Education and Training Responses to the Economic Downturn: Statements.

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.

I welcome the Minister of State. I am deputising for our esteemed colleague and education spokesperson, Senator Healy Eames, who conveys her apologies to the House for her absence. This is a debate for which she has been calling for some time and in which she has a major interest, but unfortunately one of her children is ill and she was obliged to leave at short notice.

The importance of this debate is brought into sharp focus when we consider that almost 423,000 people are currently on the live register. A large proportion of these are young and dislocated workers. Since 2007, employment has shrunk by 27% in the construction sector and 6% in the agriculture, forestry and fisheries sector. There is a danger that short-term joblessness may lead to long-term unemployment if the correct strategies are not put in place. Those with lower levels of education are more likely to lose their jobs or remain in unemployment. Strategies such as wage restraints, tax initiatives and employment incentives are also critical to putting people back to work but the role of education and further training is on our agenda for today.

Although one would think Ireland has the highest expenditure on education in Europe, that is not the case. A recent OECD survey revealed that 4.7% of GDP is spent on education in this country, compared to an OECD average of 5.7%. We are not at the top in terms of investing in education, even though it is the central mechanism through which we can achieve social justice and put people back to work. A recent ESRI report made the obvious point that the leaving certificate has become the new minimum standard for accessing training and further education. The report also established that people who left school early were the hardest hit by the recession.

Education has to be part of any strategy for dealing with the recession. We need a combination of internships and continuing education for the unemployed. Internships can offer critical learning, networking and confidence building opportunities.

The large number of people who have left school without leaving certificates need to return to formal education and apprenticeship programmes. Many of them were attracted by the high wages offered in the construction and food processing sectors during the Celtic tiger years and are now facing unemployment. Enterprise development programmes can help to develop the skills needed in the export sector. The existing apprenticeship programmes ought to be expanded and those who are caught in midstream because their employers have closed or downsized should be given the opportunity to complete their apprenticeships. The National Adult Literacy Agency has found that expenditure on adult literacy increases employment prospects by a dramatic 12%.

We should expand the schemes which offer students a chance to work or study abroad, particularly in countries with which we have trade relations. Students at all levels of education should have the opportunity to gain overseas experience. Irish people are not able to access certain high end jobs at present because two languages are required. The failure to teach two foreign languages has become a significant barrier to high end jobs in Internet sales and other areas. We must encourage people to study two continental languages in addition to English and other mainstream subjects at second and third levels.

The OECD recently conducted a survey of training and reskilling initiatives. Some countries offer useful models while others have similar strategies to our own. Greece has provided additional places, Italy offers training vouchers to the unemployed, Japan uses income support loans to encourage people to take up training and education opportunities and France has built training incentives into its social welfare code. While the merits of further training are obvious to those of us who are involved in education and politics, it may be necessary to develop a carrot and stick approach for our own social welfare code. Further consideration is needed of the degree to which people should be rewarded for participating in further training and education and, when suitable candidates fail to take up available positions, the appropriateness of penalties. People cannot be forced below a certain standard of living but incentives could be accompanied by penalties such as reductions in income.

The suggestion that the junior certificate should be abolished is appalling and counterproductive in terms of enabling those from a less privileged background to get onto the educational ladder. The junior certificate is a key milestone and important preparation for the leaving certificate and should be maintained. Despite the Minister of State's comments on the number of additional places available on post-leaving certificate courses, these courses remain oversubscribed and waiting lists for places remain long. The overall priority must be to intervene to assist people with low levels of literacy to achieve certification to enable them to climb the educational ladder and ensure those who have acquired educational qualifications are able to further upskill. We must also encourage those who left the education system because they were attracted by the fast buck, as it were, to return to education or training. Education will be critical in economic recovery and reducing unemployment.

Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire go dtí an tSeanaid chun an díospóireacht seo a bheith againn maidir le cúrsaí oideachais agus an tionchar atá acu ar shaol eacnamaíochta na tíre faoi láthair. It is timely that the House is debating lifelong learning and the educational dividend that can be secured from educational opportunities, particularly in the current economic climate, as Senator O'Reilly outlined. I acknowledge the work being done in this respect by the Minister of State with responsibility for lifelong learning, Deputy Seán Haughey. The Minister of State referred to the publication in December of the report, Building Ireland's Smart Economy, which is a framework for sustainable economic renewal. Education and training are core elements of the report and will play a major part in reshaping the economy into a modern, smart economy.

I propose to outline some of the work being done by the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Batt O'Keeffe, and the Minister of State, Deputy Haughey. The Minister has announced 7,000 places for upskilling and retraining in the further and higher education sector to help workers who have lost their jobs. Senator O'Reilly has noted that 27% of the 423,000 people on the live register are in the construction sector. Many of them are in my constituency and I concur with the Senator that we must carefully examine the educational needs of this group, many of whom have acquired specific skills in the construction sector over a period of years. We must focus on how we can reshape these skills and refocus their thinking on gaining meaningful employment in the years ahead. If one does the calculation, one finds that 27% of 423,000 is a large number of people across all of our constituencies. We must focus on their particular needs.

The Department is doing excellent work in providing education and training courses in conjunction with FÁS. The Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Mary Coughlan, has launched a number of initiatives in this area in the past 12 months. It is important we continue with this work.

Some of the 7,000 places made available for upskilling and retraining will be taken up by people who have lost their jobs in the construction sector. The courses in question are aimed at upskilling workers to try to gain meaningful, long-term employment in growth sectors in the economy such as information and communications technology, engineering, business energy, medical devices, bio-pharmaceuticals, international finance and food. As the Minister of State noted, 1,500 of these places will be available in post-leaving certificate courses nationally. Overall, 31,688 places are available, with 3,500 full-time and part-time undergraduate and postgraduate places available, as well as places on third level transition courses and accelerated certificate programmes.

Since September more than 12,000 applications have been received from mature students for full-time higher education programmes for this academic year, an increase of 30% on last year. The individuals in question clearly wish to use this opportunity to reskill, re-train and re-educate themselves. Many of those in my constituency who applied for such courses have stated they wish to use the opportunity presented by the current economic climate. In other words, while there may be some employment opportunities available, this may be a time to reflect, reskill and regain educational advantage. The 30% increase in the number of applications indicates a substantial increase in third level participation by mature students. The Minister of State referred to an important issue which is sometimes overlooked, namely, the co-operation between the Departments of Education and Science, Enterprise, Trade and Employment and Social and Family Affairs. I welcome this co-ordinated approach to meeting the challenge we face by providing educational opportunities for individuals who wish to pursue that path in the current climate.

The Minister of State referred to the range of initiatives under the strategic innovation fund to enhance flexible and lifelong learning and encourage work based learning and the incorporation of generic competences in the undergraduate curriculum. Centres for science, engineering and technology and strategic research clusters have been created in colleges with the support of Science Foundation Ireland. These research groups are formally linked with more than 300 multinational and small to medium high-tech enterprises. The Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment has been instrumental in ensuring the strategic innovation fund reaches out to individuals in co-operation with many small and medium businesses and multinational companies inside and outside the State. This will have a major impact on economic renewal in the years ahead.

This week the expert group on future skills needs published its annual report which found that with continued strategic investment, the upskilling and reskilling of the labour force would play a significant role in providing current and future enterprises with the competitive advantage necessary for Ireland to achieve sustainable, export led economic recovery. This conclusion is of particular importance when one considers that the United States, the United Kingdom and other European neighbours are investing in renewal projects to try to stimulate their economies. The stimulus provided in these countries will create significant advantages for Ireland by ensuring we can export to these stimulus led economies in the future. For this reason, it is vital that we use the current economic conditions as an opportunity to improve our competitiveness by upskilling the labour force. Much work is being done in this regard.

The report also referred to the share of school leavers progressing to higher education, which is approaching the 72% figure laid out in the national skills strategy. The share in 2008 was 60%. It is a significant move of 12% in a 12 month period.

The number of highly skilled graduates in third level education has continued to increase, with the numbers this year reaching 56,300 compared to 55,100 in 2006. It is important to recognise that people are moving to third level education. There is interaction between three Departments to ensure this continues. The Department of Social and Family Welfare is also playing a role in that regard, with a number of initiatives, including the back to education and training initiatives, as well as the back to education allowance which this year is playing a significant part in allowing individuals in receipt of social welfare payments to gain educational opportunities.

While we can look at the current economic climate negatively, we have an opportunity to allow all individuals who possess the initiative to move to further education and training to receive economic assistance from the State through the Department of Social and Family Affairs. The Minister of State's Department can provide the educational space or opportunity. It is vitally important to regain our competitiveness as a state and offer educational opportunities for re-skilling to reshape our workforce in order that we can bounce back from our current economic state.

Some 27% of those who are unemployed worked in the construction sector at one stage or another. This is a high percentage and we have to focus on that element of those who are unemployed. I am not sure how we can do so. Many such individuals may be unemployed on a full-time or part-time basis and receive some level of social welfare assistance. It would be an opportune time to interview many such individuals and ascertain what the future holds for them and how the Minister of State's Department may be able to assist in that regard. Many opportunities are available in the construction section such as through the warmer homes scheme and SEI-funded schemes to transform homes to be more energy efficient. There are many opportunities in the areas of solar energy, wind energy and other forms of energy to re-skill individuals to carry out some of the work required.

I welcome the governmental and ministerial co-operation in this regard and acknowledge the Minister of State's work in the area. He is working with the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment and the Department of Social and Family Affairs. That work is being recognised by the number and volume of individuals gaining a third level education. I thank him for his efforts and acknowledge the work being done. This debate gives us an opportunity to reflect on what is being done and outline some of our constituents' concerns about what the future holds for them, their families and progression in work and education.

I do not intend to use all of my time.

That will be a first.

Ba mhaith liom fáilte a chur roimh an Aire. Is ábhar an-tábhachtach é seo, go háirithe i gcomhthéacs na géarchéime eacnamaíochta.

The economy has entered the worst recession in 80 years, sparked by the global credit crunch and collapse of the Irish property bubble. The scale of the economic collapse is staggering. In 2006, at the height of the boom, the private sector was a net borrower to the tune of €10 billion. In 2009 it will be a net saver of €20 billion. This represents a withdrawal of €30 billion from the economy annually because of reduced spending on housing and consumer goods and reduced capital investment by businesses.

This massive withdrawal of capital contributed to a major growth in unemployment, with the rate of unemployment doubling from 5.9% in June 2008 to 11.9% in June 2009. It now stands at 12.9%. According to the Central Statistics Office, there are 422,500 people signing on the live register. The people concerned are not mere statistics. Each person is an individual human being, faced with a grim Christmas, the real fear of his or her home being repossessed and concerns about medical and food bills.

The slight drop in the number signing on is to be welcomed, but all that means is that we have, it is to be hoped, hit the bottom of the cycle. The figures do not, however, mean that we have yet turned a corner, nor will we without vigorous and decisive action by the Government. Clear and decisive leadership is needed. The simple fact is that we are not just facing a major economic crisis but also a human tragedy if we do not address the issue of unemployment urgently and, in particular, if we do not put in place a major lifelong education programme to ensure we allow people to develop and use their God-given talents for their own benefit and that of their community and country.

I have previously spoken on the impact of the collapse in the construction sector on unemployment, particularly in rural areas, and the need to retrain young people who left school early, drawn by the lure of high wages in the construction sector, and are now left with no jobs or saleable skills.

However, there is a new breed of unemployed professionals, namely, those who worked in financial services or for developers who need to re-skill for new areas of employment and sectors of industry. It is clear that we need to develop a much more flexible education system which does not just train young people but which provides an education when and where people need it. In short, we need to rethink and move from a school or college-based model to a person-centred model of education. In that regard, as a person who lectures at the Institute of Technology, Blanchardstown, I was glad to see repeated references to the institute of technology sector in the Minister of State's speech. It was the institutes of technology which, in many ways, through their applied approach to third level education gave us the graduates with the skills we needed to meet the developing opportunities in the economy. It is within that sector that we will find the necessary flexibility, focus and attentiveness to the needs of emerging industry or employment possibilities.

The local approach is important. The Institute of Technology, Blanchardstown is a particularly fine example of a college which is close to its community and aware of the needs of the community it serves, particularly, but not confined to, the Dublin 15 area. It is responsive to the community's needs and builds good relationships with local schools and so on. In that regard, I am glad to note the Minister of State referred to the 6,000 additional third level places, primarily in the institute of technology sector, provided specifically for unemployed persons during the course of the year. I also note what he said about the strategic innovation fund, particularly the good work done in the areas of interactive learning, e-learning and distance learning. Many of my colleagues in the Institute of Technology, Blanchardstown use Moodle — I have been slow to start using it but have a firm purpose of amendment in that regard.

The Minister of State has mentioned examples of the projects being funded, including the supported flexible learning project in institutes of technology. He is correct to say that if it is implemented successfully, it will result in mainstreaming flexible learning methods within and across the institutes of technology. He also mentioned various other initiatives. However, I did not see a reference to the Student Support Bill. Perhaps I am not completely up to speed on this but I would welcome being brought up to speed. What has happened to that?

Increasingly, we are not talking about third level students in the old-fashioned sense of people who do the leaving certificate and go to college. We are talking about people in some cases coming from different cultures and where language assistance and support is a key issue within colleges. We are talking about people coming from unemployment who will have specific needs arising from the experiences they have. Some of them will bring great strengths and I have already witnessed that with some of my students this term.

Having worked in employment, some of these people bring great knowledge and maturity to the approaches to course materials. This brings on other younger members of the class because they have role models with more mature students whom they see valuing their education in a more focused way. That can lead to an excellent dynamic within the classroom setting. It is important to recognise that although we are in an economic downturn, there are many factors competing for students' attention, including part-time jobs, socialising and so on. That has not changed and there is a need to promote excellence not just in the delivery of third level, higher and further education and training but also in encouraging appreciation of how important this is. I pay particular tribute to mature students for the leavening effect that they can sometimes have within a classroom scenario. I mean no disrespect to younger students in saying that.

With regard to student support legislation, I have expressed a concern about the way courses are funded or grants are made available to students both in regard to fees and maintenance and support. We are moving towards a more differentiated type of course delivery, with some people coming from other cultures and others coming from employment. There are also people trying to upskill within the jobs that they currently have and who are doing courses as part of their weekly work, although not on a full-time basis. Some people may want to do a module here and there and perhaps progress in a more gradual way towards a qualification.

Will we have a system of student support with regard to fees and general maintenance grants that will support that emerging reality or will we remain stuck in a more old-fashioned model of course support, which will not be relevant to the needs of new kinds of students? I do not ask that question in an accusatory way and I genuinely seek more information on it. Student support legislation was coming down the tracks and I believe it remains there, unless I was out sick for six weeks and it was passed at that stage. What will happen with the legislation?

Is it the Government's intention to provide for a more differentiated kind of course funding to facilitate those students who are coming at third level or further education and training from different backgrounds, including part-time work and partial completion of course goals and requirements? This may not happen according to the traditional two, three or four-year models we have experienced. Even if we did not have a jobs crisis we would still need to make the transition from the school or college-based model to a kind of person-centred model of further education and training delivery which would focus on the specific needs of people coming from different backgrounds.

In the past in Ireland, the Aosdána, the people of art, were a tiny part of the population but in future these people will form the majority. The advent of the knowledge society demands that education and lifelong learning be almost as accessible as fast food, although I hope it would be more healthy. I also hope we would aim for a wisdom society rather than just a knowledge society in what would be an holistic approach to education taking in the dignity of the person and the needs of the individual.

The truth is that Ireland is far behind its competitors. The report, Education at a Glance 2008, found that the ratio of hours spent in job related training and workplace initiatives in Ireland was just 12% compared with the OECD average of 25%, suggesting that participation in education and learning was far lower in Ireland than in other developed countries. The heart of the knowledge economy is not made up of institutions or technology but the skills and experience of our people, and these skills must be constantly refreshed to cope with a rapidly changing business and technical environment.

Lifelong learning is not just about fulfilling the economic needs of the nation. It also has a role to play in tackling social exclusion. Many young people, especially in our inner cities, do not have the interest or the motivation — this is relevant to what I stated earlier about third level education — to succeed in schools when they are young. However, as they mature such people regret not making better use of their time in school. They have often gained maturity to really benefit from education.

The success of mature students in universities is clear proof of the value of second-chance education. Everybody deserves that second chance and investing in education for the disadvantaged is a very good investment. It costs more to keep a person in prison for one year than it does to educate a young person to degree level. Even Colm McCarthy would approve of that business case.

Lifelong learning is not just an economic imperative and we can see it as a basic human right to which all of us should respond. The Government should respond to it in a targeted and intelligent way. One schooler made a memorable quote in saying: "The purpose of learning is growth and our minds, unlike our bodies, can continue growing as we continue to live." I urge the Government to be serious and ensure we put in place a real infrastructure for lifelong learning. We must create not just a smart economy but a smart society. In so doing we will create a wisdom society.

I wish to share time with Senator Ann Ormonde.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

I will be as quick as I can.

Will the Senator use all his time?

As the Minister of State is well aware, a number of other people and I have put forward what we envisage as a proposed entrepreneurship education strategy for Ireland. Those people include business people, entrepreneurs and educators such as DIT entrepreneurship lecturer, Dr. Thomas Cooney. A 12-point plan was included in this strategy. I know the Minister is familiar with that and I want to take this opportunity to put some of the propositions on the record of the House. I hope the Minister of State will continue as he has begun in trying to implement the strategy.

The group proposed the introduction of field research projects as an element of business studies subjects and an entrepreneurship module in all aspects of third level education. Multiple intelligence and emotional intelligence theories should be introduced to social, personal and health education and a young entrepreneur of the year competition should be launched. I know good progress has already been made on establishing a schools awards programme and there should also be development of an entrepreneurship education on-line resource for teachers. Above all there should be an appointment of a champion, both internally to the Department and externally — somebody with the respect of business — to promote the implementation of the entrepreneurship education strategy.

Since we began we have been joined by business people and educators from the different levels of the education system to develop collectively a set of proposals which can be introduced by the Department of Education and Science. A total of 12 proposals have been developed, of which only one requires additional funding to existing resources. In these challenging economic times, there is little financial reason we cannot do this.

The need to develop a coherent entrepreneurship education strategy is not new to Ireland. As far back as 2002 the Goodbody report stated that the school system does not support the idea of working for oneself and the Irish education system was seen by entrepreneurs as having played a very limited role in supporting entrepreneurship to date. Since then there have been a number of successive reports, such as those by the Enterprise Strategy Group and Small Business Forum, which have successfully argued that the development of entrepreneurship education across all levels of the Irish education system could be a sustainable source of locally grown entrepreneurs.

Ireland does not, as it stands, have an entrepreneurship education policy despite the many calls in evidence-based reports published by the European Commission highlighting the substantial benefit to the nation's economy and its young people. The Commission has published a series of thoughtful reports and recommendations that it encourages member states to act upon and most of which the Irish Government has yet to introduce.

One of the members of the European Commission entrepreneurship education expert group was leading Irish academic and co-author of our own recommendations and strategy, Dr. Thomas Cooney. According to Dr. Cooney, a number of countries similar in size and peripheral geographical location, such as Scotland, Norway and Finland, have already recognised the benefits of an entrepreneurship education strategy and implemented policies to ensure all students receive some form of entrepreneurship education during their formal schooling years. There is a growing body of international evidence which demonstrates that students who receive entrepreneurship education as part of their schooling show improved academic performance, school attendance, educational attainment and have increased problem-solving and decision-making abilities, interpersonal relationships, teamwork abilities, money management and public speaking skills. They were much more likely to find employment and have enhanced social and psychological development, self-esteem, ego development and self-efficacy.

The reason students achieve these benefits is because the primary goal of entrepreneurship education is not to get everybody to start their own business but to encourage young people to think positively and look for opportunities to make things happen, to have the self-confidence to achieve their goals and use their talents to build a better society, economically and socially. It also recognises that students of all academic abilities can be part of this process and that success is not dependent on the number of points one gets in the leaving certificate but on how one lives life.

We could benefit greatly if we did that for the future. Putting the appropriate template in place now would lay groundwork similar to that laid by the Minister of State's father, Charles Haughey, and Donogh O'Malley in providing free secondary education in the 1960s. That led to the economic success we achieved in the 1990s. Similarly, doing this now and having appropriate entrepreneurship education strategy introduced throughout the education system would ensure our sustainable success for the future. I know the Minister of State, Deputy Haughey, will continue to take that forward.

I welcome the Minister of State as we face up to the challenges of the economic recession. We face a very difficult budget, as the Minister of State noted, and we must acknowledge the steps that have been taken to face up to the challenges. The only way we can do that is through education and training. We must acknowledge the enormous unemployment figures. How do we protect jobs and create new ones? How do we handle people who are unemployed? These are the challenges the Minister of State faces and I wish him well in that regard. They concern how we can overcome the problem, take people off the live register, provide courses relevant to their needs and reflect that end of society today.

The Minister of State spoke much about the smart economy, namely, how we can best secure enterprise and promote competitiveness. Again, this must come about through education and training. There is no other way at present. We must look at the needs and see who are unskilled and need to be reskilled or upskilled or whether they need to be skilled at all. Should we look again and see what society wants today? Perhaps it has changed. The concept of jobs may change in the future. I have asked many times for a debate in this House on the concept of work for the future. What is the future for Ireland? What is our vision for the future? Perhaps the old-fashioned idea of traditional courses to which the Minister of State referred may no longer be the type to pursue in respect of making links with the unemployed.

We talked about many initiatives. The Minister of State mentioned the post-leaving certificate courses which are excellent for tackling job losses and enhancing skills. The Minister of State also spoke of back to work initiatives, lifelong learning programmes and FÁS courses. There is a plethora. It concerns me there may be a great deal of overlap in many of these courses. I welcome the concept of taking courses out of colleges and putting them into the workforce or communities. Many people are long-term unemployed and may be unemployable. They do not know how to go back into the system even though the Minister of State has introduced an excellent new adult service initiative. We need to figure out how to create a link to those who are unemployed and how we can bring them into a workforce rather than into a school-type situation. We might not want that new arrangement of class and teacher.

The challenges are great and I wish the Minister of State well. The only way back is through education, training and lifelong learning. However, let it be holistic. Many people need to think about themselves as people and perhaps this is a golden opportunity for them. They want to be upskilled and they want a new "me" as they come into the world of work. If I can be of any help to the Minister of State in the area I know best, namely, education training, I would be delighted to work with him.

I welcome the Minister of State to the House to discuss this very important matter. We must have a skills drive for people who have lost their jobs and those who may be in vulnerable sectors of the economy. The current financial difficulties, massive unemployment and impending social crisis demand immediate attention and action. Action on reskilling and upskilling of workers must be taken to expand education and training opportunities, especially for further, adult and third level education and training opportunities. Investment in education and training must be a Government priority if Ireland is to recover from the current economic crisis, regain competitiveness in the labour market, avert high social welfare dependency and prevent deepening poverty.

The Central Statistics Office figures released yesterday indicate there were 412,400 people on the live register at the end of October. Nearly 85,000 are under 25 years of age. Youth unemployment is a social time-bomb. If young people are condemned to a pattern of long-term unemployment in their teens and early 20s, it is particularly difficult for them to emerge from that. The Government must increase very significantly the number of education and training options for young unemployed people. The Minister of State spoke about the work placement programme. How many, if any, of such places are ring-fenced for the under-25 age group? The work placement programme announced last May by the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Mary Coughlan, and the Minister for Social and Family Affairs, Deputy Mary Hanafin, was originally heralded as an opportunity to offer unemployed graduates receiving jobseeker's allowance valuable work experience for a fixed term of six months. This scheme was introduced on 1 August. Why is the requirement to have been in receipt of jobseeker's allowance for a six-month period so critical? Is there not a case to be made for shortening that period, perhaps to three months? I am interested to know the reason for having that condition, such as it is.

Regarding the 2,000 work placements offered to potential candidates nationwide, to which the Minister of State referred, two streams exist, as he indicated. One thousand placements are to go to graduates and 1,000 to people other than graduates. Obviously, these are difficult fiscal times. Considering the scale of the problem, are those numbers sufficient to do more than scratch at the surface of the problem? To what extent are the streamed offers being taken up? Is flexibility allowed for moving between the streams? Are there any issues in this regard? I would be interested to hear the Minister of State's comments.

This highlights the dismal performance of this Government to date in providing real options for young unemployed people. I listened to the Minister of State's list but the key point is whether it is enough. We are in difficult times but must look for creative ways and measures to deal with this problem. Paying potential workers unemployment benefit is dead money and a considerable waste of resources. I am sure the Minister of State realises this. That money could be an investment in the education and upskilling of the potential workforce. Clearly, an innovative and coherent plan is needed urgently to tackle the rising rate of unemployment, especially among school leavers and college graduates about whom we have talked already.

The Minister of State mentioned there were 31,000 places at post-leaving certificate, PLC, level. However, a cap was put on that figure. The cost of providing extra places is probably marginal and it is questionable whether limiting places in this way can be justified. In addition, a cap was placed on vocational training. Why do these caps make sense when the fixed costs are already in place in the form of teachers, buildings in some cases and so on?

Since international evidence indicates that investment in formal training has significant returns for the individual, that investment is more important now than ever if we are to provide any kind of response to the skills deficit in the workforce.

As it is now 1.20 p.m., I must call on the Minister of State to reply.

We have had a constructive debate. I am always impressed by how constructive and co-operative Seanad debates are. They are less combative than they are in the Lower House and I thank Senators for their contributions.

A number of questions were raised and I will endeavour to answer as many of them as possible. Many Senators referred to the need for co-operation between various Departments and agencies in this area. For the first time, we are achieving that co-operation. My appointment as Minister of State with responsibility for lifelong learning at the Departments of Education and Science and Enterprise, Trade and Employment represents progress in this regard, as it is an attempt to bring about co-ordination in the delivery of our education and training programmes.

The upskilling co-ordination group is an important body and comprises representatives of all of the major education and training players. It is bringing about the co-ordination discussed by Senators. The inter-departmental committee on the implementation of the national skills strategy comprises representatives of the Departments of Education and Science, Enterprise, Trade and Employment and Finance. I assure Senators that Departments and State agencies are co-ordinating on these matters.

A number of Senators referred to the position of construction workers, a problem that I recognise. FÁS training courses are available to everyone who is unemployed. Many redundant construction workers are being reskilled in new occupational areas where employment opportunities exist. FÁS is providing a variety of training courses in the sustainable technologies sector to give construction workers new skills. These include courses in the installation of solar panels and wood pellet burners and training in assessing building energy rating certificates and are available in the majority of FÁS training centres. Senators Ó Domhnaill and O'Reilly raised this matter. Specific measures have been put in place to enable 3,800 redundant apprentices to progress their apprenticeships this year.

Senator Mullen raised a number of issues, particularly the Student Support Bill 2008. It is hoped that Committee Stage will commence following the resolution of some legal issues with the Attorney General's office.

Many Senators outlined their opinions on the importance of lifelong learning. While we are debating it in the context of its importance to our economy, Senator Mullen and others pointed out that it is also good for the individual in terms of his or her social and personal development, family and community and for society as a whole. Lifelong learning is important for our economic development, but its other aspects, such as further education for which I have responsibility, are important for our society. Attending various events around the country to give out certificates to people who have taken the huge leap of returning to education and seeing their satisfaction and that of their families is wonderful and makes everything the Department of Education and Science is doing in terms of further education worthwhile.

I acknowledge the contribution of Senator MacSharry and confirm that the policy document on an entrepreneurship education strategy for Ireland produced by him and others is being examined by the Department. The Seán Lemass award for excellence in enterprise is derived from it. The student enterprise awards are administered by the city and county enterprise boards and there is something called the mini-company programme for transition year students. It is proposed that the top three projects from each of the two programmes would go forward to receive the Seán Lemass award. It is envisaged that a special event will be arranged in mid-May of next year. Hopefully, the Taoiseach will be present. The awarding of certificates to the participants and the schools involved will be made at that time. This is a direct result of the policy document submitted by Senator MacSharry and others regarding the need to promote entrepreneurship throughout our education system.

Senator Ryan asked a number of questions, but I am not sure whether I will be able to deal with them all this afternoon. He referred to the work placement programme, which will provide 2,000 people who have been unemployed with six-month work experience placements. The first stream is for unemployed graduates and the second stream is open to all other unemployed individuals who have been receiving jobseeker's allowance for the past six months. Under this stream, 250 places are being ring-fenced for those under 25 years of age. The statistics demonstrate that there is a problem in respect of that age group. All of the efforts of the Departments of Education and Science and Enterprise, Trade and Employment will examine this issue to determine what can be done.

Senator O'Reilly mentioned the junior certificate . To clarify, there are no definite proposals on the abolition of that examination at this time. A headline on its abolition in last weekend’s Sunday Tribune suggested it would save €30 million. The Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Batt O’Keeffe, has concerns regarding the junior certificate and how it operates. In particular, he is concerned about the emphasis on rote learning, which he views as a problem. He has asked the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment to consider the junior certificate to determine whether and what improvements could be made. However, this process is at an early stage and there are no definite proposals.

Regarding some of the other questions raised, I agree with all of Senator Mullen's comments on the crucial role of the institutes of technology and the specialist knowledge they bring. Indeed, they have not been found wanting in the current crisis. They have been responsive, have recognised where there was excess capacity and have introduced new proposals to deal with that issue. Every economic player has been responsive to the current crisis.

The Irish Vocational Education Association has been extremely constructive and organised various seminars and conferences on how the VEC sector can respond to the difficulties we face and the need for upskilling and retraining. Upskilling is vital to the economy during the economic downturn. We need to gain a competitive advantage over our trading partners. The national skills strategy is in place. We face a huge challenge in upskilling 500,000 people by at least one level in the national framework of qualifications by 2020.

In the short term the emphasis will be on the unemployed. The workforce also includes those who have lost their jobs. All our efforts are concentrated on them. Employment activation is constantly under review. A large number of measures were brought forward in the April budget. This area continues to be looked at with a view to bringing forward appropriate measures in due course having regard to the resources available. The need for employment activation is constantly under review, while new proposals are continually being examined.

Sitting suspended at 1.35 p.m. and resumed at 2 p.m.