be honest, it has the potential to do even more than that. If we get this right, it will contribute significantly to stronger regions in our country and more balanced regional development.
But let me clear, the creation of Technological Universities is not just about a name change for institutes of technology. It’s not about a new letterhead or a new sign outside a campus. It’s about scale. It’s about wanting to expand the footprint of higher education in the regions. And yes, it is about investment and expansion.
I look forward to engaging with the TUI on how funding models can be improved to recognise the unique situations faced by Technological Universities and I commit to a programme of investment in new Technological Universities including expansion of campuses in Waterford, Carlow and Wexford.
I am really pleased to confirm today the HEA has sent me a report regarding Athlone IT and Limerick IT and I will consider this in the coming days.
I particularly want to thank the Institutes, their staff, students and management who have worked so hard to make this strategic programme of reform a reality. The drive shown will ensure that each TU will take its place proudly in our higher education landscape.
While two Institutes, Dundalk IOT and IADT in Dun Laoghaire, are not currently aligned with TU development consortia, both institutions are working with the HEA in exploring trajectories for TU designation- and have received funding to do so.
DKIT have indicated a clear intent to grasp the opportunity presented by the TU Act to further advance its contribution to the economic and social development of the North East region. Tomorrow, I will meet with public representatives from the area to help support DKIT’s ambitions.
Transformation Funding for TUs
By 2023 the Government will have allocated some €120m towards the development and progression of a series of TUs since 2013. This includes the TU Transformation Fund, and there is also a substantive capital programme underway which will develop modern state of the art facilities for our new TUs.
I recognise the need for this change- in organisational structures, academic career paths, and academic contracts.
Supported by the HEA and my Department, the OECD is commencing work on these issues this week, building on the review of lecturing in IoTs/TUs completed by Professor Tom Collins. I am committed to ensuring models best fitted to advancing the emerging TU sector are both identified and implemented.
The new pay agreement will continue to support the delivery of the Government’s key national level reform plans, including those in the Further and Higher Education sector.
My Department will continue to work collaboratively with the social partners to drive the tertiary agenda and ensure the provision of further and higher education open to all.
Engagement and Industrial Relations
In my engagements with the TUI leadership, we have discussed the importance of industrial relations engagements which are effective and in which everyone can have confidence.
I just want to acknowledge at your Congress that this point has been made to me and as we continue to form the new Department, I am determined we get this right.
I could not finish an address to your Congress without paying particular tribute to all of you who work in Youthreach. I am aware we have issues to work through and that must advance quickly. But today, I just wanted you to know that some of the most incredible meetings I have had in recent months have been with staff and students in Youthreach. This is an initiative I want to champion as Minister. It has turned the lives of so many people around. It has rebuilt people after a difficult experience. It has supported people going through challenges. It has provided education, opportunity, respect and hope to so many people and their families and their communities. It is an example of Ireland at its best. We must build on it. We must cherish it.
And we must do more.
We live in a country where despite our success and relative prosperity, 1 in 8 adults cannot read or write. 1 in 5 struggle with numbers and nearly 1 in 2 lack basic digital skills. This does not get discussed enough. Perhaps it doesn’t fit in with the narrative we like to portray.
Well I intend to shout from the rooftops about it. We cannot leave people behind. COVID-19 has shone a very bright light on inequality and we must respond.
Next month, I will publish Ireland’s new Adult Literacy, Numeracy and Digital Skills Strategy. I will work with you to address issues your members face to make sure we can move heaven and earth to tackle these issues. I acknowledge all you do in this area and I want to work with you to support you to address this.
I am aware I have only had the opportunity to speak briefly about some of the issues which are of concern to your members. Before I conclude, I would like to say I firmly believe that this sector can be a driving force for change in this country.
Progressive reforms to further and higher education, and the apprenticeship regime, will help to create opportunities for everyone, regardless of age, gender or geographical location.
The work of this new Department – and I am proud to be its first Minister – is the building block of everything we want to see for the future economic and social life of the country when we have emerged from the pandemic. Your work and that of your students and learners means there is hope for the future.
I look forward to continuing this constructive relationship with TUI members and other stakeholders going forward. I thank you once again for your kind invite to address your members and hope you enjoy the rest of your Congress.