I propose to take Questions Nos. 63 and 98 together.
The figures mentioned in the questions appear in the report of a European Union labour force survey. Of the 27 countries surveyed, the other countries mentioned were among the five with the highest percentages of the population between the ages of 25 and 64 participating in education and training. The EU average was 9.9%.
For the purposes of the survey, education and training included initial education, further education, continuing or further training, training within the company, apprenticeship, on-the-job training, seminars, distance learning and evening classes. It included also courses followed for general interest and may cover all forms of education and training, such as language, data processing, management, art-culture, and health-medicine courses.
In the interests of both personal development and the national economy, I am anxious to increase participation rates in higher and further education, with a particular focus on disadvantaged people.
In the area of further and adult education the principal objectives of the measures and programmes funded by my Department are: to meet the needs of young early school-leavers; to provide second chance education for adults; and to provide vocational education and training for labour market entrants and re-entrants.
These objectives are pursued through such full-time programmes as Youthreach, the vocational training opportunities scheme, post leaving certificate courses, senior Traveller training, the part-time Back to Education initiative and the adult literacy and community education scheme. These courses are free and many of the participants are entitled to allowances and maintenance grants. Support in the form of guidance and child care is provided to participants in some further education programmes. For example, 35 local guidance services, which are available almost nationwide, seek to ensure that adults are aware of what is on offer for them.
A national database called Qualifax provides a range of data on each course of some 12,000 educational courses, including a description of the course, the qualification entailed, entry requirements, the institution in which it is offered, and relevant fees, grants and entitlements and application procedure. The database, which is relevant to adult learners, is continually being updated by the Institute of Guidance Counsellors, with funding from my Department.
The number of adults availing of education in further and higher education is increasing, for example, adult literacy client numbers have increased from 5,000 in 1997 to almost 34,000 per year in 2005. In 1995, 69% of students in the vocational training opportunities scheme were aged 25 or over. The figure is now 83%. In post-leaving certificate courses, the percentage of students in this category increased from 16.86% in 1996-97 to 30.18% in 2004-05. In 1993, just under 5% of students at third level were aged 25 or over. The corresponding figure in 2003 was 14%.
The launch of the national framework of qualifications in 2003 allows learners access to the point on the ten level scale that best responds to their needs. Progress to higher points is also facilitated. Hence, adult learners can start in a literacy class and progress through FETAC levels four and five to PLCs and on to higher education.
At third level, students are encouraged and supported in making the choice to participate in higher education by improvements in the student maintenance grant schemes, as well as the additional funding allocated through third level access fund. These measures include the awarding since 2000 of a higher or top-up level of grant to students from families on low incomes. There are also the student assistance fund, which is allocated to students in need through their higher education institution, and the millennium partnership fund, which supports the needs of students identified through area partnership and community groups.
A key area for progress identified in an action plan that was published last December by the Higher Education Authority is the development of a framework of access policies and initiatives ensuring that all disadvantaged schools, including primary and post-primary schools, areas and communities are linked to the access programmes and routes of entry of at least one higher education institution in their region. The national office for equity of access to higher education is in the process of developing this framework, a key element of which will be advocating and supporting continued and closer collaboration between a wide range of stakeholders nationally, including the higher education and community sectors.
Higher education institutions will be invited, under the recently announced strategic innovation fund, to submit proposals which are designed to promote access and progression, with the objective of underpinning the principle of life-long learning in higher education. A key part of the implementation of the strategic innovation fund, as well as the action plan for access, will be monitoring by higher education institutions and the HEA of targets and indicators of success and how measures are contributing to increased access and participation by under-represented groups, including adult learners.
The level of adult participation is rising but, as my response indicates, I am not being complacent on the matter and am, and will continue to be, proactive in ensuring that access, transfer and progress for adults in education, whether further or higher education, is a priority.