I very much welcome this opportunity to address the House and discuss education and training responses to the economic downturn. It is very clear to us all that as a result of global economic upheaval we are facing immense challenges not just as an economy, but as a society and a country. This is because we are not just experiencing a deep economic recession, we are also contending with a fiscal crisis. While difficult and painful decisions were made in the supplementary budget in April, the scale of the crisis in the public finances means that we face a very difficult budget for 2010 and for the coming years until the fiscal crisis is resolved. However, the Government is committed to taking the necessary difficult decisions to ensure the economy overcomes the present challenges and is placed on a secure and more sustainable footing.
Education and training is of fundamental importance, not only in responding to immediate challenges but to securing our country's long-term future. In addressing the economic downturn, one of the most significant issues is the rise in unemployment and to deal with this we must try to protect those jobs that we already have. We must also work to create and attract new jobs and we must have a clear vision of where we see the jobs of tomorrow. Education and training are key parts of the Government's strategy to protect, create and develop jobs.
Last year, the Government published Building Ireland's Smart Economy — A Framework for Sustainable Economic Renewal. That blueprint focused on key areas for action in securing our enterprise economy, promoting competitiveness and establishing Ireland as an innovation hub. Our ambitions for Ireland's smart economy and smart society will only be realised through the vision, originality, creativity and invention of our people. Education and training, and its relevance to the needs of individuals and employers will be key in this regard.
Skills are the engine room of the modern knowledge-based economy. Supporting citizens to develop the knowledge, skills and competences they need to be active and successful participants in the smart society is a central objective of the entire education and training system. The national skills strategy articulates this vision and sets out clear long-term objectives as to what Ireland's education and training system needs to deliver if we are to develop competitive advantage in the areas of skills, education and training. As the Minister of State with responsibility for lifelong learning in the Departments of Education and Science and Enterprise, Trade and Employment, I can readily attest to the importance of upskilling and reskilling, especially in these difficult economic times.
The Government is adopting a strategic approach in its education and training responses to the economic downturn, focusing on activation measures to keep people from becoming unemployed and to get people off the live register and back into employment as quickly as possible. The Department of Education and Science works closely with the Departments of Enterprise, Trade and Employment and Social and Family Affairs on adopting an integrated approach to activation. A range of measures have been produced to expand services to the unemployed and promote a flexible learning environment tailored to the specific needs of the individual.
While there were difficult decisions to be made in the April budget, the Government also provided for more than 23,000 additional education and training places. Through the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, we provided 400 additional community employment places; almost 14,000 ten and 20-week occupation-specific training courses to enable people to get accreditation at levels 4, 5 or 6; 2,000 additional places on the work experience scheme; and more than 270 places on a pilot scheme which enables people on reduced working hours to learn new skills. In the further education sector, 1,500 additional post-leaving certificate places were allocated to vocational education committees and providers for this academic year, bringing the total available nationwide to 31,688. PLC courses enable school leavers and adults returning to education to enhance their employability with a range of vocational skills.
Many people who are now unemployed may have excellent workforce skills but because they have been a long time out of the formal education system, they may not have the standard entry qualifications for higher education. Therefore a range of initiatives, aimed at supporting people to access upskilling in the higher education sector, have been introduced this year. More than 6,000 additional third level places have been provided specifically for unemployed people during the course of this year, primarily in the institutes of technology. Demonstrating considerable flexibility and innovation in using the capacity within the system, the institutes are providing courses that are not tied to the traditional academic year and courses of shorter duration. They are also significantly increasing opportunities for part-time study which enables unemployed people to upskill while continuing to seek employment.
It is open to unemployed people to apply for places on full-time higher education programmes. More than 12,000 applications were received from mature students for full-time higher education programmes this year, an increase of 30% on 2008. The Department of Education and Science is working with the Higher Education Authority to support the expansion of opportunities for flexible learning in higher education institutions.
Dedicated funds allocated on a competitive basis through the strategic innovation fund are assisting institutions to look at new approaches to teaching and learning, including interactive e-learning and distance learning. Examples of projects being funded include the supported flexible learning project at the institutes of technology, the successful implementation of which will result in the use of supported flexible learning across the institutes. In September the Minister for Education and Science launched a new flexible learning portal, bluebrick.ie, which allows a prospective learner to search, compare and apply for flexible learning courses in the institutes of technology. Another project is the roadmap for employer-academic partnership project at Cork Institute of Technology, which will identify learning needs within workplaces, draw up a comprehensive plan for partnership between employers and higher education institutes, and offer a single simple, relevant and inclusive framework to facilitate interaction with the workplace.
In further education overall, after a period of expansion, the challenge is now to consolidate investment to maintain long-term sustainability. Between 1997 and 2008 expenditure on this area increased by over 400% to €414 million, enabling more than 170,000 learners to access further education learning opportunities in 2008, an increase of 125,000 on 1997. Further education plays a key role by providing access, transfer and progression opportunities for the lower skilled, the disadvantaged and the hard-to-reach, including the unemployed. Through adult literacy and community education provision, those most distant from society and those with literacy and numeracy difficulties can receive tuition to enable them to take the first step on the journey of lifelong learning. Through the vocational training opportunities scheme, unemployed adults can access a range of FETAC-accredited learning opportunities which build core skills and competencies.
I have already mentioned the value of the PLC programme for those who wish to enhance their employability. For those who wish to combine a return to learning with work, family or other commitments, the back to education initiative provides an array of part-time options which are free for any adult with less than upper-second-level qualifications. There is also the Youthreach programme for early school leavers and the senior Traveller training programme for adult Travellers. The Government has also overseen the development of the adult education guidance initiative across the country through a network of 40 initiatives providing guidance to more than 35,000 learners in 2008. The provision of a guidance service such as this is known to improve retention and progression rates, making it an integral part of providing an efficient and effective further education service.
The Government has taken a number of other significant steps in education and training to address the economic downturn. For example, the FÁS employment services, together with the local employment services, have doubled their capacity to cater for the rise in referrals from the Department of Social and Family Affairs. This has increased the annual referral capacity to 147,000 in 2009. FÁS has also managed to double its provision of training and work experience places for the unemployed to more than 130,000, which is a substantial increase on the 66,000 available at the end of last year. The training offered by FÁS ranges from a level 3 certificate on the national framework of qualifications to level 7 qualifications.
This year FÁS will deliver approximately 92,000 short-course training places to the unemployed. This is four times the number of similar courses provided last year and reflects the Government's efforts to increase relevant supports for the unemployed. Short training courses are designed to respond to individual training needs in the development of new skills and competencies. Courses are delivered in a variety of ways in order to be as flexible as possible, which has enabled more people to access them.
Keeping people close to the labour market while they are unemployed is essential to ensure they keep their skills updated and are in a position to avail of an employment opportunity when it arises. To respond to this need, the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Coughlan, and the Minister for Social and Family Affairs, Deputy Hanafin, jointly launched the work placement programme, which will provide 2,000 unemployed people with a six-month work experience placement, earlier this year. The programme comprises two streams, each consisting of 1,000 places. The first stream is for unemployed graduates who attained before this year a full award at level 7 or above on the national framework of qualifications and who have been receiving jobseeker's allowance for the last six months, while the second stream is open to all other unemployed people who have been receiving jobseeker's allowance for the last six months. Under this stream 250 places are being ring-fenced for those under 25 years of age.
To address the significant contraction in activity in the construction sector and its impact on apprenticeships, FÁS has restructured the apprenticeship system to allow redundant apprentices to progress to the next off-the-job training phase in the education sector. FÁS has also introduced an employer-based redundant apprentice rotation scheme to provide support for employers giving on-the-job training to 500 redundant apprentices when they have released their employed apprentices to scheduled phase 4 and phase 6 off-the-job training phases in the institutes of technology. ESB Networks has agreed a programme with FÁS to provide on-the-job training to eligible redundant electrical apprentices at phases 5 and 7. This programme will provide 400 places over a period of 18 months. Finally, the institutes of technology are also providing an 11-week certified training programme for 700 redundant apprentices who have completed their phase 4 training but to whom another training opportunity is not currently available.
Alongside these initiatives, the Department of Social and Family Affairs works with social welfare recipients through a network of facilitators to identify appropriate training or development programmes which will enhance their skills and ultimately improve their employment chances, as well as help them to continue to develop personally. The Department works in close co-operation with other agencies and service providers, including FÁS, VECs, other education and training providers and the local, community and voluntary sector. In addition, it provides advice and support to customers who wish to access its back to education and back to work schemes. Since September 2008, 21 additional facilitators have been appointed, and it is envisaged that up to 70 facilitators will be working in the coming months. Changes have been made to the manner in which the back to work enterprise allowance and the back to education allowance schemes operate, with the aim of providing support to an additional 1,400 claims for support under these schemes.
All Departments involved in the provision of education and training are working closely with stakeholders and providers to address the retraining and skills needs of the workforce as well as reduce duplication and overlap and achieve efficiencies to enable more effective provision. As part of our efforts in this regard the Department of Education and Science and representatives of the Irish Vocational Education Association (IVEA) and Institutes of Technology Ireland participate in the upskilling co-ordination group which is chaired by the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment. Both Departments are also working closely on the implementation of the national skills strategy and, in conjunction with FÁS and the IVEA, on the recently concluded national co-operation agreement which will help to improve collaboration and co-operation between providers to achieve improved efficiency and effectiveness.
In order to address the challenges of this difficult financial situation, we must continue to target and prioritise our resources to maximum effect across the education sector. We must achieve long-term sustainability in these programmes to consolidate the significant investment made by the Government. The increase in unemployment brings with it many challenges, including those of retraining and increasing skills. I am confident that by working closely with other Departments and agencies we can maximise the impact of our collective endeavours in meeting these challenges.