Many businesses throughout the country have been affected by the major downturn which is gripping the world's economy. The increasing number of people who have become unemployed represents a major challenge that we must address. Certain sectors of the economy, in particular the construction and manufacturing sectors, have seen a downturn in activity with subsequent corresponding significant increases in unemployment.
Rising unemployment levels coupled with the downturn in the Irish economy represent the most demanding challenge which Ireland has faced in almost 20 years. That employment in manufacturing should be declining in an economy such as ours is no surprise. Manufacturing follows cheap labour, wherever it goes. In short, the answer to the loss of labour intensive manufacturing is retraining and education. FÁS, the VECs and other educational establishments provide a wide range of courses for people who need to be re-trained or who need new or better qualifications to return to the workforce. However, it is increasingly important to do more than provide training and education for those who have lost their jobs.
The need to constantly up-skill and educate those in employment at every level from the shop floor to the highest levels of management is also crucial and one of the best insurances against future unemployment. This is why our education and training establishments need to become even more flexible with regard to the availability, organisation and structure of courses, particularly for mature students and those in employment.
We can all recall something of a minor furore when the then Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Noel Dempsey, introduced a new primary teaching course for graduates run by Hibernia College. The degree involved a mixture of tutorials, coursework, teaching practice and on-line study. This course is now very much accepted and Hibernia's founder, Seán Rowland, recently received an award for entrepreneurship.
Distance learning should no longer be considered the poor cousin of traditional on-campus learning. Flexibility is a major advantage of such courses, as students can study when it suits. Moreover, the courses also allow more flexibility when it comes to completion. Since the Open University pioneered distance learning in the 1960s, the concept has evolved to meet the demands of modern living and to match the expectations of professionals who are keen to further their education, but because of time, location and personal commitments, are unable to do so in the traditional setting of a university.
Many of lreland's universities now offer distance learning programmes and have responded to the growing need for courses aimed at professionals who seek to attain a masters or other postgraduate qualifications. At the Institute of Technology Tralee, masters programmes are offered on a part-time basis over two calendar years with module workshops, residential and bimonthly facilitated action-learning group meetings.
This year, the UCD Michael Smurfit School of Business launched its first postgraduate distance learning programme, a masters degree in management. It offers a range of business-related subjects including marketing, management, law and human resource management. The decision to offer this course in a flexible manner has resulted in a course intake some three times greater than before, despite the fact that it was never advertised.
In addition to distance learning programmes, other more flexible programmes have also appeared on the Irish market from such establishments as Dublin City University, the Open University and the Irish Management Institute. The need for greater choice and flexibility can be accommodated by courses which allow candidates to learn at their own pace. The concept of a credit bank, whereby students can work towards qualifications such as diplomas and from there to masters degrees offers many advantages including motivation.
The development of student support structures aimed at assisting students to complete their studies could include a personal tutor, a person available to discuss course matters by telephone, e-mail or through a drop-in service. Entry requirements tend to be more flexible and to acknowledge to a greater extent workplace experience. At Dublin City University, for example, there are five entry routes to its distance learning programme, including evidence of substantial relevant work experience. Flexible learning offers greater advantages for employers and hopefully we can look forward to an expanding range of courses including courses with a strong workplace focus and tailor-made or bespoke diploma courses for companies. Employers often prefer the distance learning option, as it offers some reassurance that staff can engage with the learning process in a flexible way and it can reduce the likelihood of constraints on the ability of staff to complete work.
We must maintain the competitive edge provided by the skills of our workforce. Responsive and flexible training programmes are providing both individuals and businesses with the necessary skills to succeed in the ever-changing global economy. Such colleges as the Institute of Technology Tralee along with the universities, vocational education committees and FÁS——