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Dáil Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 16 Nov 2016

Vol. 929 No. 1

Priority Questions

Third Level Funding

Thomas Byrne


22. Deputy Thomas Byrne asked the Minister for Education and Skills his plans to deal with the funding and quality issues in the universities and institutes of technology; and his further plans to develop a strategy document for the third level sector. [35410/16]

The issue is one of considerable importance. It relates not only to the funding and quality issues in our universities but to the lack of a plan from Government for third level, which is of deep concern to many within the sector. It is of deep concern to my party because we believe, with all the challenges the nation is facing, if we have a properly funded, properly developed and high-quality third level education system, we can achieve great things.

I agree with Deputy Byrne. This is a major priority for me. The national strategy for higher education to 2030, which dates back to the Hunt report, sets out a very ambitious agenda that aims to improve significantly the performance of Ireland's higher education system with regard to quality, breadth of participation, attainment levels and the establishment of a sustainable and equitable funding model. The expert group on funding for higher education, under the chairmanship of Peter Cassells, was established to develop a strategy for funding the third level sector. The report was published in July and is now with the Joint Committee on Education and Skills. I look forward to working with the committee to work out a viable, long-term funding model that we can all support.

While Cassells deals with the medium and long-term funding needs, we also have to consider the immediate challenges. In that context I am pleased that we placed a particular focus on this area in budget 2017 and I secured additional funding for the sector for the first time in about eight years. Higher education is a particular focus.  It attracted €36 million in 2017. It significantly achieved a change in that the demographic increase has been built into the Estimates for the coming year. An additional €160 million over the next three years has already been committed to. This will allow the sector to keep pace with demographic increases. It also has very targeted initiatives in areas such as disadvantage, skills, research and flexible learning. Among those who will benefit from the additional third level funding being made available are students from disadvantaged backgrounds, lone parents and Travellers.

In budget 2017, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform and I announced a policy review with the aim of designing and implementing a sustainable and predictable multi-annual funding model for higher and further education and training involving increased employer and Exchequer contributions from 2018. This review will be undertaken as part of the overall response to meeting the anticipated skills needs in the economy over the coming years in line with the national skills strategy. The review will include an analysis of the case for enhanced investment in higher and further education.  In this context, it will identify key elements of the new funding model and the expected impacts, including those on employers. The review will include consultation with stakeholders. It will be published by the end of April 2017 and will complement the ongoing work by the Oireachtas committee on the Cassells report. 

The sector has proved itself to be flexible and dynamic over the recent period and has continued to offer high-quality programmes and to undertake world-class research. Surveys of both students and employers have confirmed high levels of satisfaction with the system. Inevitably, concerns are being expressed about the capacity of the higher education system to sustain quality as demographic and funding pressures grow. That is why we are undertaking this work.

I thank the Minister. The truth is that it is nothing short of remarkable that, aside from the Cassells report in recent times, there is very little there from the Minister's Department in terms of third level. The Minister mentioned the Hunt report and the strategy subsequent to it in 2013. The truth is we are in a completely different space. Our institutes of technology are on the record now as never having been under so much pressure. They are in severe crisis mode. Our universities are dropping down the rankings, which have great importance.

The Action Plan for Education that the Minister published for his Department has little or nothing about third level education in it. It is a shocking gap. The Minister has put out a consultation for a new plan for 2017. He Minister should rewrite the existing plan to account for the shocking gap that somehow happened when this report was published. In the entirety of the action plan, there are two lines devoted to both the crisis in higher level funding and the Cassells report. The Cassells report is not simply about the choices. The choices are listed there. We are debating them in the Joint Committee on Education and Skills and I look forward to the Minister's view when his party comes to a decision. My party is having similar discussions at the moment. The truth is there is a lot more in the Cassells report. There is the immediate funding gap. What was said to us about the Cassells report only last week at the committee was that part of the issue with rankings is that the Government needs to be seen to be behind the third level sector. It seems to be the case that the perception is the Government is not supporting the third level sector. What can the Minister do to counteract that?

I roundly reject what the Deputy is saying. The action plan is peppered with actions for higher and further education such as improving the quality of learning and teaching and investing in the sector. We delivered that in the budget. We have looked at the whole area of rolling out the Grangegorman project. We have looked at it right through every area we have identified: quality of teaching, investment in resources and improvement right across the system. We have a systems performance process in respect of higher and further education, which will be published shortly. It will review the last period and look to the future.

I agree with the Deputy that our ambitions as a country are tied up with our investment in higher and further education. That is why we have committed that by April we will have an investment plan that looks to both employers and the State to roll it out in the medium term. We share responsibilities as part of the Oireachtas for getting a long-term funding model. We face a situation where there will be a projected 30% increase in higher education enrolment. We have committed to rolling out apprenticeships, which are a very important complement to our higher education focus. It is one of the strengths of our institutes of technology that they combine traditional apprenticeships with other more applied research and higher level skills. We want to protect that in the technological university project that is under way. I reject the idea that this is not central to what we are doing. It is central to it. We will be acting urgently in this area.

The Minister mentioned that Grangegorman is in the action plan. It is there but there is very little else about capital spending in the third level sector. It is hardly mentioned at all. There is no mention of the core expenditure per student being down by so much in the action plan. What proves the point I make is that when it came to the budget and proper, significant political pressure from this side of the House on third level funding, all of a sudden there was a plan for third level funding in the budget. It is a deficient plan. We say there is not enough money but the plan is there and we want to see the details of it. I am not entirely satisfied with how the Minister has proposed to allocate the funding for the third level sector. It is something I intend to write to him about. We had understood that, apart from the postgraduate funding, the majority of that money would be going into the Higher Education Authority's system for allocating funding, and we think that should happen.

We must get to grips with the reality. The Minister has referred to flexibility. What he means is that classes have become significantly larger and teaching staff numbers have reduced significantly. That is the nature of the flexibility, but that is not good for students or the country.

I ask the Deputy to consider what we are doing. We are seeking to act across the entire perspective, including upskilling not only those going in to college, but those who need further education and life-long learners as well. We are investing in apprenticeships and improving the quality of methodology of learning within our higher and further education sectors. We are improving access for pupils who come to the sector with a disadvantage. We are increasing the investment in research in order that we use our education sector to trigger all of the improvements we can make throughout our community.

We are making this an important priority but we need to look afresh at the funding models. I do not agree that the funding model which has been in place forever should be left unaltered. We need to examine it to see whether it is fit for purpose. That is what we are doing as part of the review. The review will be available in April and it will inform our investment strategy for 2018 and 2019. We are committed to this area. The Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform has been clear, and the Minister and I are committed to investment in this sector.

Institutes of Technology

Carol Nolan


23. Deputy Carol Nolan asked the Minister for Education and Skills to outline the steps he will take to address the funding shortfall in the institutes of technology in view of the recent report from the Higher Education Authority. [35238/16]

Will the Minister outline the steps currently being taken by the Department in respect of the institutes of technology, which are currently subject to a funding crisis? Will the Minister set out the detail, including timeframes? This is an urgent issue and we need concrete timeframes. Six of the institutes are in serious difficulty as we speak.

I thank the Deputy for her question. This arises from the recent publication by the Higher Education Authority of an investigation of the funding of the institutes of technology. The purpose of the review was to provide an overview of the financial health of the sector, to consider capacity issues and to examine the challenges for the institutions given their respective plans for the future.

It examined the impact of the decline in the State grant, which we have known about, in the years since 2008 and examined projections as well. In looking at the projections, the authority assumed a static framework for State funding. It has made a number of policy recommendations which will feed into the work on developing a sustainable funding model for the sector, something I have discussed with Deputy Byrne.

The assumption of a static funding model is something with which we are not intending to proceed. As I indicated to Deputy Byrne, we have already invested €36 million this year. We have made a commitment in the coming two years to meet the demographic rise and, furthermore, we have committed in the budget to sitting down and, by April of next year, having in place a coherent investment plan for the institute of technology sector and the university sector against a background of the need to meet the challenges that face employers in terms of skills and other challenges facing the State.

The HEA has a policy framework in place for engaging with vulnerable institutes of technology. This requires institutes to submit a three-year plan to return them to a balanced-budget situation. If the institute is unable to demonstrate how a return to a balanced budget can be achieved within this timeframe or if actual performance deviates significantly from the plan, then the HEA will seek the appointment of an independent financial expert to work with the governing body and executive management team to agree a revised plan and programme for remedial action.

My Department and the HEA are aware of the financial difficulties being experienced by a number of institutes. The financial review of the institutes undertaken recently was based on the assumption of static funding. The report recognises the need to examine the underlying sustainability issues that have existed across the sector and it highlights the need for a review of how funding is being allocated. This goes back to the point I was discussing with Deputy Byrne. The funding model in place now is unsatisfactory and it needs to be examined. The report makes a number of recommendations on how some of the issues which contribute to funding problems in the sector can be addressed.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

The report clearly identified the need for a review of the current funding model and I have asked that this be completed as a matter of urgency. Among the other recommendations is the need for a sectoral voluntary redundancy package and I understand this is being developed for submission to the HEA, which is working closely with my Department to address all the recommendations.

Funding overall for the higher education sector is a key concern for me, particularly in light of the additional pressure that will fall on the system over the next decade or so. In seeking to address the issue in the short term, I have for the first time in nine years secured as part of budget 2017 additional funding for the sector. In 2017, additional funding of €36.5 million will be made available with €160 million additional over the next three years.

The report of the expert group on future funding for higher education, published in July, clearly outlines the funding challenges and offers a number of approaches and recommendations for consideration for the medium term. As committed to in the programme for Government, the report has been referred to the Joint Committee on Education and Skills and this consultation will form part of the process of formulating a plan for the future of the sector.

In budget 2017, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform and I announced a policy review with the aim of designing and implementing a sustainable and predictable multi-annual funding model for higher and further education and training, involving increased employer and Exchequer contributions from 2018. The review will be undertaken as part of the overall response to meeting the anticipated skills needs in the economy over the coming years, in line with the policy framework set out in the national skills strategy.

It will include an analysis of the business case for enhanced investment in the higher and further education and training sectors. In this context, it will identify key elements of the new funding model and of the expected impacts, including those on employers. The review will include consultation with stakeholders. The policy review will be published by the end of April 2017 and will complement the ongoing work by the Oireachtas committee in respect of the Cassells report.

I thank the Minister for his response. However, I believe there is a lack of urgency. This must be addressed quickly. We should not be discussing action plans or models coming into effect next year.

I appreciate that this is a serious issue. It has been brewing for some time. However, in the budget €40 million was allocated for the entire third level sector. That is only a fraction of what is needed. This concerns me greatly. I believe the action plan has been rather silent in respect of this issue. I reiterate that this is an urgent issue and it needs an urgent response.

I agree with Deputy Nolan but she should give us some credit. Following eight years of continuous decline in funding in this sector, we have made the first ever investment of this nature. Not only have we made an investment for this year with the €36 million, but we have indicated that we will meet the demographic pressures in the coming two years, something that has not happened under the funding model for the past eight years. Moreover, we have committed to sitting down and, in particular, looking at employers. The Cassells report considered employers as potential contributors to the investment we need in the sector. We need to work out a feasible investment plan that will offer sustainable growth in this sector.

I recognise the urgency. I know that the Joint Committee on Education and Skills is examining how we can develop a sustainable model. Models to address the problem are available. They will be part of a longer-term solution. However, we are also looking at the medium term and the immediate things we can do to ensure we put the sector in a stronger position. I welcome suggestions on how we can get better impact from the money in this area. That is important too because we are competing with health, housing and all the other demands. We have to ensure that our money leverages outcomes for people. That is what we are seeking to do in designing the instruments we are using.

I thank the Minister for his response. Again, however, I am struck by the absence of an urgent response to this issue and the lack of a clear timeframe to resolve it. I do not believe that kicking the issue into the committee is enough. Certainly, committee members will have views on the matter and we will all contribute, but I do not believe that is good enough. We need a response from the Minster. We need a clear timeframe from him as well. We also need a commitment to take urgent action.

Institutes of technology will be burdened with an impossible task of attempting to balance budgets that are simply unworkable. Ultimately, students will suffer. The report refers to the possibility of redundancies and further cost-cutting measures in the institute of technology sector. This is most concerning, especially since apprenticeship training has specifically received attention in the report. Such moves will have a serious impact if we fail to deal with it. This is coming at a time when the Government wishes to increase apprenticeship places. Can the Minister give a clear commitment that the current level of course provision will not be sacrificed to balance the books?

We have a timeframe. We will be publishing our apprenticeship plan within weeks. We will publish the investment plan in conjunction with the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform in April. We will have the capital review early next year. As part of the process we will be putting forward a strong case for more investment in higher and further education. That is coming up the track early next year.

The Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform has committed that in the 2018 budget we will continue the progress of investment in the third level sector. We have a clear framework up to the next budget and beyond. I do not accept that there is a lack of urgency. There is a deep problem. We do not have a sustainable funding model for our system of higher education. That has been recognised by everyone across the sector. However, we are putting in place the framework that can rebuild it.

Educational Disadvantage

Thomas Byrne


24. Deputy Thomas Byrne asked the Minister for Education and Skills if he will remove the cap on the expansion of the delivering equality of opportunity in schools programme, DEIS; if he will put in place the measures, suggested by the ERSI review of the programme, to taper funding and enhance supports for urban DEIS schools; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [35411/16]

I am putting an urgent question to the Minister which follows from what schools are asking us. It relates to whether the Minister is committed to removing the cap on the expansion of the DEIS scheme. It is a fantastic scheme which was established by the Fianna Fáil Government in 2006. However, the scheme has not expanded significantly since then.

Will the Minister put in place what has been recommended by the ESRI? Is there an issue with the tapering of funding? Will that happen? Will there be enhanced supports for urban DEIS schools? When are we going to expand the scheme? Many schools have been established since the programme first began to operate and they have not had the necessary benefit of the DEIS scheme.

I thank the Deputy for raising the question and I appreciate his interest. I am always willing to acknowledge any good idea, regardless of its parentage.

The ESRI report referred to by the Deputy is entitled "Learning from the Evaluation of DEIS". It was commissioned by the Department. The ESRI report provides an overview of the information on the impact of DEIS supports for schools including evaluations undertaken by the Educational Research Centre and my Department's inspectorate as well as other international research.

The report considers a number of important aspects relating to current practice in DEIS schools, including ability grouping of students, guidance counselling and the potential to taper supports to schools. The key challenges and policy implications identified by the ESRI report for future policy are being examined in the context of identifying measures under a new school support programme.

This report, together with wide-ranging consultation conducted with key stakeholders, academics and practitioners, will inform the final measures to be adopted in a new plan for educational inclusion which I hope to publish before the end of the year.

While the Deputy is right that no new schools have been included in the programme since 2009, the process to review the existing DEIS programme is now nearing completion.

A new assessment framework is being developed using centrally held CSO and Department of Education data for the identification of new schools for inclusion. The inclusion of new schools under the school support programme will be considered in this context, and it will not be necessary for schools to make an application.

As I have already announced, it is my intention to publish the plan before the end of the year.

The review looks at all aspects of DEIS, including the range and impact of elements of the school support programme, particularly the scope for increased integration of services provided by other Departments and agencies in order to improve effectiveness.

Among the measures to be included in the plan are a series of pilot schemes that aim to introduce measures which have been shown to work well to improve results for disadvantaged children and students. The plan is expected to include targeted measures in the areas of school leadership; school networks and clusters; teaching methodologies; integration of schools and other State supports within communities; and greater use of home-school community liaison services.

The Minister is right to acknowledge that since we established DEIS, a number of Governments have failed to expand it since 2009. That is a pity because between 2011 and 2013, I think 30 schools were established which have not even been given the opportunity to apply for DEIS status. Since the last identification of schools qualifying under DEIS criteria, communities have changed dramatically in some cases. Their socioeconomic profiles might have changed and they might be more deserving now than previously of the support - not even more deserving but rather more in need of it. The recent ESRI reports, as mentioned in the question and the Minister's reply, indicate that a significant proportion of disadvantaged students attend non-DEIS schools. This is a problem because the students involved do not get the extra supports and resources, which they require and which the State has found to be necessary, in a large proportion of those schools. I look forward to the publication of the Minister's plan but, more importantly, I look forward to more schools being accepted to the DEIS programme.

I take the point the Deputy makes. He will know that the process categorises different schools. There are 835 DEIS schools in total but it must be remembered that some of these are urban band 1 schools, which are particularly deprived. The insight relating to the DEIS scheme was to consider such schools, around which pockets of disadvantage could perpetuate themselves, and intervene in respect of them. The results have shown that DEIS schools are having an impact in improving standards in numeracy and literacy but they are not closing the gap with some of the other schools. Therefore, we are not just looking at extending the programme - although extending it to new schools is part of the plan, and the Deputy is right that some schools have not had the chance to apply - we are also trying to see whether we can do better within those schools and whether we can bring to bear initiatives that have been seen to work elsewhere. The pilot approach of seeking to get schools to clusters, perhaps with similar problems, is one I would like to see implemented. I can assure the Deputy that we will look in a scientific way at schools that did not get the chance to apply and include them in circumstances where need triggers that level of intervention.

When can schools not currently part of the DEIS programme become part of it? Does the Minister have a timeline for that?

Yes, it will be September of the 2017-2018 year. We have made some provision in the budget for this, envisaging new schools coming into the scheme. The methodology will not require, as was previously the case, the sending in of the percentage of parents with this or that feature or children with this or that feature. We will use CSO data we already possess in order that this can be done in a way that does not require the schools to gather such information. We hope it can be done pretty quickly and scientifically and that we will be able to start from September of next year.

State Examinations Reviews

Joan Burton


25. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Minister for Education and Skills if he will provide a progress report on junior certificate syllabus, subject and assessment reforms and his key priorities in this regard for 2017 and 2018; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [35239/16]

Where stands junior certificate reform? Does the resolution, up to a point, of the dispute with the ASTI mean that the issues relating to junior certificate reform have been resolved? Will the Minister give students an assurance that they will not end up penalised or losing marks because their schools or some of the teachers in the schools may not be participating fully in junior certificate reform?

The Deputy's question relates to a number of matters. I do not whether she will be interested in this, but I have information on the roll-out of the reform cycle. As she knows, it is designed to provide students with learning opportunities that strike a better balance between learning knowledge and developing a wide range of skills and thinking abilities. I think the Deputy shares my belief that this is a better way to go. The implementation is being rolled out. English has already been rolled out and is coming up for examination this year for the first time. Business studies and science are now in place, and the teachers involved are benefiting from continuous professional development and are availing of professional time to support implementation. The Deputy will have seen that we made significant provision in the budget to release teachers to do such work.

Phase 3, which will begin in September 2017, will involve Irish, visual arts and modern languages, covering French, German, Spanish and Italian. The new curriculum of well-being will also be introduced at that time.

Phase 4 will begin in September 2018 and include mathematics, home economics, history, music and geography. Phase 5, beginning in 2019, includes the remaining technology subjects, religious education, Jewish studies and classics.

The first classroom-based assessment in English has taken place in TUI schools and the second is due to be completed in early December. The written assessment task is to be completed very shortly after that. It is based on the classroom-based assessment, which, as the Deputy said, is an element that will be examined by the State Examination Commission and will count for 10% of the marks.

We continue to have discussions with the ASTI within the Teachers Conciliation Council. All the issues that have been in dispute with the ASTI, including the junior certificate, are contemplated by those talks. As the Deputy knows, to date, members of the ASTI have been directed by their union not to participate in the classroom-based assessments. That continues to be the situation, but we are seeking to resolve it in the course of the present discussions.

I do not know whether the Minister is aware that many students and their parents feel deeply unsure about what is happening with junior certificate reform. While the junior certificate is obviously not as big an exam as the leaving certificate, it is a major issue in the life and perspective of a student if he or she is working away and yet may be penalised because one particular union is not involved in the assessments. Junior certificate reform has, on and off, been a topic for discussion going back perhaps 20 years. It is designed to import more creativity, more critical thinking and more collaboration into our secondary-school cycle, at junior and, ultimately, leaving certificate level. In that sense, it is very necessary because we are told constantly-----

I thank the Deputy.

-----that the number of jobs which will change over the next ten to 20 years and which will affect these students right throughout their working life is very significant.

I thank the Deputy.

However, I am very unclear, on foot of the Minister's reply, as to what actual progress has been achieved. Does he acknowledge that students still will not know-----

The Deputy's time is up.

-----whether some will be at a ten-point disadvantage if their schools are overseen by ASTI members?

I absolutely agree with the Deputy that this is an important reform. It has been part of public policy for a considerable period. We are in the unfortunate position that one union is not supporting its roll-out. I have requested that the ASTI provide a derogation for English teachers so that this can proceed. That continues to be a request with which I hope there will be agreement because there is still time to do this. However, the examination itself has been set by the State Examinations Commission. The basis on which marks are assigned is known and it is not for me to interfere with that. The latter is an established way in which this examination will be assessed.

It is my desire and hope, and the purpose of the ongoing talks at the Teachers Conciliation Council, to seek to resolve this issue, along with a number of other issues that are of concern to members of the ASTI. I hope it can be achieved.

I ask all Deputies please to adhere to time limits for questions.

Will the Minister tell us the number of students and schools affected by the non-collaboration of the ASTI and its members with the junior certificate cycle reforms? We are coming close to Christmas and the exams will happen not too long in the life of the students and parents after that. With due respect, it is not good enough for the Minister to say this is only for the State Examinations Commission, SEC, and it has nothing to do with the Minister if one significant group of students is getting on with junior certificate reform, as are the schools and teachers. The Minister has not ruled out the possibility of students missing out on a 10% assessment mark. In the scheme of things, it might not seem an awful lot but for a very ambitious student hoping to get a relatively high grade or a weak student, it amounts to a significant portion of marks to miss out on.

As the Deputy knows, the approach of the new junior certificate is to have a range of items on which people can be assessed. A very important element is the certificate of achievement and, unfortunately, it will not be available if schools have not participated in allowing students to recognise and measure their performance. It is a big innovation to allow people do things outside the norm, value the project work they do in class and so on.

The 10% of marks are assigned by the SEC based on a written piece of work in classroom-based assessment. If that has not happened, those marks cannot be assigned. Of course, anybody looking at a junior certificate will see how a student did in his or her exams and fared in the different subjects. Unfortunately, those elements are under some pressure in the 375 schools that are purely ASTI. We would like to see the issue resolved but we must do it through the Teachers Conciliation Council, and that is what we are seeking to do.

Apprenticeship Programmes

Thomas Byrne


26. Deputy Thomas Byrne asked the Minister for Education and Skills the progress being made in his plans to double the number of apprenticeships by 2020; and his views on the barriers to expanding recruitment in the apprenticeship sector. [35412/16]

This question seeks to ask the Minister to outline the progress he is making to double the number of apprenticeships by 2020 and if he would describe to the House the barriers there to expanding recruitment in the apprenticeship sector. Will he comment on the gender divide in apprenticeships as well? It is a feature about which people are concerned.

I thank the Deputy for his question. I share with him and most of the House the belief that we have undervalued apprenticeships, and particularly during the crash they were totally undermined. We have committed to doubling the number of registered apprentices, providing 50,000 apprenticeship and traineeship places up to 2020. In the coming weeks, I will publish a detailed three-year plan setting out how we plan to deliver on this commitment. The plan will include details of our approach to managing the pipeline of new apprenticeships identified through the 2015 call for proposals and will set out the timing of a new call for proposals. The plan will set out specific annual targets, as well as bringing forward a range of specific actions to enable, support and streamline the development of new apprenticeships and traineeships.

In recent months, we have seen the first of the new apprenticeships with the new insurance practitioner apprenticeship launching and the industrial electrical engineer apprenticeship getting under way. Further new apprenticeships are due to launch in the coming months in various sectors, including medical devices, polymer processing and financial services. As well as developments in new apprenticeships, registrations in the traditional 27 craft trades are rising. In 2015 there were 3,153 registrations, which represents a significant recovery since the crash. SOLAS has recently projected that by 2020, the figure will grow to 5,587.

There are potential barriers to the delivery of these targets but by taking a planned approach, it will allow us to identify potential bottlenecks systematically and overcome them. There is a clear roadmap for the delivery of a new apprenticeship, including an industry-led consortium identifying a skills need and developing an occupational profile, collaboration with a training partner to develop a suitable curriculum for validation and quality assurance. It is a demanding process but we must follow it to ensure this is a quality stream.

I acknowledge the Deputy's statement that we have a problem with gender. We probably have a problem in selling the benefit of such an approach to employers, parents and others who make decisions. I am very keen to promote this vigorously with both the consumer and employer side.

The Minister is holding the fort for the Minister of State, Deputy Halligan, with these questions. I will not complain about a senior Minister doing so but Deputy Halligan was absent during jobs questions as well. I know he is doing important business for the State around the world. That is crucial and we welcome that.

The programme for Government's ambition is to double the number of apprenticeships to provide a total of 31,000 places. I hope it is more than a simple ambition and more of a target that can be disposed of. The last Government had a similar ambition but there was very little policy driving it. I look forward to the comprehensive policy in that regard. We need more than simply ambitions and targets and we need to change the entire mindset. There are highly developed countries like Switzerland where one might be picked for an apprenticeship or academia at a very early age. I am not saying that is the way to go but it shows a level of faith in apprenticeships in that they are considered of equal value to academic life. It is something we could look at. We want to see what is happening and get a wider range of apprenticeships. There is a traditional view of apprenticeships and that perception must be changed. It will involve all of us.

I agree with Deputy Byrne. The ambition is to have 73 new areas for apprenticeships, meaning we got from the current 27 areas to 100 areas. As the Deputy knows, the employer takes on an employment contract and pays people from day one. It is slightly different from the State rolling out a programme and the employer must buy into it. This must be done by the assembling of consortia. It is a genuine partnership between the State and employers and we must grow momentum.

I agree that we and our employers have undervalued this area. It is a new culture of thinking within enterprise and we have just spoken about funding for institutes of technologies. This is an important avenue and role for institutes of technology and we must drive this to deliver it together. The regional skills fora will be a big element in how we get the rubber to hit the road, as they say, on apprenticeships.

Will incentives be put in place for companies to become involved with new apprenticeship schemes? It must be widened not just through demand and new categories of apprenticeships. Companies will have to come on board to provide these. What incentives could be proposed?

The Apprenticeship Council of Ireland examined this and introduced the concept of a much shorter apprenticeship. The traditional model was a four-year apprenticeship with considerable periods. It has been shortened, with a shorter period in which the employer would pay. At this stage we have not considered employer incentives. The employers recognise that such positions must be regarded as employment posts and they must meet national minimum wage and other criteria. The State would provide the training element. The biggest contribution we can make is to streamline the concept of a new apprenticeship to get it through the various curricular developments, quality assurance, approvals and support the employers in providing an environment in which an apprenticeship can be delivered and apprentices can get through. That is instead of a financial incentive. I am open to discussing this. We have not set aside money for providing incentives. This should be a quality programme and, like other countries, employers should support this approach.

I thank the Minister and perhaps I will come forward with some ideas for incentivisation as this needs to happen and we need to broaden our horizons as a nation. We must get companies used to this, as apprenticeships are traditionally viewed as something that happen in the construction sector. That is important and there are issues there as well but there is potential for this process if it is rolled out in a proper way and the mindset can be changed. If companies are on board with the new categories of apprenticeships, there can be change, although there may need to be some effort to persuade companies to take on apprentices in certain cases. There could be some kind of incentive scheme.

I think some sort of incentive scheme should be put in place to incentivise and encourage companies to get involved. It does not necessarily have to cost money and I am not asking for money to be put aside for it. There could be an advertising campaign to try to highlight what is going on. I do not think the apprenticeship idea has seeped into the public imagination yet. The Government has an obligation to make sure that happens.

If we are looking at incentives, I do not think there should be a subsidy. When things went wrong in the construction sector after the crash came, the number of apprenticeships decreased from approximately 9,000 to approximately 1,000. The whole thing was wiped out overnight. We need to build a robust system in support of employers in order that they can continue to recruit apprentices, even in bad times. As we seek to build that infrastructure, perhaps we should look at how we can support capability and capacity-building within employers who participate in apprenticeship programmes. I do not think offering a subsidy is the route we should take in this regard. I think we should approach the issue raised by the Deputy by investing in a structure that will sustain us into the long term.