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Third Level Education

Dáil Éireann Debate, Tuesday - 30 November 2021

Tuesday, 30 November 2021

Questions (68)

Bernard Durkan


68. Deputy Bernard J. Durkan asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science the extent to which he continues to facilitate the provision of an adequate number of qualified academics and technicians to meet the requirements of the modern workforce; the areas he has identified as requiring special attention; his plans to meet such requirements in the future; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [58606/21]

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Oral answers (6 contributions) (Question to Further and Higher Education)

This question seeks to ascertain the extent to which the Minister hopes to be able to meet the demands of the workplace in respect of academic and technical placements in the short to medium term.

I thank Deputy Durkan for this important question. I thank him also for the time we spent yesterday in Celbridge and Maynooth viewing further education and higher education facilities. I very much enjoyed it, though he still has not given us the winning lotto numbers.

Ireland has developed a national skills system across further and higher education and apprenticeships, lifelong learning and human capital development under the framework of the national skills strategy and underpinned by strong partnership with key stakeholders. It is firmly focused on responding in an agile and flexible way to priority skills needs and to changes in the world of work driven by technology to ensure that Ireland has a skilled and productive workforce. This skills system, which includes the National Skills Council, the regional skills forums and the skills analysis and forecasting bodies, fosters engagement, dialogue and collaboration with key stakeholders on skills issues. This skills infrastructure informs and drives responsive and flexible forecasting, planning and provision to meet the skills required in the workplace across all sectors of the economy.

My Department's statement of strategy identifies a number of areas for special attention and on which significant work has been undertaken, including, for example, inclusion, alignment of our tertiary education system between further and higher education, apprenticeships and digital literacy. Additionally, our skills policies continue to observe and take into account major trends impacting the labour market, including population ageing, automation, and digitisation and climate action.

As for the requirement for graduates equipped for technical roles in our workforce, I am pleased to say that enrolment on STEM-related higher education courses has increased by 14% since 2014, from 59,000 students to 67,400 students. Importantly, the number of students graduating from these STEM-related courses has gone up by 29%, from 16,500 in 2014 to 21,300 in 2020.

In addition, two key initiatives now in place in higher education, the Springboard+ programme and the human capital initiative, are designed to meet identified technical skills needs across all sectors of our economy. These initiatives provide subsidised places on a broad range of courses in engineering, ICT and science.

I thank the Minister for his reply. Will he comment on the difficulty now experienced by the workplace in general of filling the posts that are becoming available? Does he feel it will be possible to produce the number of qualified graduates to fill those positions in academia and in the technical areas, knowing that we will face extra competition from across the globe?

This whole discussion on skills is one of the most important ones we can have in these Houses because so much else of what we talk about here is dependent on getting this right. We talk a lot about housing. The Deputy will have heard me talk about this yesterday in Kildare. We need about 27,000 more people to work in the construction sector. The Deputy and I are not going to build the houses. That is why we are putting a concerted focus on apprenticeships. At the moment we take on about 6,000 construction apprentices a year. That will rise to 9,000 next year, a 50% increase. From January we will bring in a subsidy whereby we will pay employers about €2,000 per year per new apprentice they take on to make it easier for employers. We are changing the CAO website such that the young students I was speaking to in Kildare yesterday see not just the university options but also the technical options, the colleges of further education and the apprenticeships and that they are not hidden away as fallback options but seen as real, viable, important careers, which they are. That attention and focus we are providing on apprenticeships will really improve the technical skills needs of our country, coupled with the answer I gave the Deputy regarding the focus on STEM, engineering, ICT and science in our universities.

I thank the Minister for his interaction with the students in Celbridge and Maynooth yesterday. Arising from that, does he continue to be convinced of the ability to draw on more of those students when they qualify and to help them to qualify by various means and incentives between now and the next three or four years, given the urgent and pressing necessity to be able to fill the positions that are available in this country at both levels?

Yes, I do. I am really encouraged by what I saw yesterday and what I saw of the research ecosystem in Maynooth and the real focus there on doing more in research and collaborating. I am encouraged by the meeting I had with the new president of NUI Maynooth yesterday, her management team and the discussions we had on collaboration with further education. I really want to see the education ecosystem in Kildare - the colleges of further education, the secondary schools and the university - working together and pulling together to meet the skills needs of the county and the region. The students I am most thinking of, after my visit yesterday with the Deputy, are the students of Leixlip Youthreach. We cannot leave anybody behind. School does not work for everybody for a whole variety of reasons, and we have a duty of care and an obligation to make sure that those students, learners and citizens can reach their full potential. I am more determined than ever after our visit yesterday to work with the Deputy to get a proper, purpose-built facility for the students of Leixlip Youthreach.

Questions Nos. 69 to 71, inclusive, replied to with Written Answers.