Further and Higher Education: Statements.

I am delighted to have this opportunity to address the House on recent developments and current issues in higher and further education.

It is important at the outset to put the issues in these sectors in context. We live in a fast-changing world. Ireland has been transformed over the past decade from an underperforming economy at the periphery of Europe to a wealthy, prosperous outward-looking country that ranks among the richest in the EU. As Deputies on all sides of the House appreciate, we now face major challenges in sustaining our success. The Irish model is being emulated by low-cost competitors around the world. We now need to look to new sources of advantage for our future economic and social prosperity. Knowledge, innovation, creativity and workforce skills will be Ireland's key success factors in future. That places our higher and further education systems in a pivotal role as providers of our key national resources — skilled people, knowledge and the ability to put it to use.

In this modern knowledge age, opportunities for lifelong learning are critical to personal opportunity and to meeting the demands of the workplace. The concept of a job for life is increasingly redundant. An ability to adapt and to learn is now the most essential of workplace skills.

Our higher and further education systems are now, therefore, essential contributors to national well-being. The benefits of lifelong learning for personal enrichment and development are well demonstrated. At a wider level, lifelong learning is key to building the overall skill levels of the population to meet our growing needs as a modern, high technology economy. Beyond the marketplace, it is central to wider personal and societal development through the promotion of social inclusion and citizenship.

The Government recognises, therefore, the major national importance of promoting greater participation and improved quality in higher and further education. I want to look at some of the relevant developments in each of those sectors in turn.

It is important to record that our higher education system has come through a period of major expansion. It has been transformed from an elite sector of fewer than 20,000 students in the mid-1960s to a system that now caters for more than 130,000 students and a majority of school leavers each year. That has been a major factor in our ability to attract inward investment in the high technology growth sectors that have been at the foundation of our current economic success.

The Government has continued to invest in the next phase of our development by continuing that expansion over recent years. More than 30,000 additional third level places have been created since this Government took office in 1997. Overall annual investment in the sector has more than doubled over that period and now stands at some €1.7 billion for 2006.

The Government recognises that, in seeking to develop future competitive strengths in the global knowledge era, a determined approach to investment in our skills, creativity and innovation capacity needs to be sustained. The Government's strategic ambition for Ireland is that it continue to develop as a world-leading knowledge economy. To achieve that and to enjoy the consequent social dividends, we need to produce quality skilled graduates at third level and quality researchers at fourth level who are able to serve the high value needs of the emerging sectors of the economy.

We want our higher education system to be at the front rank of international performance. That objective prompted the Government to commission a wide-ranging OECD review of our higher education system. The resulting report of September 2004 set out the major challenges facing us if we are to achieve this goal. The report identified the key issues of strategic objective setting and oversight, internal decision making processes, organisational structures, governance and investment. As a Government we have clearly signalled our intention to take on these challenges. Responsibility for the day-to-day management of the institutes of technology will be transferred from my Department to the Higher Education Authority under new legislation that is currently being finalised. This will facilitate a unified strategic policy framework for the sector and allow the gradual devolution to the institutes of technology of greater academic and managerial autonomy.

The strategic agenda for change and reform in our higher education institutions that we have set out is being aligned with our policies for investment and funding so that we support the successful transition from a technology importing, low-cost economy to one based on technology and innovation. Recent funding announcements have given significant impetus to this. As Deputies are aware, additional investment in higher education of €1.2 billion over the next five years, on top of the existing €1.6 billion per annum expenditure, was announced in the 2006 budget. Of the new money, €300 million over the next five years will be allocated to the new strategic innovation fund that has been established for the sector. The fund will drive the transformation of our higher education system by promoting collaboration and change both within and between institutions.

Achieving the desired change is a complex and challenging task but higher education institutions will be able to avail of the fund to support the following key objectives: to incentivise and reward internal restructuring and rationalisation efforts; to provide improved performance management systems; to meet staff training and support requirements associated with the reform of structures and the implementation of new processes; to implement improved management information systems; to introduce teaching and learning reforms including enhanced teaching methods, programme re-structuring, modularisation and e-learning; to support quality improvement initiatives aimed at excellence; and to promote access, transfer and progression and incentivise stronger inter-institutional collaboration in the development and delivery of programmes. The criteria for competitive awards under the fund will place a core emphasis on promoting inter-institutional collaboration so that we can build world class strength within the Irish system by drawing on the collective strengths of our institutions. The overall objective is to achieve new levels of performance at third level.

Building on this, we want to develop a new fourth level system of advanced research and development that can be benchmarked against the highest international standards. The research landscape in higher education has already been transformed under this Government with the establishment of the programme for research in third level institutions, PRTLI, Science Foundation Ireland and the two research councils. Since the launch of the PRTLI in 1998, funding of €605 million has been awarded, 33 new research centres have been opened, approximately 800 researchers have been funded and 62 new and expanded research programmes and some 40 new inter-institutional programmes have been established.

The Government recognises the strategic importance of continuing to enhance our national research and development effort at fourth level, which is essential to enhancing Ireland's international reputation as a knowledge hub. An ambitious new national research plan is to be considered by a Cabinet committee shortly and investment in our intellectual capital through higher education will be a central objective of the successor national development plan now being prepared. I look forward to returning to these issues in this House as we continue to pursue these fundamentally important objectives for Ireland's future economic and social prosperity.

In pursuing these objectives, the provision of continuing investment in the basic physical facilities on our third level campuses around the country will be an essential foundation. The budget day announcement included £900 million in capital funding for higher education projects as part of my Department's five-year envelope for 2006-10. In all, a total of 53 major capital projects across the system will be progressed by 2010. The capital funding available will also be used to deal with emerging priorities in the context of the overall national strategy for higher education.

In tandem with the expansion and development of higher education, the Government has created a range of enhanced opportunities in the further education sector for people, adolescents and adults alike, who wish to progress educationally. The post-leaving certificate sector provides important opportunities for young people who want to enhance their qualifications and employment prospects or who need an alternate route of entry into higher education. The number of PLC places has increased by 60% since 1997 and now stands at more than 30,000. Such courses provide an important supply of skills to the economy, with some 1,000 courses ranging across approximately 60 disciplines. The sector is well positioned to make a major contribution to developing the future skills required by the economy and it already plays a key role in providing occupationally relevant education to a substantial body of school leavers. PLC courses have also become an important re-entry route for older adults who wish to return to learning. Through local community based access and the provision of education and training programmes in areas of niche need, the PLC sector has become an increasingly important element of Ireland's education system.

Bringing more of our adult population back into education is a prime objective for the Government for social inclusion and economic reasons. Since 2002, we have established a network of posts of community education facilitators to develop community based education opportunities nationwide. Some 35 of these posts are now in place across the vocational education committees. In addition, 35 adult educational guidance service projects are now in place for clients in literacy and adult education programmes and other programmes under the vocational training opportunities scheme, VTOS. Investment in adult literacy has increased from just €1 million in 1997 to €22 million in 2005 and the number of clients availing of adult literacy services has increased more than sixfold over that period. During tomorrow's world book day, we will all want to celebrate the literacy achievements those people have made.

In our knowledge society, the availability of a variety of learning pathways and opportunities at all ages has taken on a new importance. The role of further and adult education is pivotal. The establishment of the national framework of qualifications has been hugely significant for learners in the sector. It has opened up whole new possibilities for access, transfer and progression across all levels of learning and it has created new lifelong learning opportunities for traditional and non-traditional learners alike. The Minister of State, Deputy de Valera, has been particularly committed to the continuing development of a strong and vibrant PLC sector as part of these efforts to open up learning opportunities. For my part, I know that the VEC in my Dún Laoghaire constituency, as perhaps the only VEC in the country that does not include a second level element, is very committed to expanding the number of places that it offers and to developing the sector.

Following the McIver report's series of far-reaching recommendations, I know the main partners engaged significantly in identifying priorities for progress. Clearly, complex issues are involved, given the scale and the wider impacts of the recommendations and the challenge presented by the variation in sizes of PLC providers. In mapping the way forward on these and other issues, the over-riding priority that the Minister of State, Deputy de Valera, and I share is to continue to enhance educational opportunity for learners across the further and adult education sectors. As Deputy de Valera will explain further in her speech, a reflection of that is the fact that non-pay expenditure for the expansion of services across these sectors has been increased by €10 million in 2006.

Enhancing access to further and higher education will continue to be a fundamental priority for achieving a more equitable and inclusive society and sustaining a vibrant knowledge economy. The expansion of opportunity to progress to further and higher education has grown with each generation. In 2003, participation in higher education among the school leaver age cohort stood at 54% and a further 13%, approximately, progressed to post leaving certificate programmes. Funding on access measures, including the student support schemes, has increased from €98 million in 1998 to some €250 million per annum at present. The rates of grant have also increased significantly, from a maximum of €2,098 in 1998 to €5,355 in 2005. There is good emerging evidence of the impact of these measures on participation rates among the lower socio-economic groups.

An important factor in further enhancing access will be an increased emphasis on creating awareness among potential further and higher education students of the supports available to them. I have asked the national office for equity of access to develop and launch a new information campaign in 2006 which will provide more accessible and user-friendly information on the range of financial supports available to students of all backgrounds and circumstances in further and higher education. The full range of supports available will be explained clearly through a range of formats including posters, pamphlets, web-based information and media coverage through a vast network of information points. Members are also aware of the preparation of legislation regarding the grants system.

Unprecedented investment is being made in our higher and further education systems. The development of the knowledge base to support Ireland's future growth strategy is a major policy priority for the Government. It is investing in basic research and teaching infrastructure and is promoting excellence through system-wide collaboration and change. It intends to widen access to further and higher education opportunities and to create a new vibrant fourth level sector. These are fundamentally important long-term investments in securing Ireland's future prosperity and in building a cohesive 21st century society. Along with those who will deliver such systems in our further education and higher education sectors, we can look forward with optimism to a society of which we will be proud to be a part.

I welcome the opportunity to speak to the House on the subject of further and higher education. Everyone in the country relies to a greater or lesser extent on our education system. Generally, the public is very clear on the role played by primary and secondary schools, and increasingly by the third level education sector. However, it may be less clear on the importance of the further education sector.

While this should be challenged, unfortunately the Government has not fully recognised the potential offered by the further education sector. Instead of concentrating on ways to support the development of the further education sector, previously the principal concern has been to cap places on PLC courses which restricts access to further education and affects funding to further education colleges.

In 2003, the Government was presented with a report on further education, namely, the McIver report. As the Minister is aware, the report was commissioned by the Department of Education and Science. The Mclver report envisaged further education as a distinct sector in the education system operating under a council of further education colleges, with enhanced staffing and information technology provisions. The report also envisaged education being facilitated both at college and in other locations, as well as through a mixture of distance learning and attendance at centres. This is crucial in terms of accessibility, particularly for regions which do not have ready access to other educational institutions.

Importantly, from the perspective of access to education, the McIver report looks forward to a time when further education colleges will have the teaching capacity to deliver courses all year round from morning to evening and at weekends. What better way to make our colleges real living active environments and to get the best value for money from our buildings and campuses, than by ensuring that our institutions are used as much as possible?

Further education plays a particularly important role in bringing educational opportunity to thousands of people every year throughout the country. As the Minister is aware, a higher percentage of mature students return to education through the VEC and PLC route, gaining valuable qualifications that enable them to return to the workplace or to change employment. In addition, the further education sector can devise new courses at short notice, providing training to people in business-related skills that change constantly and which may be needed in a particular locality. However, to do so properly, the further education sector needs greater flexibility, funding, autonomy and support. None of the extra funding announced in the last budget went towards the implementation of the recommendations of the McIver report. This was a huge disappointment, and a missed opportunity.

The colleges of further education also require a far higher level of technical expertise. While they have received funding for technical equipment, which is welcome, they struggle to maintain this equipment or to fix any difficulties encountered, without suitably qualified staff. In addition, staff at colleges of further education are employed on the same contracts as teachers at second level schools. This contract structure is not suitable, as further education colleges require a different staffing structure as their remit is so substantially different to second level education. Further education must also be put on a statutory basis.

The colleges of further education are anxious that the recommendations of the McIver report be implemented in full. However, many further education colleges recognise that this is not an "all or nothing" situation. This is also true of the many groups which I have met which represent those who teach in such colleges. They wish to meet the Minister and her departmental officials to discuss a staggered implementation programme for these recommendations, with a view to eventually having the report fully implemented.

The Minister of State at the Department of Education and Science, Deputy de Valera, has stated she is in consultation with representatives of the further education sector. I have questioned her in the House a number of times in this regard, as has Deputy O'Sullivan, as I have heard otherwise from the colleges and representative groups. I ask both the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Hanafin, and the Minister of State at the Department of Education and Science, Deputy de Valera, to engage with the representatives of the colleges to discuss the McIver recommendation — which could be implemented now — to draw up a plan for short to medium term implementation and for full implementation in the longer term. This sector has grown and risen on its own initiative. One could almost state that this originally took place more by accident than by design. It has grown without major planning on the part of the Department of Education and Science. However, if the sector is to go further, it now requires greater input from the Department. To conclude my remarks as they relate to further education, action to support the further education sector should be taken and the development of the sector should be underpinned by implementing the recommendations of the McIver report.

For Ireland's future success, it is widely acknowledged that education will be critical. This involves investment in education at all levels which will bear fruit in terms of later engagement in further and higher education. In 2004, the OECD produced a report which recommended change in a number of areas at third level. This report indicated, inter alia, that Ireland’s investment in the education system as a whole is lower than the OECD average. In public expenditure it ranks only 25th of 30 OECD countries. Between 1995 and 2000 public expenditure declined from 4.7% to 4.1% of gross domestic product. Expenditure per student in tertiary education is also below the OECD average, with Ireland ranking 14th of 26 countries. Moreover, Irish expenditure on research and development as a proportion of GDP is well below EU and OECD averages. However, I acknowledge the changes announced in the budget last December in this respect. Worryingly, the proportion of mature students entering higher education is still extremely low. Great disparities exist in the third level participation of students from families of different socio-economic backgrounds. These are some of the findings of the OECD report which should be borne in mind in this debate.

In addition, we must be mindful that as children and young people are lost from the education system at primary and secondary level, the potential for their later engagement in third level education is severely restricted. Making better universities and institutes of technology requires a multipronged approach. Not only will we be obliged to focus on funding at third level as well as reforms of management and research, we must also tackle the problem of disadvantage much earlier in the education cycle.

There is still an unhealthy imbalance within our education system which stymies the personal development and future career prospects of thousands of children born into families with financial constraints or in disadvantaged areas. By failing to support all children who might have the wish or talent to proceed to third level but who need greater State intervention to achieve this, our society squanders their talents in an entirely arbitrary manner.

Educational research published in late 2005 showed that some schools have a 60% drop-out rate. In addition, the leaving certificate retention rate for those entering school in 1996 declined when compared with the 1994 cohort. The Government has a clear responsibility to increase the numbers finishing school and has made commitments under the Lisbon Agenda to make this happen. However, children drop out even before entering second level schooling. Currently, more than 1,000 children do not even make the transition from primary to secondary school. This reflects a sharp increase in recent years. This is particularly important, as at second level we can at least infer that some who do not complete their leaving certificate go on to apprenticeships or into employment. However, the 1,000 children who do not make the transition from primary level is more worrying, because they obviously do not enter legal employment. There is also a sharp urban-rural divide in terms of retention rates to leaving certificate level. The retention rates in Dublin city of 69%, and in Limerick city of72.9%, are far behind those of Mayo and Westmeath, which have rates of 84.6%, and Roscommon, which has a rate of 85.9%.

I am also deeply concerned at the gender gap in school completion, where only 72.1% of males staying on for the leaving certificate compared with 83.3% of females. This is a gap that must be bridged. Otherwise large numbers of young men will continue to enter adulthood with greatly diminished opportunities. The failure to finish school and the growing problem of the number of children failing to make the transition from primary to secondary education impacts considerably on their later engagement with third level or further education.

How are we meeting the needs of children with special educational requirements? Some 50% of the primary schools still have no access to the National Educational Psychological Service. What chances have children being left behind in primary school of going on to college, university or further education?

Returning to the OECD report, it is fair to say that this report underestimated the role of the humanities in higher education. In planning for the future in higher education, we must avoid the trap into which perhaps it would be easy to fall of considering higher education simply as an economic means to an end. The role of the humanities must still be an integral part of the higher education system and must be valued on an equal footing. This point, while acknowledged by the OECD report, was not put forward in any detail and was to some extent glossed over by it. We must be in no doubt that higher education in all disciplines is always worthwhile.

As well as education being a pathway through which knowledge is transmitted, recent reports from the Royal Irish Academy also recognise the need for knowledge to be created. This is also fundamental for the future development of higher education in Ireland and when it comes to research activity, Irish third level institutions compete, not only on a national and European stage but on an international stage.

I welcome the fact that in the recent budget the Minister for Finance finally started to recognise the importance of fourth level education. This is crucial. I can only ask that the Government, the PRTLI, Science Foundation Ireland and the research councils be brave in their approach to research. It is crucial to the development of this country and to the fostering of a thinking entrepreneurial society.

The Government should make a clear statement also that any moneys raised privately by third level institutions will not be offset by a lower contribution from the Exchequer. This is of considerable importance. This statement would ensure that universities and institutes of technology would continue to possess an incentive to raise moneys and would not feel that being more successful at fund-raising would result in a cut in their Exchequer funding. Will the Minister for Education and Science consult her colleague, the Minister for Finance on this issue?

I also welcome the strategic innovation fund which was announced as part of the 2006 budget and which the Minister dealt with in this debate. She outlined the key objectives of the fund and mentioned that the criteria for competitiveness awards under the fund would place a core emphasis on promoting inter-institutional collaboration to build world class strength within the system. Will the Minister come back to the House at a later stage with examples of exactly how she intends this fund to work?

It is competitive.

While I recognise it must not be overly prescriptive given it relates to the idea of research, I ask her to give it clearer guidelines.

On the question of structural changes, the funding of the institutes of technology under the Department of Education and Science is not satisfactory. It is inevitable that for as long as this situation is maintained, the IT sector will be overlooked. The focus of the Department of Education and Science has been traditionally on primary and second level education and it will take a little time to change. I welcome the fact that the Minister has stated that this legislation is being finalised and I look forward to it coming through this House.

Every university cannot necessarily be the leading national authority in every subject area. While universities should be broad institutions in every sense, including in the type of subjects offered, some element of specialisation could also be of assistance in attracting research funding, particularly when competition for funding is fierce internationally and we are competing at that level.

The tiny level of mature students entering higher education is also of great concern. The OECD report noted that the proportion of new entrants into university level education aged 26 and over was only 2.3% in 1997 compared with 19.3% in the OECD as a whole. Meeting Lisbon Agenda targets will be impossible without increased funding to third level from the Exchequer as well as increasing the level of private funding to higher education. Trends in the third level sector point to the increased importance of promoting enterprise and fostering research in the universities and institutes. We need to enable the third level sector to respond quickly and innovatively to change. We need to allow the sector to build relationships with business and enterprise where these will benefit both parties. In short, we need to ensure the sector is given the tools it needs to carry out the demanding responsibilities placed on it. I also welcome the Minister's comments on collaborations between institutions.

In recent years our society has been vastly altered. It is easy to focus on the most obvious changes — wealth, type of work done, the predominately urban way of life and mass travel — but large-scale access to education has been, without doubt, a catalyst for many of the greater achievements and changes seen in the latter half of the 20th century.

In recognising the important role education plays in society for its own sake and that the pure pursuit of knowledge is always to be supported, we should also acknowledge that economic success can be underpinned by the education sector. This does not undermine the concept of education, rather simply reinforces its importance, not only to the individual, society and culture but also to the economy.

I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this debate and I want to touch on some of the issues addressed by both the Minister and Deputy Enright.

I welcome the fact that we are discussing higher and further education together because one of the difficulties is that we tend to sectoralise the different parts of education. The further education sector, in particular, has suffered because it is seen separately from the higher education sector. Even within the latter sector there is the fraction between the institutes of technology and the universities.

Like Deputy Enright, I welcome the fact that the institutes of technology will come under the Higher Education Authority. Perhaps the Minister, in replying, might indicate when we can expect that legislation to come before the House so that at least the two sectors can be more seamlessly integrated. I hope there will be further action on a more seamless approach to education in general and in particular on the further education sector which needs to find and be given its important niche in the context of the spectrum of opportunities in education for young people.

I too would begin by addressing the issue of the further education sector colleges being treated like second level schools, the difficulties the sector encounters as a result and the recommendations in the McIver report that the sector should be treated separately, as it is by most neighbouring European states. In such countries, the further education sector is a productive sector in terms of responding to the needs of the economy and to the needs of students who may not be in the 500 points category but who have a real future and in many ways also can use further education as a pathway to higher education. That is the way it operates in this country at present but it has grown in an ad hoc manner, developed largely by the vocational education committees without proper funding and structures.

When the McIver report was published in 2003, there was a real hope that the further education sector would be put on a proper footing. There was a particular hope in the approach to the recent budget that the €48 million required to undertake, or at least commence, the major reconstruction work would be provided. From speaking to representatives of the TUI, for example, I know that they were given to expect that the funding to which I refer would be in the budget this year. It did not happen as expected and there was considerable disappointment, not only for the people working in the sector but also for the 30,000 students in the further education sector. They do not possess the simple tools one would expect of people lecturing to third level students such as necessary information technology and library support, canteens, and proper departmental structures and seniority roles.

I have spoken to many working in that sector and wish to read from a letter I received from somebody who works in a city college with more than 1,000 students. It states:

We are lucky to have an information officer employed for four hours daily. She is not employed as a librarian [this is within the context of the library in the college] because, being classed as a second level school, there is no funding for that position. Our information officer is paid at a part-time administrative rate. She is responsible for the ongoing cataloguing of resources, the issuing of library materials, and the general running of the library and the monitoring of stock.

This is in contrast with [she names an institute of technology which I will not name] which has a similar student population and profile to our own. However, it employs 11 librarians and library technicians. The library has longer opening hours and has 20,000 printed resources.

Our opening hours are entirely dependent on the teachers who supervise the library in the absence of the information officer. In the absence of a teacher filling a slot, the library has to close. Therefore, it often has to close at 2 p.m., for example. Our students, many of whom have come from the third level sector to retrain, find this situation extremely frustrating. We cannot accommodate our night time students because of lack of budget for a second information officer.

Our computers and printers, to work well, depend on dedicated technicians to make the library function. We have in our college one full-time technician for the whole college (500 computers in all). We have to wait in turn along with every other department for the overburdened technician to repair the computers, printers etc. As students depend on the library to complete assignments, projects and study, a library without proper technical support is one not running to its full potential.

The recommendations of McIver would allow us to employ at least two full-time library assistants and two full-time librarians. This is not counting our night time allocation. We could employ at least one dedicated full-time computer technician.

There are two more pages in the letter, which I will not quote, but it gives a flavour of the frustrations of people in the PLC and further education sector. They know what they need, they have a report and they have a commitment in principle but the funding and structures to make that happen have not been provided. The Minister of State will contribute later and I would very much like her to respond to the concerns raised by Members regarding further education.

Many opportunities will be presented over the coming years to be more inclusive and to increase the number of students availing of further and higher education. I fully agree with Deputy Enright that resources need to be implemented at an early stage and the problem of early school leavers also needs to be addressed. We debated this issue during Private Members' business last night. The unemployment rate among early school leavers is higher now than in 1999 and, therefore, opportunities must be offered to them. Opportunities must also be offered to adults who left the system without a proper education. Adult education should also fit this jigsaw. The national adult learning council was set up a few years ago but it was disbanded later. This forum could pull all the strands together. What is the Government's intention regarding the council?

More than half our population avails of higher and further education, which is welcome, whereas a generation ago half the population probably did not go further than primary education. That is a significant success story and the plan is to maintain it. This success is no small measure due to so-called free second level education and free third level fees. I am glad the Government is continuing the policy on third level fees and it is not acceding to the pressure to reinstate such fees. Available statistics suggest all sectors of the populations are participating at third level. A report in this regard will be published tomorrow and it will probably highlight that people from various socio-economic backgrounds participate in third level at a higher rate than previously.

The HEA's target is that 60% of school leavers will enter full-time third level education by 2010. However, one demographic is falling. In 2004, there were 61,000 18 year olds but it is anticipated there will only be 53,000 in 2014. The Department, therefore, could provide more opportunities for people who have various difficulties through access programmes. Entry to third level is provided through such programmes but Ireland lags very much behind its European neighbours and other OECD countries in the number of students who transfer to third level through such programmes. Ireland also lags behind in the number of mature students entering third level. Given the falling demographics, increased opportunities should be available to students to enter third level through such programmes and post leaving certificate courses. People who do well in these courses should be enabled to take up a diploma or degree directly in ITs or universities. While such opportunities are available, they need to be more formalised. Future demographics will give the Minister the opportunity to do that.

More opportunities should also be created for part-time students. People are put off third level education because they cannot afford it. Many of them work and because they can only attend as part-time students, they must pay fees, which is a major obstacle. Recommendation 22 in the OECD report states: "Every effort should be made to increase part-time student numbers as a proportion of total numbers and, to this end, distinctions between part-time and full-time students should be removed for the purpose of the obligation to pay fees and receive maintenance support and in calculating the recurrent grant to third level institutions." The Minister is shaking her head because that will be costly but the recommendation has been made.

We cannot afford it and I did not accept all the recommendations.

The Minister should move in this direction because part-time students are disadvantaged. It is not their fault they were unable to enter third level when they left school but they are in the workplace and they are anxious to further their education. There probably will be space for them in future and they should be afforded an opportunity. However, to do so, more modularised third level programmes are needed so that such students can take a module on a part-time basis and the programmes are not geared solely towards full-time students. That structural issue also needs to be addressed.

Institutes of technology are about to come under the remit of the HEA. They have developed significantly in recent times and I welcome the release of capital funding to them to strengthen their financial base but a number of them have experienced shortfalls in funding historically. Limerick Institute of Technology and, in particular, the school of art and design, has an excellent reputation but it has endured a funding shortfall, which needs to be addressed. If the Limerick institute has experienced such problems, other institutes may also have done so. When they come under the remit of the HEA, I hope this issue will be addressed.

All the sectors involved have strong roles to play in providing opportunities to as many people as possible. I concur with Deputy Enright's comments on the humanities. There are fears in higher education institutions that greater rewards will ensue if one takes up economic and industry-based programmes, including the sciences, but the social economy and society in general also have significant needs. My colleague, Deputy Michael D. Higgins, in the context of the NUIG Bill, referred to the importance of scholarships and ensuring students in universities continue to think and advance ideas and knowledge. It would be terrible if that aspect of university education was lost in the context of increasing pressure to secure funding in a competitive environment.

I accept there is a role for competitive tendering for funding in any area, but we also need to ensure we retain the core of what a university is about. This is very important in the context of the broader involvement of universities, institutes of technology and other further education colleges in the world around them. The further education colleges are particularly good in this regard. For example, where there is a need for child care workers, hairdressers etc., they have jumped in and filled the gaps. They have the capacity to continue to do this.

Universities and institutes of technology also have a strong role to play in this area. I participated in exchanges with Limerick Institute of Technology and people from various sectors of the economy in the region recently, and in the Vision 2020 forum two years ago. The institute brought in people such as myself and IBEC and ICTU members etc. These engagements with the wider community are important.

I welcome the opportunity we have had to address these issues. I look forward to hearing the replies of the Minister and Minister of State. I appeal to both of them to address the need to give the further education sector the finance and support structures it needs to play its full role.

I wish to share time with Deputies Gregory and Gogarty.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

Delivering access to education to everyone on this island is a priority for Sinn Féin. We believe that learners from all social, economic and cultural backgrounds must be given the opportunity to go into further and higher education, especially in today's competitive climate. However, education should not be pursued for solely financial or business gains. It is a powerful tool that can liberate and empower people.

With regard to access to further and higher education, four notable groups are underrepresented, namely, students who are socio-economically disadvantaged, Travellers and ethnic minorities in general, students with a disability and mature students. While the Minister for Education and Science claims to prioritise tackling disadvantage throughout the education spectrum, this seems like empty rhetoric to many. The reality is that most kids from areas of high deprivation will not make it to college.

There are some areas in Ireland where less than 10% of young people go on to higher education. While I welcome the small increase in the number of people from lower income families attending further and higher education, there is a yawning gap to bridge before we achieve fair representation. To widen overall access, we need collaboration between primary, second level, further and higher education. It is important to emphasise not just entry to higher education but also successful participation and completion.

While 75% of Irish people between the ages of 26 and 64 are in employment, less than 10% of them are lifelong learners, compared with 34% in Sweden and 21% in Britain. Lifelong learning here is in a mess and hundreds of thousands of people need retraining, reskilling etc. The ESRI has estimated that up to 400,000 workers in the labour force are likely to suffer deprivation in any economic downturn because they lack the skills for new employment.

According to Forfás, higher education is crucial to Ireland's economic wellbeing. However, the entry rate to higher education reached just 54% in 2003. The education system should be an instrument of progress for everyone, not a means to reproduce inequalities where medicine and law college places are, for the most part, essentially the reserve of the wealthy. It is imperative that disadvantaged students receive adequate financial support to survive and successfully complete further or higher education. The Department will spend a little over €1 million on stationery services this year, but will spend less on university scholarships. No student from an area of high disadvantage who successfully makes it to third level should be financially worse off than he or she would be on the dole. However, in many cases that is the shameful reality.

Students have expressed their anger to me over the delay in receiving their higher education grants or their back to education initiative money. This issue was ignored in the last budget. There is a great need for substantially increased funding for back to school initiatives where people would not lose their welfare entitlements. People need to be encouraged back to education, not discouraged.

The Government should put its money — I should say our money — where its mouth is and implement the McIver report immediately. Although the former Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Cullen, threw away €52 million of our money on e-voting, the Government cannot find the necessary €48 million to implement the McIver report. Where is the logic in paying €450,000 in consultancy fees, if it does not implement the recommendations?

Further education students also lose out because of the Government's failure. The PLC sector is for some their only real chance of further education. It needs to be enhanced, developed and provided with appropriate resourcing, funding, staffing and restructuring. The sector caters for 30,000 students, the majority from areas of disadvantage. After all the Government's posturing, is it not time, after a lengthy delay of three years, to implement fully the report?

Although the Minister glossed over it in her opening statement, this debate on further education arises from the failure of the Government, specifically in one area of higher education, to act on the recommendations of the McIver report. We probably would not have this debate but for the campaign of the Teachers' Union of Ireland to highlight the neglect of this critical area of further education.

This issue goes back to the Programme for Prosperity and Fairness in 1999 when the social partners, including the Government and the trade unions, gave a clear commitment to review post leaving certificate courses. On foot of that commitment, a steering group was set up in 2000 by the Department to carry out the review. The Department was, supposedly, committed to making progress on the issue. The steering group commissioned independent consultants to produce a report and in April 2003 the McIver report was published. Now, nearly three years later, not a single cent has been spent and not one recommendation has been implemented.

The Government's commitment to one of the priority issues of the Programme for Prosperity and Fairness has been put on the shelf and left there. The main recommendations of the McIver report were the recognition of further education as a sector of education in its own right and not as a misplaced adjunct of second level and that PLCs should be distinct colleges of further education and specially funded and resourced as such. They were to have libraries, study areas, properly equipped IT facilities and staff to maintain them and facilities and resources on a par with institutes of technology and universities.

Instead, the 30,000 students still participate in a system that was set up as a temporary arrangement 20 years ago. The system is overstrained and drastically underresourced. Much of it is in cramped accommodation, it is governed by inappropriate regulations and its teachers carry an excessive teaching load. This is the case despite the fact that the majority of its students are over 18 years of age, with as much as one fifth over 30 years of age. There are more mature students in the PLCs than in all the universities and institutes of education put together.

The McIver report states the sector urgently requires a new management structure to develop the colleges and their study programmes, with the addition of three national agencies to oversee links to industry, computer links between colleges and support services for teachers. These are teachers who teach a huge range of courses designed to meet service industry and community needs.

A separate capital programme is critical for the future of these colleges. However, Ireland is now the only European country with no recognised sector of further education in an economic context, where there is an increasing and critical need to reskill and retrain the less advantaged sections of our young people. The PLC colleges could be perfectly poised to take up this challenge. With the necessary resources, this sector would be a real investment in the future. These colleges are currently the primary providers of second-chance education, but the Government has turned its back on them. Since last Easter, discussions had been ongoing between the teachers' unions, the Department and the Irish Vocational Education Association based on the belief that something substantial would be delivered in last December's budget, but not one cent was provided for the implementation of the McIver recommendations.

In reply to recent parliamentary questions, the Minister of State, Deputy de Valera referred to various other areas for which she has responsibility and asked if she should take money from them for the McIver report. What a cop out. Is that the way strategic planning is undertaken in the Department of Education and Science? Six years for a review of needs and now it does not even budget for it. Ironically, the amount required, as I said a number of weeks ago, as a major first step is €48 million, which is more or less the same amount as this Government squandered on the now discarded and useless electronic voting machines.

Much of this sector provides for the needs of second-chance students, the socially disadvantaged who did not have the opportunity of university but who could now be skilled in post-leaving certificate courses and go on to good jobs or even third level education. Many of these students are themselves parents. The educational benefits for their children and other social benefits could be spin-off results and a real investment in this country's future. Despite this, a Government with enormous financial surpluses and resources fails to meet its responsibility. Is it that the old prejudice against vocational education in the education system has simply not gone away but is alive and well in the way the PLC sector is treated? The only positive answer to this question is to end the lip-service and allocate the necessary resources now. What a fitting way this would be to commemorate the 90th anniversary of the 1916 Proclamation and really cherish all the children of the nation equally.

Hear, hear.

How much time is remaining?

Four and a half minutes.

I suppose that is better than nothing but I wish my party had the seat numbers and the same opportunities to speak as Deputies Enright and O'Sullivan.

Perhaps the Green Party will have more seats next time.

The aforementioned Deputies have outlined the facts and figures very well so I will not repeat too many of their points. While listening to the Minister's speech, I had to agree with her about the improvements that have taken place in the higher education sector, especially in terms of the numbers of people involved in higher education. It is important if we are to continue to develop as a world-leading economy and to have high quality graduates and researchers that our higher education system is in the front rank. No one disagrees with that but we must also stress that there is no point in having a fourth or PhD level when, in some areas, our education system is more akin to that of the second world or the former Soviet Bloc countries rather than the developed world.

In that context, I await with interest the report due out tomorrow and has been touted in today's newspapers, that is, the review of higher education in 2004. Some of the findings have already been leaked to the media and show, for example, that in the more prosperous areas of Dublin, 90% of students attend third level while only 20% in poor areas of west Dublin do so, which no doubt includes a sizeable segment of my constituency.

Despite the improvements overall, we still have this discrepancy. When the economy is booming we should not have inequality to the extent we do now. We still have approximately 5,000 people dropping out before or just after their junior certificate and one in seven students entering second level from primary not having proper reading, writing and mathematical skills. That is a problem we must address because such people will never get to attend to third level if they leave school early. However, opportunities do not exist for them because of the lack of investment in the further education sector.

We know that there were 21 main recommendations out of a larger number in the McIver report. I have already raised this issue with the Minister of State, Deputy de Valera, as have other Deputies, and the response has always been that we must take one recommendation at a time. The reality is that the €48 million required is a drop in the ocean compared with the amount of money the Government has wasted. Deputy Crowe has given a number of examples already and I wish to provide another one from my constituency which has one of the lowest thirdlevel participation rates of the disadvantagedareas.

Close to areas such as Quarryvale in north Clondalkin in my constituency is the M50. That motorway is being widened and will cause significant congestion over the years when it is finished. Originally, the cost was to be €350 million. That rose to €800 million and the Taoiseach said recently that it will now cost €1 billion. In that context, €650 million will be wasted but a small fraction of that would implement all of the recommendations in the McIver report.

I put it to the Minister and Minister of State at the Department of Education and Science that they are not pushing the issue sufficiently with their Cabinet colleagues. There is a lot more to be saved in terms of this economy by implementing the McIver report and spending money on further and adult education than in throwing money at a white elephant road project that will still be congested when it is completed.

It has been found that people with literacy problems are three times more likely to be out of work and to be the lowest earners, only half as likely to be active in their communities and one fifth as likely to participate in adult education. A cost benefit analysis must be carried out on expenditure on education. The Minister admitted, when referring to the High Scope Perry pre-school project in reply to a Dáil question, that investment in adult and higher education for those in the system and in primary and pre-school education for those coming into the system could pay for itself if it results in people earning more, paying more taxes, being less of a drag on the State in terms of social welfare and not costing the State because they are less likely to go to prison. These are all factors that must be seriously analysed. In that context, I cannot see why €48 million for implementing the McIver report, another €100 million for investing in other areas, as well as an increase from 2% to 5% for adult education is not possible. If we invest in our people, we will get that investment back and save the State money in the long term.

I am glad of the opportunity to present an overview of recent developments in adult and further education in Ireland. The adult education service has expanded considerably over the past eight years. This expansion has concentrated on giving a second chance to people who did not derive full benefit from their initial schooling, especially those who did not receive upper second level education. National certification for participants in adult and further education is provided by the Further Education and Training Awards Council, levels one to six. Some programmes receive certification from professional bodies and from a number of bodies outside the State.

In the context of lifelong learning policies, the conceptual frameworks for further education, adult education and vocational education and training are becoming inextricably linked. Developments at EU and national level are facilitating greater co-operation, co-ordination and cohesion between Departments with responsibilities in these fields and between the statutory bodies with responsibility for delivery at regional and local level. These developments include the new national framework of qualifications, the consultative process with providers being engaged in by the Higher and Further Education and Training Awards Councils on quality assurance and validation processes, and developments within the vocational education committee, VEC, sector on adult education provision, including the expansion of adult literacy provision, the support to learners from the adult education guidance initiative and the appointment of community education facilitators.

My policy is to ensure that available educational resources are targeted at the most disadvantaged people across all levels of the system. Within the framework of the priorities identified in the White Paper on adult education, the principal objectives of the measures and programmes funded by the Department of Education and Science in the further and adult education areas are to meet the needs of young early school leavers, provide vocational education and training opportunities for labour market entrants and re-entrants, and provide alternative pathways to higher education and second-chance education for adults. These objectives are pursued through full-time programmes such as Youthreach, senior Traveller training centre courses, the vocational training opportunities scheme, post-leaving certificate courses and part-time programmes such as the back to education initiative, the adult literacy scheme and the community education scheme. Adult literacy is the top priority in adult education. This priority was accorded following an international literacy survey of adults aged 16 to 64 published in 1997. It found that approximately 25% of our population, some 500,000 adults, scored at the lowest literacy level used in the survey. In response, a number of immediate and longer-term measures were put in place, with the assistance of the national adult literacy agency and the local vocational education committees, which are the providers of the adult literacy services and funding from European Structural Funds.

Since 1997, the Government has increased funding for adult literacy from €1 million in 1997 to €23 million in 2006. As a consequence, the numbers of clients catered for annually have increased from 5,000 to 34,000 in the same period. In this, we are well ahead of the target set in the national development plan of 18,000 annually.

Referral networks were developed by the VECs to ensure that the people who needed them most were made aware of the adult literacy and basic education services. The referral system involves collaboration with other agencies catering for potential literacy students, such as FÁS, employment offices, welfare and community groups and schools. A national referral directory of adult literacy services has been published, showing where services are located, what options are offered and the contact points and telephone numbers.

Staff development programmes have been established on a modular in-service basis for tutors and literacy organisers. Family literacy groups, involving adults and their children, are running successfully. Participants on the community employment scheme operated by FÁS can be released half-time from their work experience programmes to avail of intensive literacy tuition by the vocational education committees. This arrangement enables them to combine work experience and ten hours per week literacy tuition.

The national adult literacy agency, NALA, has trained a number of tutors to provide literacy in the workplace and has promoted the availability of this facility among employer organisations. Following a successful pilot project with some local authorities, the programme is available for local authority outdoor staff nationwide. There are also successful workplace literacy programmes in two hospitals and in a trade union. To supplement the general adult literary service, a number of specially-targeted literacy programmes have been introduced for people in need of particular literacy services, such as deaf people or people whose mother-tongue is the Irish language.

To cater for the literacy and basic education needs of immigrant groups, vocational education committees have provided funds to afford free access to literacy, English language and mother culture supports. With a view to informing and improving future action in this area, an action research project, with a full-time co-ordinator, has been carried out in the Dublin area. The aim of the project was to assess the language and literacy needs of asylum seekers, in consultation with key interests, to initiate pilot actions and to make recommendations on a framework and costings to address future needs in this area. A report has been prepared with recommendations on how provision can be mainstreamed. A new intensive literacy programme is on offer, in which six hours of literacy tuition is available per week instead of the usual two hours.

An assessment framework, known as "Mapping the Learning Journey" for the adult literacy service, that will be in line with best international practice is in the course of being introduced as a feature of the literacy services of many VECs. It should be recognised that these initiatives would take some time to impact on the large target-group of adults with literacy problems — 500,000 people. For one reason or another, many people were reluctant to enrol in the public literacy services, even though they knew they had problems. I wish to refer to what is, perhaps, the most effective approach to dealing with literary awareness, that is, the TV series of which we have had four.

For 2006, it is proposed to provide a new multi-media literacy tuition initiative. This will be done in partnership with the national adult literacy agency, the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland and RTE.

A target of the national anti-poverty strategy is to reduce the proportion of the population in the 16 to 64 age-group, whose literacy skills are restricted, to below 10%-20% by 2007. Irish society has changed radically during the past few decades and is still evolving. Against this background, lifelong learning has become the key to continuing success. Our labour force must be prepared to adapt and participate in this process, and, in response to this need, the adult education sector has expanded. There are many options available for those returning to education and we must ensure that those taking this step are not left without the support and guidance they need. A coherent integrated system of guidance provision must be developed. For anyone to return to education as an adult requires immense courage, dedication, commitment and a willingness to make sacrifices in the short term to find fulfilment in the future. That is the reason I have put particular emphasis on the whole question of guidance where adults are concerned.

The adult educational guidance initiative was launched in 1999 in response to the recognition of these needs. Some 35 projects have been established and the service is almost nationwide. My Department is funding the further development of Qualifax to enable adult learners to gain access to information. The success of programmes dedicated to preparing participants for employment is continuing to be sustained. Some 90% of students who complete post leaving certificate courses progress to employment or further education. In the case of Youthreach, the figure is 74%; for VTOS, 69%; and for senior Travellers centres, 51%.

In the context of the 2006 Estimates, I was pleased to announce an increase in the rates of non-pay grant for VTOS, Youthreach and Traveller centres of from almost 8% for Youthreach and senior Traveller centres to nearly 19% for VTOS, depending on the category of student and the programme being followed. The back to education initiative, a part-time measure, plays a key role in addressing the needs of those with minimal or no educational qualifications, and provides a re-entry route for those who wish to upgrade their skills. There has been a tremendous increase in the number of people taking up these places. When the programme commenced in 2002, 6,000 places were available but the number increased to 7,000 in 2005. Arising from the undertaking in the White Paper I was pleased to arrange for 34 community education facilitators to be appointed to the VECs on a flexible needs basis. This is important for the roll-out of further and adult education. It is a new category of post and training and support services have been put in place for the facilitators.

Annual grants are given to vocational education committees towards the cost of child care support for participants in the vocational opportunities scheme, Youthreach and senior Traveller training centre programmes. This is to cover child care expenses of people for whom these programmes were designed but who were not able to enrol on them because of child care responsibilities. I have provided increased funding for this in recent years.

I have increased the number of post leaving certificate, course places by 60% since 1996-97. The number of PLC places approved for 2005-06 is up by more than 1,600 on the 2004-05 level. The number of approved places in the sector stands at more than 30,000. Post leaving certificate students are included in the calculation of non-pay budgets issued to schools in respect of running costs.

The McIver report contains 21 over-arching recommendations, incorporating 91 sub-recommendations. It has been estimated, in consultation with management and staff interests, that the recommendations for staffing would involve at a minimum the creation of at least 800 new posts at a cost of more than €48 million. I assure the House that our deliberations will bring to fruition many of the issues discussed at that level.

In addition to the Estimates for 2006 the Minister for Finance has in the Revised Estimates approved a further €2 million for adult and further education. I have decided that this money will be spent on improving the adult guidance service and on expansion of the back to education initiative as well as putting further emphasis on adult literacy.

I will concentrate on the PLC sector and universities. I welcome the opportunity to have a general debate such as this, that does not necessarily relate to specific legislation on education and that the Government provided time for same.

This debate on further and higher education was initially sparked off by the lack of implementation of the McIver report which makes recommendations for the restructuring of the post leaving certificate colleges sector. My constituency has the highest concentration of PLC colleges in the country. Within a mile of my office in Cork are Cork College of Commerce and St. John's Central College, and Coláiste Stiofán Naofa is a little farther away. Very significant funds were spent in those colleges in recent years, which is welcome.

The McIver report arose from the Programme for Prosperity and Fairness and was reaffirmed in the White Paper on Adult Education, Learning for Life. Social partners accepted that PLC colleges cannot continue to operate within a system designed essentially for the second level sector. The McIver report was completed in April 2003, as has been highlighted by speaker after speaker, but its recommendations on supports and structures for the PLC sector have still not been implemented. The TUI met senior officials from the Department on several occasions between the holding of its congress last Easter and September 2005. The Minister of State will know that her Department agreed in principle to the implementation of key aspects of the McIver report on PLC colleges at an agreed implementation cost of approximately €48 million in respect of those colleges with more than 150 students, yet this commitment was not honoured in the last budget.

The PLC sector continues to be increasingly important in educational policy generally. As the Minister of State correctly said, we now live in a very different Ireland from that in which many of us lived ten or 20 years ago. We need to support lifelong learning and those who want to change career, perhaps two or three times in their lives, through reskilling etc. We need to ensure we can adapt the workforce to a constantly changing marketplace, which we certainly have. We should not underestimate the value of the PLC sector to the disability sector and to foreigners who have come to our shores for various reasons and who are adapting to the Irish way of life and preparing themselves to enter the workforce.

I want to call a spade a spade regarding universities in Ireland and want to put the debate into context. Every year there is an academic ranking of world universities and this year's ranking shows that Ireland's top university does not even make the top 80 in the European Union or the top 200 in the world. Ireland's second and third ranking universities, University College Cork and University College Dublin, do not even make the top 170 in the European Union or the top 400 in the world. The figures in this regard have not improved in recent years — if anything, they have disimproved. The unfortunate reality is that Ireland is running to a standstill in its effort to upgrade its universities to meet the standards of the top universities in Europe and the rest of the world. Unfortunately we are not in the higher echelons of global university education and this should change.

This is almost entirely a resources issue. For the past 15 years, fuelling the economy in a positive way has been the priority of consecutive Governments. Low taxation and a highly skilled, well educated workforce have been the main factors in attracting foreign investment to Ireland. One would assume that if we are to keep Ireland competitive as a location for investment and business, those two policies would be prioritised absolutely by a Government with plenty of money to spend. However, this is not the case in the university sector. We are not nearly spending enough to ensure that Ireland moves into the top class in the third and fourth level education sectors.

When one compares the resources available to the Government for spending on universities with those available for this purpose in other forward-thinking EU countries, one will note that the spend per student in Ireland is significantly lower. If Ireland wants to produce top entrepreneurs and the most highly skilled graduates in the world, to which we should aspire, the resources available to our university sector need to increase dramatically. We also need to increase the number of postgraduate courses and, to that end, I recognise the positive change in the mindset of the Government in recent times. I urge it to continue thinking in this way.

If we are to be honest with ourselves in this debate, we must recognise that calling for extra resources for the university sector has consequences. Money will not appear out of thin air and we therefore need to have a realistic debate on funding third level education. There are many models in other EU countries and further afield, including Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United Kingdom, which the Minister should consider.

The debate on funding should take on board a number of factors. No new structure for financing third level education should discourage students of any economic background from attending third level institutions in the first place. Irish students should not be at a disadvantage as a result of fee-paying foreign students being attracted into Irish universities for the purpose of funding courses therein. Most controversially — this is a personal view rather than a party view — those who benefit from third level education should be asked to make some realistic contribution towards the funding of third level education in the future. There are many ways to achieve this without introducing direct fees. Student unions and university management bodies should be included in the ongoing debate on the funding of third and fourth level education.

Let me raise concerns about the funding of medical courses in Irish universities. It is baffling and totally unacceptable that our medical training system uses as a crutch finances provided by fees from students who come from outside the European Union. The result is that there are caps on the numbers of Irish students in medical courses in our universities to ensure that sufficient numbers of fee-paying foreign students can finance or partially finance those courses. Consequently, Irish students doing their leaving certificates who want to do medicine face unfair competition. There are not enough places on medical courses to train the number of doctors we need and, unfortunately, the lack of resources is such that universities are forced to establish quotas of foreign fee-paying students purely to finance courses. The Ministers for Education and Science and Health and Children should try to resolve this.

My final point, which is perhaps the most relevant to me, concerns the European Union. The resources that will be available for research and development in EU budgets between now and 2013 will be massive, amounting to approximately €70 billion, and this will involve a doubling of the research and development fund over the next seven years. Irish universities and colleges, and other institutes of further education, should be tapping into this budget to ensure they are availing of funding opportunities. Other countries will be doing so and other universities have been more effective in doing so than those in Ireland. We should not allow this to continue.

I welcome the opportunity to take part in this debate on higher education. It is very timely as we are on the cusp of having a global knowledge economy. I welcome the format of the debate because it is very much like that in the Seanad, whereby one is allowed to make statements outside the context of legislation or ministerial questions. It is right that we should have a more reflective type of debate on issues which are of key importance to our economy and society.

Many people, especially in Limerick, are fond of recalling the far-sighted decision of a Government in the 1960s, taken by the then Minister for Education, Donagh O'Malley, to introduce free second level education. People often cite the decision as the basis of one the most far-reaching policies to have been implemented by a Minister for Education. It is often argued that it was the foundation and bedrock of this country's educational advances and economic development over the last 20 years. We need to consider whether future generations, when they look back in 20 or 30 years on the wider debate that is taking place at present, will believe that the decisions being made today are as far-sighted and enlightened as those made in the 1960s. We should not lose sight of our responsibility to serve the generations to come. The Lynch report of 1961 formed the basis for the decision to introduce free second level education later in the 1960s. The report, which is often forgotten, was far ahead of its time.

It is generally agreed by the Members of the House that the development of our education system has been the foundation of our economic success. The success of a nation does not relate to economic success only. It involves developing an education system, including a higher education system, that facilitates the personal fulfilment of every person who takes part in it and ensures that young people can achieve their potential, not as workers in our economy but as members of our society. It is important that we should develop our education system as a means of breaking down the traditional social and class barriers which have affected our country. The need to provide for a good education system is important for reasons which do not relate to the development of our economy over the next 20 or 30 years.

I had the honour and privilege of serving for a number of years on the governing authority of the University of Limerick, at a time when the university was focussing on the issues being discussed by the House today. I refer to issues like the movement from traditional third level education to the next level — the fourth level — of higher education, the need to invest in and focus on research and development and the development of PhD courses. The authority learned a number of lessons as it was planning the university's approach to such issues. There is a direct connection between the supply of high-quality PhD courses and foreign inward investment. Much of this country's recent inward investment related directly to the free availability of third and fourth level researchers and PhD students. That is a key factor in this debate.

During debates about research and development, people often forget to focus on the need for this country to develop a good reputation as a centre of excellence in research and development and in PhD courses. We are trying to entice world-class researchers, who tend to be quite discerning, to this country. When they are deciding whether to move to Ireland, they examine the attractions we have to offer, the availability of state-of-the-art research facilities, the quality of our graduates, the number of graduates available to assist them in their research and the role of private sector investment in research. The University of Limerick has found it is a very competitive environment. There are many universities trying to attract world-class researchers. When we draw up our plans, we have to ensure Irish universities are extremely attractive to researchers. Not only do we need to attract researchers from abroad, but we also need to create the conditions in which world-class researchers in this country stay here rather than being attracted abroad. The strategic innovation fund will have a significant role to play in creating such conditions. In that context, I welcome the investment of €300 million over five years, as part of an overall multi-annual package of €1.2 billion for the third level sector.

I would like to refer to a couple of issues on which we need to focus. There is no point in investing substantially in third level education if we do not provide for more research and development and more PhD courses. If we are to invest hundreds of million of euro, we have to put in place a plan that makes a direct connection between the benefits and results of such investment on the one hand, and our economy's skills and social needs on the other. The planned increase in funding for medical education at third level, for example, is designed to meet a skills shortage while addressing a social need. We need to ensure similar thinking is applied to research. We should support research that will lead to further investment. Traditionally, there has been a difference between the European and United States research models. Practically all research in the US has a direct correlation with economic development and job creation. We need to be very careful in that regard.

The national technological park, which is based in the University of Limerick, is a good example of the connection that needs to be made between top quality research and the knowledge-based economy. There is an ongoing roll-out at the park of incubation units and small enterprises, which take seed knowledge from the university and apply it to the practical reality of producing consumer goods and products which can be sold successfully. It is a vital cog in this wheel. The former president of the University of Limerick, Mr. Ed Walsh, who is recognised as a world-class leader, thinker and innovator in the field of higher education, understood the need to make the vital connection between the needs of the economy and the development of third level education. My constituency colleague, Deputy O'Sullivan, who was present at the university's Kemmy business school the other night, is familiar with the collaboration between third level education and the private sector that is taking place at the school. Private funding is being invested in the university to produce real results for the business community. It is not pure academic research, but academic research that is directly linked with the business community. It is another example of what I am talking about.

Deputy Coveney spoke at length about the European context, which is very important. I was interested in the recent statement of the President of the European Commission, Mr. Barroso, that he intends to develop a European institute of technology to match the world-renowned expertise of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It is important, within the overall framework of higher level education, fourth level education and research and development, that Ireland that should get involved in the project, which is at its inception stage. As it will be one of the European Union's biggest projects in the coming years, we need to get a slice of the action.

I have outlined some of my thoughts on the need for continued investment in third and fourth level education. I emphasise the need to link that investment to the requirements of our economy over the next 20 or 30 years.

All Members have their own perspective on this important debate. Last Monday morning, I was called to a local national school where an irate headmaster and teacher were trying to get a student assessed by the HSE. The teachers believed the student had serious behavioural problems and that the HSE and the psychology services ought to be involved, but they had refused to become involved. I made some representation on their behalf and I hope that it has changed a bit.

We must look at what is happening in our primary and secondary schools to make sure that those who try to get into third level have the best chance to get there. Those who may not have the resources required in existing primary and secondary schools ought to have them. We should prioritise investment so that we first look after those whose education is compulsory. Subsequently, we should look after those who are on a different level. I do not mean to say that third level education should not be funded properly. However, there are inequalities in the present system that need to be addressed to allow people to get a better chance to get in the door of our third level institutions.

Are our secondary schools failing our students? Is there an increasing number of students going from the traditional second level school to the grind school? Is there an increasing number of schools being set up that charge fees to provide more advanced teaching and technology to get people into the career of their choice? There has certainly been an increase in the number of students going to these institutions. Teachers and administrators in mainstream education ought to look at how they present their courses, how they run their disciplinary systems and their in-house ethos. If a student feels he must go to a private school to get the points required to get into medicine or whatever, that means the local second level school is failing him. We need to look at the connections between the Department, second level education and the points system. The points system alone is a shameful way to get into a career of choice. Thousands of students are lucky to get 300 to 400 points. However, one needs almost 600 points and must be as smart as Einstein to get into medical school nowadays. Students unable to get into the course of their choice feel the system has failed them. It is not that the academic standards of the courses involved are so high, but rather that there are not enough places. We need to address this in a far more radical manner. Third level institutions ought to introduce other ways to measure the ability of second level students before they come through their hallowed doors.

We should take the total development of the second level student into account. Students who have achieved success in sports, drama and other activities that cannot be measured by an exam paper, should have those achievements included in assessments to get into third level institutions. Many people enter a career based on the points achieved and not because they really want to enter that career. They have done very well in their exams, but they may not be suited to the career chosen. Another student who might have always wanted to study for that career cannot get in for a lack of five points. Such a student will attend a grind school and get the points the second time. There are inequalities in our education system and between schools, such as the local VEC school and the fee-paying secondary school. The State should provide extra resources to the VEC school. There should be a level playing field for everyone. If people are lucky enough to have wealthy parents, then fair dues to them. However, we should not develop a politics and education of envy, but an education of esteem whereby all our children are seen as equals. We should strive to have the excellent facilities of our private schools in all of our secondary schools. We should do much more for students who come from poorer backgrounds so that they too can attend an educational centre of excellence.

Deputy Coveney made some excellent points on the international status of our third level institutions. We seem to fail at third level in an international context. However, we are now getting a much more dynamic interaction between the major multinational companies in our university cities. Many of them have funded third level courses geared to creating a greater centre of excellence for future employees of their own companies. We need a proactive policy and enlightened companies are making much progress in this respect. We should explore further tax breaks and incentives for them so that they will invest in our third level institutions. We do not tax the horse racing industry and that creates many jobs. If we could create similar incentives for companies to invest in our third level institutions, that would make a big difference.

Ireland has changed a great deal since the 1960s. There were only four scholarships available in County Louth in 1965, which meant that only four students could go for free to university. That situation was the same right around the country. The intervention of Donogh O'Malley in that debate to make university courses more available represented a major initiative that has worked right through the system. People who came from poorer parts of towns and cities and who worked hard in their factory jobs can now look with pride on their sons and their daughters who are really succeeding in our society. However, we still need to address inequalities and we need to put more resources into students who are being failed by the system.

Some students are so disruptive that they are about to be excluded at seven years of age from our primary school system and the resources are not there to help them. There have been phenomenal changes at second level and we need to put more investment into schools where children are at a greater economic disadvantage. I am confident the future of our young people is in good hands and our universities are very fine places of education.

We should look again at the points system so that more people will get into courses for which they are eminently suitable. Without an interview and without taking into account the total development of a student, the points system alone is not fair. We must address that serious problem.

I welcome the opportunity to participate in this debate on education outside of a legislative context. It allows Deputies on all sides of the House to reflect perspectives and criticisms they are picking up in their constituencies. I listened with interest to comments by Members of the Opposition on the further education sector and I will make a few remarks on that topic. We tend to talk about the importance of a skilled population when we speak about Ireland's progress in recent years. However, it is important to clarify what we mean by a "skilled population" in the education context.

Of the many contributors to our recent economic success, known as the Celtic tiger, the availability to both indigenous and foreign investors of an exceptionally well educated workforce has perhaps been the most important. When the Tánaiste, Deputy Harney, was appointed Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, it was accepted that all our efforts and policies of fostering research, enterprise and initiative were and still remained dependent on a first rate education system. Our economy is changing. The nature of work began to change in 1997 and in the last few weeks we have seen how this change poses challenges for the traditional sectors of manufacturing, processing and assembly.

Despite creating more jobs than can be filled due to full employment, workers in some sectors experience problems. Manufacturing industry, in particular, is finding it increasingly difficult to compete globally. We are creating more high quality, high paying jobs. It is a true race to the top in terms of job creation and education. The Minister said she wants us to build our intellectual capital in order that Ireland will become a knowledge hub. These aspirations are legitimate but an imbalance appears to be slipping into the system, whereby we are ignoring some parts of the education landscape.

A key element of how Ireland copes with this economic transition is the level to which our education system not only continues to develop and turn out top class graduates but also how it facilitates training, upskilling and re-skilling of workers. It is also about how we service the educational needs of school leavers who do not opt for the university or IT route. Deputies have praised the record funding of our education system, particularly since 1997. There has been a trebling of the overall spend on education from approximately €850 million in 1997. There is now a multi-annual strategic innovation fund for higher education and a new PhD or fourth level of education is being developed and significantly funded. The Government is also committing €900 million to the third level sector in the next five years as part of the Department of Education and Science capital envelope —€630 million from Exchequer funds and the balance from PPP initiatives.

Notwithstanding this, I share the concerns expressed by Opposition Members and their dissatisfaction with the level of support for one element of the education system, namely, the further education and post-leaving certificate sector. I referred previously to the importance of upskilling and re-skilling in our changing economy. The Chambers of Commerce of Ireland has called for a serious evaluation of our training policy to ensure priority is given to upskilling those already in employment.

There has been a remarkable change in the composition of the labour market. The correctness of our low tax, pro-enterprise model has been borne out spectacularly. Employment rose from 1.1 million in 1991 to over 1.9 million in 2005 and it is predicted that 2 million will be employed in 2006. Simultaneously, real earnings have increased substantially while the tax system, through reform, has allowed the overall burden on work to be reduced. We now have the most favourable income tax system in the European Union for those on low to medium incomes. However, there are fears for those with low skills who have entered employment in this environment of labour shortages. They may find themselves vulnerable to either a downturn in the economy or changes in the nature of work. The further education and post-leaving certificate sector plays a critical and under-appreciated role in addressing this vulnerability. In 1997 there were 18,000 enrolments in PLC courses; today there are over 30,000. That is more than the number of school leavers entering third level education each year.

Courses are delivered by a network of over 210 schools and colleges in the vocational, secondary and community school sector. The bulk of provision is in vocational colleges. In all, over 1,000 courses are provided in more than 60 disciplines. The value of what these courses achieve and the benefit they provide for the individual and the community can hardly be over-stated. Why, therefore, are further education and PLC courses the Cinderella of our education system? Look at how the sector has been treated in the 20 years since 1985. PLC courses started to develop around that year, a time of high unemployment, but, incredibly, it was 15 years before a report was commissioned to recognise that huge resources were needed to support the work being done in the sector and make appropriate recommendations. This is the so-called McIver report. To put the delay in context, negotiations are under way to agree the seventh partnership agreement, a successor to Sustaining Progress. The examination of required support and resources for schools providing PLC courses was based on a commitment given in the Programme for Prosperity and Fairness in 2000.

The McIver report outlined changes needed to allow schools and colleges to provide these valuable courses and comply with the Qualifications (Education and Training) Act. The deadline for implementation of new structures under the Act is June this year. After the publication of the review in 2003, the Department set up a group to examine how the McIver report might be implemented. It is now 2006. The report conceded that costs would be significant and that a phased approach was required but still nothing has happened. What is the problem in dealing with these recommendations?

Frustration levels are high among principals in the sector. They complain that further education and PLC courses operate within second level structures and second level budgets, buildings and time in schools where provision bears no relationship to the reality behind the service being delivered. That is the crux of the problem. Two weeks ago I tabled a parliamentary question about funding and recognition for the further education sector. I specifically asked what progress had been made in implementing the McIver recommendations. Regrettably, the reply confirms the suspicion that progress on helping and responding to the PLC sector is inert and lacklustre. The reply points to support for the PLC sector and the increase in the number of places by 60% since 1997. The number of PLC places approved for 2006 is up by more than 1,600 on the previous year. However, while the enrolment numbers reflect the importance of the sector, they are not an accurate measure of commitment, unless increased enrolment is matched by increased funding. There is scant reference in the 2006 Estimates to additional funding for schools and colleges providing further education or post-leaving certificate courses.

There is a perception of drift in overall policy for this important sector. Schools and colleges are struggling with an increasingly complex and demanding situation, as they have for many years, without the appropriate support structures being put in place, as was recommended in the McIver report. The introduction of maintenance grants for students with effect from September 1998, the waiving of tuition fees and the PLC maintenance grants scheme provide some help. PLC grantholders received €23 million in direct support in 2005. I also welcome the inclusion of PLC students in the calculation of non-pay budgets and the supplemental non-pay grant towards running costs specifically for PLC schools. However, the central, 20 year old issue lingers, that is, a failure to give due recognition to the sector in its own right. The Minister of State's reply to my parliamentary question mentions the 21 overarching recommendations and 91 sub-recommendations of the McIver report. It states extensive consultations have been held with management and staff interests with regard to such issues as the prioritisation of recommendations, the structural changes envisaged in the report, their implications and associated costs in the context of the overall provision of resources for further and adult education.

The Minister of State has repeated this evening that the Department is still at this stage of analysis of the recommendations and working through priorities. Given that the McIver report was published in 2003, the fact its recommendations are still being prioritised in 2006 raises questions about the commitment to this sector. I support the efforts of the Minister to accelerate the prioritisation of action in this area. We need interim action given that so many recommendations are involved. Let us take the necessary steps to support this sector properly and negotiate the new teacher arrangements, if required.

A sense of elitism is evident in all this. There has been a tendency to give preference to the traditional third level and now the fourth level university sector. We must get away from any notion that further education and post-leaving certificate courses are part of a sector for disadvantaged students. For some students, these courses are their first choice to continue their education following the leaving certificate. They deserve the attention that is demanded for them.

The work being done in these colleges is firmly focused on the labour market. The indigenous services sector in particular has a need for skilled people. I encourage the Minister to continue to support this sector and to introduce the necessary changes.

It is often rightly said that the education system has been the keystone of the Celtic tiger economy and our economic success in the past decade and a half. While that is the case, another characteristic of the economy and society is the remaining high level of educational disadvantage, especially in low income and deprived urban areas.

The Labour Party's policy document of December 2004, Tackling Educational Disadvantage, presented by Deputy O'Sullivan, outlined startling statistics on educational deprivation. These included the suggestion that 800 to 1,000 children per year do not transfer from primary to second level schooling, 4% of students leave school without reaching junior certificate level, 18.5% of students leave school before the leaving certificate and 80% of children from Traveller families do not get a chance to go on to second level. In addition, high levels of literacy problems remain among 30% of children according to the Education Research Centre's report of 2004, and the Department of Education and Science's report on educational disadvantage suggested that while the greatest percentage of disadvantaged children are to be found in rural areas, the greatest concentration is in parts of the cities and urban areas, particularly Dublin. Perhaps of greatest concern is that the statistics highlighted the continued low level of participation in third level education among young people from poor and low income backgrounds, which is perhaps the greatest scandal in our society.

In a famous work from 2003, Power, privilege and points: The choices and challenges of third level access in Dublin, written for the Dublin Employment Pact, of which I used to be a member, Ted Fleming and Anne Gallagher of NUl Maynooth found that Dublin has the second lowest participation rate nationally at 38%. Only County Donegal's rate is lower at 35%. There were major disparities between the highest socioeconomic groups and the six lowest socioeconomic groups which are seriously under-represented at third level. The highest third level participation rates are in Dublin 18, where 77% of children go on to third level, Dublin 6, which has 70% participation, Dublin 4, which has 59% participation, and Dublin 16, which has 56% participation. By contrast, only one north side district had an admission rate for third level greater than 50%. The postal districts with the lowest participation rates in the State were my own area of Dublin 17, which had 8% participation, and Dublin 10, which had 7% participation. The north inner city also had a very low rate of 9% participation, Dublin 22 had 13% participation, Dublin 11 had 14% participation and Dublin 20 had 17% participation. In two postal districts, Dublin 11 and Dublin 22, there has actually been a decline from 1992. These figures are disgraceful and appalling.

There has been much discussion about the celebration of 1916 and the beginning of our move towards the foundation of a republic. One measure we could take to celebrate 1916 would be to cherish all the children of the nation equally by ensuring they all receive a full education in the next decade and can go, if they so choose, all the way through to third and fourth level education.

I wish to focus on the generally disgraceful treatment of the post-leaving certificate sector, to which other Deputies referred. This sector performs a vital function for the high proportion of our citizens who did not have a chance to reach leaving certificate level. The courses have been taught valiantly by hard-working teachers in the 200 institutions referred to by my colleague. These institutions have been given a chance in the past two decades to try to catch up despite often operating in the most difficult of circumstances, with overcrowded buildings and classrooms, and with teachers being required to teach very large classes over a full teaching week although, effectively, they were teaching at third level. The PLC sector has been disgracefully neglected and has been the Cinderella of our education system.

I pay particular tribute to the schools in my constituency. Most educators and teachers — I am a former teacher — will not mind if I single out one college, Coláiste Dhúlaigh in Coolock, which has been a trailblazer in that area. Many of the residents of Coolock and surrounding districts have been enabled by the college to get a professional qualification. Many journalists, including some working in Leinster House, began their journalism and media training in Coláiste Dhúlaigh, and a range of other courses was also provided. I salute the staff who have undertaken this vital work in the past two decades.

As the Minister knows, the McIver report was presented on 15 March 2002 but, unfortunately, it has been virtually ignored since then. We all had great hopes in the lead-up to the 2006 budget that this sector would be provided with additional funding to allow for significant extra teaching resources and ancillary staffing, but nothing happened. Instead, the Minister for Finance dealt with fourth level education. While I accept hard choices must be made given that Ireland has among the lowest spending on social provision of the 15 older European Union member states, there was plenty of scope to deal with PLCs and fourth level education. A choice between the two was not necessary.

The McIver report described the grave difficulties under which the valiant teaching staff operated, including long teaching hours, large class sizes and lack of provision of all kinds, including with regard to canteens, computers and the basic ancillary supports that any teacher would need. Despite grave difficulties, they delivered a wonderful achievement for the 30,000 students.

The key recommendations of the McIver report were that the sector be regarded as a distinct system with its further education courses being fully recognised, and that the separation from second level would be recognised, especially where there were large concentrations of further education students. As all teachers know and many Members have experience of first, second or third level teaching, second and third level are as different from each other as first and second level. It is unfair on adults who have not had a chance to attend second level to be placed in a second level ambience.

This point also applies to all the other benefits that make college so wonderful for those like myself who were fortunate enough — in my case, through the diligence of my parents — to get a chance to attend third level, such as the additional recreational and social pursuits and accomplishments that stay with a person for his or her life. These could perhaps include public speaking or playing hurling or football for the college or otherwise, but these benefits cannot be had given the current situation in the PLC sector.

The report recommends a variety of delivery mechanisms, including modular structures for courses, which even the great universities have begun to recognise is the way to do business and to integrate education into the modern world. Flexibility of location by going out to companies and industrial estates, flexibility of times particularly for hard-working parents, and changes in the timing and number of hours third level teachers need to work could be implemented. It is said that the Minister of State is serving her final year, which I regret, and I congratulate her on her achievements as Minister of State. Perhaps she might advise the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Hanafin, that we need the recommendations of the report implemented.

On a local level, we have a third level institution which has served this sector very well. Recently The Irish Times, with its usual weasel words, published its league tables and then claimed they were not league tables. It was striking how many students went to a third level college in their own region. Having institutes of technology in Blanchardstown and Tallaght are valuable steps forward. Given that a new city is being built in my constituency and that Swords is to become the fifth largest city in Ireland in the next ten to 15 years and will have a population of 50,000 to 60,000, we should have a new third level institution — perhaps on the Coláiste Dhúlaigh campus — which can become a full third or fourth level institution for the north side.

We have had several Taoisigh from the north side with their distinguished lifestyles and the current incumbent is allegedly going for his three in a row. However, they have never delivered a third level institution for us. While we have our great university, Dublin City University, it is a national high technology university and unfortunately not too many people from the north side have had the opportunity to go there. While the Leas-Cheann Comhairle might advocate the same for his constituency, we should have a senior third or fourth level institution on the north side.

Education was, is and will remain the single most important factor in ensuring that we, as a country, develop to our full potential. It has always been a core tenet of the party to which I belong that a high quality education system should be available to all our citizens regardless of age, sex or ability to pay. I am delighted that in the Minister for Education and Science we have a person who continues to deliver on the best education service possible. Through her training as a teacher she has an inherent grasp of the intricacies of the educational system. She has demonstrated that, since becoming Minister for Education and Science, she has the empathy with the two main components of the education system, namely, students and teachers, to ensure that system develops to its full potential. I thank her for continuing to invest in much needed capital projects at primary, secondary and third level.

In my constituency of Sligo-Leitrim, new secondary schools are being built in Sligo for the Ursuline College and for Summerhill College, which is the largest boys' school in the west. New primary schools have been built and existing schools throughout the constituency have been expanded. I am delighted that my constituency colleague, Deputy Perry, will agree entirely.


The continued expansion of Sligo Institute of Technology bears witness to the importance this institution plays in the third level system. In the year that Sligo Institute of Technology celebrates 30 years of existence, it is fitting that we reflect on exactly what the college has achieved in that time. From very humble beginnings — its gestation, birth and early existence were opposed by many senior people in the education sector at the time — it has now grown to where it is today. It now has almost 4,500 full-time students or their equivalents and is viewed as one of the main reasons for the regeneration not just in Sligo, but in the north west as a whole.

Its close links with local industry and its ability to respond rapidly and effectively to new and innovative courses is well recognised. Two weeks ago during the Taoiseach's visit to Sligo, we were delighted to learn that Sligo Institute of Technology has now got the right to grant its own postgraduate qualifications up to and including PhD level. Some years ago I had the honour of being chairman of the governing body of Sligo Institute of Technology when it attained the right to confer its own degrees. However, the icing on the cake was the granting of the right to confer postgraduate qualifications. This is a clear recognition of the robustness of its academic qualifications and is a tribute to the wonderful staff of the college. In all but name, Sligo Institute of Technology now operates at the equivalent level of a university. However, it has the advantage over a university of retaining the step-like progression of certificate, diploma and degree, which has been central to the institute of technology sector philosophy.

Hand in hand with the academic achievements have been the changes in the campus infrastructure. Landmark new buildings have been erected for the college in engineering, business innovation, technology, student facilities, aula maxima and administration. Sporting facilities have been provided to match those of any third level institution in the country. In this regard, I acknowledge the role played by the Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism, Deputy O’Donoghue, who has supplied money to provide a state-of-the-art Gaelic pitch, an all-weather running track and a soccer pitch. Construction is nearly finished on changing facilities allied to a new much expanded aula maxima.

When one considers that in excess of €1.7 billion will be provided to the third level sector this year, it is obvious that the Government is committed to continuing the massive investment in education. The Government continues to provide free education at third level at an annual cost in excess of €270 million. I welcome the commitment to focus on research and development, which is essential to help us maintain our employment levels. Recently the Kelly review group recommendations for capital investment for the period from 2006 to 2010 were accepted by Government. I welcome the inclusion of the refurbishment of the old engineering wing of Sligo Institute of Technology at a cost of €2.5 million. I urge the Minister to consider allowing the college to proceed to architectural planning for the next stage of its capital development.

The Minister should continue drafting legislation to transfer responsibility for the institutes of technology from the Department of Education and Science to a reconstituted higher education authority. The body must be reconstituted so that the institutes of technology are given parity of esteem with universities, which is the only way for both sectors to thrive and potential conflicts of interest to be avoided.

Student support grants provide a vital support in enabling students to maintain themselves in college during the year. This year €228 million will be paid in various maintenance grants. In addition to these grants, which are means-tested, the social inclusion chapter of the national development plan provides for a third level access fund aimed at increasing representation at third level from three specific groups, namely, students from disadvantaged backgrounds, mature students and students with a disability. I know at first hand the importance of these third level access funds. I ask the Minister to ensure they continue beyond 2006.

Education is not the preserve of any single sector. The future of our country is dependent on all our citizens getting the opportunity to experience third level education, whether it be for the first time or to re-skill or retrain. We must look beyond the traditional route of intake of students and, in this regard, the large pool of mature students has not been fully employed.

The Minister's recent announcement that she will simplify the administration of student grants is most welcome. I urge her to continue pressing ahead with what is undoubtedly a positive development. Irrespective of what difficulties are encountered by her, the end result will be welcomed by all students on maintenance grants. It is not right that some do not receive their grants until close to Christmas. To me at least, there appears to be a wide disparity between agencies in how quickly and effectively grants are paid. In that regard, it is always the student who suffers, and that must not be allowed to continue.

I also welcome the improvements in the further education sector. The high uptake of literacy programmes and the remarkable success of Youthreach are just two of the developments in further education that are having a great impact. Youthreach, which is targeted at early school leavers, is a wonderful programme and I am aware of the great success it is having in Sligo and the surrounding area. I recently witnessed a former Youthreach participant graduate with a degree from the institute of technology in Sligo. She addressed the Youthreach function a few months ago, giving one of the most moving speeches I have heard. The interaction between her and the audience was incredible.

I congratulate the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Hanafin, and her Ministers of State on ensuring that education remains to the forefront of the Government's agenda.

I wish to share time with Deputies Catherine Murphy and Sargent.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

Martin Luther King once stated, in one of his so articulate addresses, that education was freedom. While I concur completely, unfortunately, because of inequalities in the society in which we live, a full education is denied to many. It happens not by choice but through economic inequalities. Let us take the number of children who start out with great intentions and gifts yet do not realise or fulfil their potential owing to their being unable to complete their education as a result of their economic background.

That is nowhere more true than in working class estates. I know from first-hand experience of where I live in Tralee that the number of children from working class estates who go on to third level education is minimal when compared with middle and upper class areas. That is also reflected in mature students. In particular, women in working class estates strive to fulfil their abilities. However, owing to financial restraints, they are unable to do so. It is reflected too in people with disabilities who, because of society's inequalities, cannot fulfil their gifts. A determined and proactive political approach is necessary to bridge that gap and allow people from less well-off backgrounds the opportunity to fulfil their potential and abilities.

I wish to comment on the institute of technology in Tralee, which provides a fabulous service. A previous speaker referred to the IT in Sligo, and Tralee is comparable. A fantastic service is provided and there is now a tremendous sporting facility. However, the difficulty has been that it has taken years to get to where it is today. It has struggled to secure money to provide that service. I compliment everyone associated with Tralee IT on the work they have done in attracting funding, often granted begrudgingly. Many would argue that Tralee IT has the personnel and facilities to achieve university status, and I hope that is not too far off.

When a major study such as the McIver report is commissioned by the Government and published, one expects its implementation. The Government has obviously been taken by surprise by its findings. Otherwise, it would have anticipated the cost of implementing it. We are constantly being told that we must move up the value chain in our economy. Those who will drive that move will not necessarily be those in classrooms at the moment but also those in today's workforce. We are reactive rather than proactive when it comes to arming people for change and moving up the value chain. Flexibility is very often discussed in a negative context regarding employees. It is only when an industry closes down that we react by rushing to upskill people, although it should be an ongoing process.

The post-leaving certificate sector has a role to play in that. Every response to a parliamentary question on the McIver report that I have seen details either how much is being spent on the sector or how much it will cost to implement. That stands in sharp contrast to the lack of evaluation that has occurred with the likes of property-based incentive schemes, which are now being very slowly phased out. Implementing something such as the McIver report would have a much more beneficial effect on the economy than many of those schemes.

ICTU has spoken of the Government's failure to date to implement the McIver report on further education, which it commissioned, calling into serious question its commitment to developing further education and lifelong learning. It states that the report seeks to provide for a proper and long-overdue structure for staffing and facilities in further education colleges. In a strong comment, it contends that nowhere in western Europe has further education been treated more shabbily than in this State. ICTU also says that further education colleges exist only because of the enthusiasm and commitment of teaching staff who recognised a real need and sought to address it.

The same has happened in first level education where one has seen such initiatives as gaelscoileanna and Educate Together schools which were very much driven by parents who were enthusiasts for those types of education. They are now lauded as great successes. Perhaps this sector must also be examined in the context of the imagination shown by the people delivering the services.

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Teachta Ferris as a chuid ama a roinnt. Tá sé an-tábhachtach go mbeadh an díospóireacht seo ann, agus cé nach bhfuil ach cúpla nóiméad agam, is mian liom cúpla pointe a lua.

I listened carefully to the Minister talking about how Ireland faced many challenges. That is correct. She also said that it was being emulated by low-cost economies. There was a great deal of jargon, so one had to decipher what she said and perhaps even ascertain whether there was anything behind it. She spoke of incentivising the delivery of programmes and world class strengths. There was all sorts of terminology that sounds great but boils down to meaningless talk. It is important that we address the kinds of challenges we face. We must call a spade a spade and make matters very clear. It is welcome that there has been an increase in post-leaving certificate places and there are many other welcome measures.

I am not sure yet whether the degree to which research and development are fundamental to the challenges we face is understood. We are talking not only about market share in a global economy but also about putting in place the means and measures by which we can manage without oil. It is that simple. That is a fundamental objective this country must address. Further education is critical if we are to be successful in that challenge. We are not even talking about running out of oil, until which point we have a great deal of time. We must put in place a society that is post-fossil fuels on account of climate change, no matter what supplies of oil remain. That means converting this economy to an eco-economy, with major job opportunities. Denmark has led the way in Europe but countries such as South Korea have also provided a number of good examples. Costa Rica has committed itself to being dependent totally on renewable energy by 2025 and Sweden has set a similar target for 2015.

I ask the Minister and the Government to set for this country clear objectives on which our further education sector could lead by expanding the numbers of people in those professions that are fundamental to an eco-economy. If I may list just a few of those, I suggest we need more wind meteorologists, foresters, hydrologists, recycling engineers, aquaculture veterinarians, ecological economists, geothermal geologists, environmental architects, bicycle designers and mechanics and wind turbine engineers. Indeed, a wide range of jobs need to be developed alongside research and development in those fields. In Balbriggan where I live, the development of a marine conservation centre demonstrates the new awareness people have about how fundamental our marine environment is for our future survival given our need for energy, food and other resources.

Those issues must be part of the further education agenda, but I hear nothing about such matters from Deputies on the Government benches. We hear them talk about market share, moving up the value chain and, in a general way, improving research and development, but they do not mention specifics or talk about what vision, if any, the Government has.

With the Acting Chairman's permission, I will share my time with Deputy Fiona O'Malley.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

Listening to Deputy Sargent's list of future courses, I thought he was about to start suggesting courses for people to become Green Party press officers and speech writers as everything seemed to be very much orientated towards Green Party ideas. However, the Deputy has underlined the fact that the key achievement of further education is flexibility and responsiveness to new needs such as those of what he described as the eco-economy, which I am sure will unfold in the coming years if the Green Party gets into Government.

It is the future.

Obviously, that is a possibility given the fact that Greens have not ruled anything out. I think that his party is available to go into Government with anybody.

Fianna Fáil has not ruled anything out either.

The debate is supposed to be about further education.

I want to underline the contribution that further education makes under three headings: the integration of non-nationals into our society, the impact of lifelong learning on the economy, and early school leavers.

Dealing with the last issue first, I want to highlight the Dún Laoghaire report, Moving Beyond the Barriers, which recommended, among other things, that extra learning options should be provided for early school leavers in Further Education and Training Awards Council modules. The report made the point that early school leavers can find it very difficult to return to a secondary school environment to complete their junior or leaving certificate but further education provides a crossover opportunity for them. Such problems are not pronounced in Dún Laoghaire but they exist. Further education has been able to provide a bridge allowing people to return to the education system and thereby move up the ladder through the FETAC modules, in many cases on to higher education.

The impact of lifelong learning on the economy has already been well thrashed out in the Chamber today. As everyone knows, at a time when manufacturing jobs seem to be continually being lost, the Government's stock response is that we must upskill workers and those training so that they are constantly responsive to developments in technology. The further education sector has helped to address that issue by providing training opportunities from which those who have qualified have gone into employment. Few people end up unemployed after qualifying through further education.

I note today that a further 650 jobs are to be created in Cork by amazon.com. While some people are writing the economy's obituary, it is clear that Ireland is still an attractive destination for investment in manufacturing and services. We should not forget that. Although we may wonder why closures such as that at Ballivor occur, we must also acknowledge that the amazon.com phenomenon shows that Cork is still considered a very attractive place in which to invest serious amounts of money. Indeed, about €1 million per worker has been invested in the area, so we should clearly not be so gloomy about the prospects for the economy.

Having attended a number of prizegivings in Senior College Dún Laoghaire and the Cumberland Street college, I know that a large number of non-nationals use further education as a means to begin their education in this country. Although we perhaps lack some vision about how to ensure non-nationals integrate into society, further education provides for such integration a key tool that should be acknowledged.

On the PLC sector generally — I think we are supposed to use the term "further education sector"— I agree that the sector needs to be acknowledged as a separate sector in its own right. As a former teacher of a PLC course, I saw for myself the advantages further education provides for people. I was a teacher in Ballyfermot Senior College for a year so I have no doubt that further education provides people with an opportunity to get on a ladder that will lead them to academic achievement. Indeed, I notice from the website of the Senior College Dún Laoghaire that it is providing new courses in theatre studies and the performing arts. As Deputy Sargent said, the sector is growing all the time and it is flexible.

I welcome the opportunity to debate further education and I urge the Minister to consider implementing some, if not all, of the McIver report's recommendations.

I am glad to have the opportunity to speak on the subject of higher and further education. It is beyond dispute that education has been the most important element which has led to the economic and social transformation of this country. If we only consider the importance attached to education in the millennium development goals for enabling people in the developing world to reach their potential, we recognise how central education is to the economic and social well-being of any country.

As has been mentioned, our skilled workforce is a major selling point for this country but a workforce capable of changing and adapting to change is now seen as the essential ingredient for keeping our prosperity going. Our education system must be able to provide all our citizens with the opportunity of enhancing their abilities. The philosophy of the Progressive Democrats has always been that a job is the best way out of poverty, but the best way of getting a job is to ensure that the person has the necessary education and skills.

Although this year's budget laudably provides for a fourth level of funding, I believe everybody in the country deserves a chance to enhance their abilities no matter at what level they might be. The large budget briefing documents showed the breadth and extent of the finances invested in the education sector over recent years. The figures are indeed impressive — I do not think anyone would take issue with that — but I think the further education sector has been somewhat overlooked. The McIver report tried to address that by looking at the needs of the further education sector and of PLC courses in particular.

It is worth dwelling slightly, as Deputy Andrews did, on the value of PLC courses. They are perhaps a recognition that the formal education process is not for everybody and that everyone does not develop in the same way. We need to provide the more scenic route — if that is the right phrase — through education. The point is that we are required to provide education for everybody according to their needs. That is why PLC courses are fantastic in providing opportunities for people whose skills might not have been developed through the formal education sector.

It is regrettable that the valuable contribution of further education is not recognised by being given a permanent home in a Department or by having a lead Department to provide proper planning for the sector. Much of the trouble in the PLC sector is due to this lack of planning and not being on an itemised list in the budget every year. The current piecemeal approach to planning is certainly not beneficial for the PLC sector. One point which all Members have in common is that they were brought to this House by the people's votes. Consequently, all are familiar with the needs of their constituents as well as the shortcomings of certain sectors.

I also wish to touch on our new multicultural society. Deputy Andrews commented on the newer communities that have developed. To an extent, the language needs of the children from those communities which do not speak English as a first language are provided for in schools. However, their parents may not have the opportunity to learn in schools. PLC courses would deliver a very good service in providing language skills to the parents of children who come from countries where English is not the first language. Members should remember that children's education would develop in tandem with their parents' acquisition of English. This is a major opportunity.

As I said earlier, the budget provided for the fourth level of education, which was a worthwhile recognition. Our excellence in the field of education has been recognised worldwide and we should take that into account. Certainly, we have traditionally thrived in the high scale research and development fields and the provisions in the budget will provide for this. All our people deserve the best opportunities. To create a knowledge-based society, all people must be able to extend their abilities.

All Members today have noted that further and higher education is the future. The events last week in Ballivor, County Meath, were a prime example, as were the events in Donegal and many other places, of the changes afoot. Nearly every week, one hears announcements of job losses and of companies moving away from Ireland. Hence, we must begin to increase the numbers of postgraduates as well as undergraduates who are equipped for the needs of the modern jobs market. Otherwise, our position on the world stage in terms of employment providers will quickly fall.

Increased investment in further and higher education is the key in this respect. While education got us to our current position in the first place, we must increase our efforts. People do not realise how high the bar has been raised and we must set our aims high and pump money into the sector.

Simultaneously, we must work with those manufacturing companies who have decided to leave, to try to establish whether there is any way to retain some employment here, even in reduced numbers or mainly in the research and development area. An opportunity exists to work with them and I question the degree to which discussions have been held with many such companies to try to keep them in this country. Do we offer them a plan or a vision? If we put the correct incentives in place, some companies might be able to retain some jobs here, which could perhaps be built upon subsequently.

Our further and higher education facilities remain incorrectly funded and are often underfunded. The Minister informed the House of the millions of euro provided to this sector. However, Members know that these millions are insufficient and are not spent in an inclusive fashion. Many lecturers and college administrators have approached Members to tell them that they lack the required funds to run their establishments. They are unable to upgrade them or improve their facilities and they cannot offer their desired courses because they do not have sufficient funds. While funding has increased, it is still insufficient to continue into the future.

Our institutions must develop an open door policy to allow entry to further education to all who have the ability and not simply those who have the money. Although there is a problem with those who cannot afford to attend college at third or fourth level, we are informed that there is free education. Similarly, while primary education is supposedly free, it still costs parents €1,000 or €2,000 every year to send their children to school. The same situation applies as far as third level colleges are concerned. It still costs €2,000 or €3,000 between books, registration fees, enrolment fees of all kinds and so on. The costs continually mount. Hence, for many it is not free and many cannot afford to attend.

Those who could not afford to attend previously must be allowed to become our future business leaders, school principals and inventors of the next generation of computer software and hardware. Funding for these future leaders must come from the State's tax take, as every cent spent on education will be returned threefold or fourfold in the form of job creation and sustainable industry that will aid the economy. One's address should not decide what course one takes in college or where one ends up subsequently.

I agree with the Minister's earlier statement to the effect that fourth level opportunities must be enhanced, expanded and developed. We compete for investment on a global basis where the knowledge economy is critically important. As a result, a global education is required. Ireland competes in a high-wage market and to continue to demand high wages, we must be the best in our field. This can only be done through improving our current workforce's skills and by providing excellence in education to new entrants. Our educational offerings must be even better than previously if, as a nation, we are to succeed in supporting our position within the global economy.

In IDA Ireland's annual report for 2003, Seán Dorgan noted that the investment we must now win will seek more advanced skills and will conduct high value work, often connected to research activity. More often than not, they seek a strong urban base with educational and business services that can support sophisticated or complex activities with an international focus. It would be worth reviewing what actions were put in place since 2003 and whether we have delivered. It appears that despite the references to millions of euro, we have not really reacted to the advice given.

In the past ten years, there has been a major shift in the population patterns along the east coast. Unfortunately, further and higher level education provisions have not moved with the people. A greater investment is required in both our universities and institutes of technology to expand further into the regions, be it through new, dedicated sites, PLC centres or greater use of outreach centres. The funding is inadequate for this to take place. For example, County Meath has a population of more than 160,000 which is rapidly heading towards 200,000. Despite this, it does not have a dedicated higher level facility. In the week of the NEC closure in Ballivor, there has never been a more opportune time to provide the higher education facilities needed to put Meath on the inward investment map.

Meath County Council tried to take the lead in this respect. It developed a higher education strategy some years ago to try to promote Meath and to enhance the county's chances of acquiring a third level college. However, it is impossible to secure even minor Government funding to push the report or use the study to develop educational facilities. The county council was not overly demanding in its plan and it realised that one cannot click one's fingers and secure a third level college. While this happened fortuitously in Blanchardstown a few years ago, it does not always happen so easily. Hence, the council's plan was to develop courses and a Meath brand of education and to build it up until eventually there would be sufficient activity in the county to demonstrate the need for a third level college on a greenfield site. Sadly, this has not been backed fully and even resources to pursue this option at a lower level are not forthcoming.

The Minister's speech leaned heavily towards the education providers. There was little or no emphasis on one key part of education, namely, the student. A review of access to education requirements must be carried out nationally to establish what courses are available and where. While it might be an adventure for someone setting out from second to third level at the age of 18, what is available for the more mature person whose life is settled? Such people might be returning to education to pursue a new career, may be entering third level education for the first time or may be completing a masters course to advance in their careers.

I will provide two examples. One is a person from County Meath who is married with two children. For the past two years, he has travelled once a week to Belfast to attend university. While he would love the opportunity to stay with his family overnight, effectively he has no choice and must spend two days a week away from them while travelling to and from Belfast. He should have the opportunity to learn closer to home. While we do not provide enough courses close to people's homes, we continually tell them that they must reskill or re-educate themselves and the course choices are not available.

The second example is a person from Wexford who is married with three children. She travels to UCD every day to study for a higher diploma. She leaves home at 5.30 a.m. and returns at 9 p.m. She makes this major sacrifice to further her education and to join the workforce. Surely this lady deserves to receive this education in her native county. It cannot be too hard to match the lecturers and so on with the students' points of origin. Why are some courses only provided in the cities? We must open up in this regard and give the people of rural Ireland, those who do not live in the urban centres, a chance to attend such courses conveniently and not at great cost in terms of both quality of life and finance.

Another aspect of further and higher education which affects students is the ability to afford four years of education. Grants are not moving with the times. With the rising cost of accommodation and living, students are under pressure. Maintenance grant rates for higher education are outdated and insufficient for today's needs. The full grant of €3,020 is not even enough to cover accommodation costs, let alone the cost of living. The Government must wake up and back students.

Many students are offered placements. I would encourage many more courses to use placements, for example, in the summertime. As the burden of finding placements can be awkward, the Government needs to make them more accessible. During a placement, a student might need help with transport and accommodation costs, especially if he or she must move down the country. The Government needs to look at this issue and see whether there is any way it can help. I would encourage businesses to play a greater role in that regard.

Evening courses and courses provided by private colleges offer other choices but the expense involved may prove difficult for students. Numerous individuals who cannot obtain a grant to attend the course of their choice have come to me for help. The course fee could be €2,000 or €3,000 and it could be a course that would give them their chance in life, yet there is a limited number of places to which one can go for help or a grant if one does not fall within the main categories of education. It can, therefore, be difficult for a person to further his or her education.

On administration and the qualification critieria for grants, it is crazy that one must be over 23 years before being assessed on one's own income. Last year I dealt with the case of a young lady aged 21 years with two children of her own who was assessed on her parents' income. She missed out on getting a grant to go to college because their income was over the threshold. There is something wrong if we cannot change the system to match what is happening in today's world and give people a real chance to further their education.

The points system is out of date when it comes to providing courses. There are people missing out on courses because of it. The number of points is set according to the level of demand for a course, not on the level of intelligence or academic ability needed for it. That is a great shame. For example, there is a 50% drop-out rate in PE courses because the wrong people are taking them. They see the course on the CAO form as a good one requiring high points but when they get there, they realise it is not the one for them. However, they have taken the place of somebody else. It is a missed opportunity. This is a disgrace. Any missed opportunity is a loss to the country and the economy.

I support the comments made by my colleague, Deputy O'Sullivan, the Labour Party spokesperson on education. As my comments will relate specifically to the further education sector, I understand I am obliged to indicate that I am married to the principal of a college of further education. More to the point, I have a particular interest in this issue because three colleges of further education are located in my constituency: Senior College Dún Laoghaire, Sallynoggin College of Further Education and Dún Laoghaire College of Further Education. Some of the pioneers of the further education sector in these colleges such as Mr. Jack Griffin, a former principal of the senior college in Dún Laoghaire, were responsible for developing many of the courses offered and ideas pursued.

As has been stated, there are more than 30,000 students in the further education sector. One of the remarkable aspects of the sector is that there was never a formal decision that I can recall that there should be such a sector. There was no consultant's report, White Paper, Act of the Oireachtas or great Government announcement that there would be a further education sector. What happened was that the sector developed through the initiative of schools and teachers and the flexibility of the VEC system in responding to local, social, economic and educational needs. When the country was developing in the IT area, for example, it was these colleges and schools which established courses on computer skills provided by people familiar with them. Before child care, for example, became a topical political issue, the colleges had identified this need locally and were running courses on child care and associated subjects.

It interests me that we hear much about enterprise. One would sometimes think, watching enterprise awards ceremonies, etc., that enterprise was confined entirely to the private sector. This is an example of public sector enterprise which, if it was happening elsewhere, would be the pride and joy of the chambers of commerce. The problem is that the sector is now surviving on the energy, effort and commitment of its staff. Teachers are working way beyond the call of duty, which is not sustainable. The sector cannot be sustained on the enthusiasm of its staff.

Hopes had been raised by the McIver report that the further education sector would be formally recognised and resources provided to enable it do its work. However, I see no evidence that the Government will implement the recommendations of the report and I am not encouraged, notwithstanding this fine debate and the laudatory comments made about the sector, by what either the Minister or the Minister of State had to say about the issue. The Minister of State, Deputy de Valera, for example, referred to the number of places on PLC courses and spoke about the number being up in the 2005-06 academic year. However, she did not address directly the cap which her Department has placed on the individual colleges. As I understand it, about three years ago they were told the numbers of students they could enrol in PLC courses would be capped at the existing level. This, in turn, has had the effect of preventing the development of new courses.

The Minister, Deputy Hanafin's speech is straight out of the realm of Sir Humphrey. When she referred to the McIver report, she told the House that there had been significant engagement with the major partners in education. She further stated, "Clearly, complex issues are involved, given the scale and the wider impacts of the recommendations and the challenge presented by the variation in sizes of PLC providers," all of which translates as nothing will be done. There is complexity in the sector and in the colleges. Any of the larger colleges of further education might have 1,000 students, 2,500 evening students and over 100 teachers, with buildings that are open and running from 7.30 a.m. until 10.30 p.m. and sometimes at weekends. They offer a range of night classes and have VTOS, second level and back to education initiative students. It is simply impossible to run such a college and organise and manage courses on a management structure designed for the normal second level school.

Among the practical measures that need to be addressed is, for example, the provision of technicians. One might have between 200 and 300 computers but no technician to service them. There is an entire IT unit to provide backup computer services for Members. One could find the same number of computers in some of the larger colleges of further education and there is not even a single technician provided by the Department of Education and Science to service them. There is no librarian provided by the Department to meet the needs of students taking PLC or further education courses. No administrative back-up is provided other than that provided as the normal second level allocation and by the VEC. However, no additional administrative backup is provided in recognition of the range of needs involved. All one has to do is compare the number of students, for example, in further education colleges with the numbers in institutes of technology. The courses and accreditation offered differ but the support, staff and resources required in these colleges bear no comparison.

What needs to be done is straightforward. The Minister of State said it would cost approximately €48 million to implement the recommendations in this sector. That amount would not buy a second-hand set of voting machines in a country that constantly generates tax surpluses, as we are constantly reminded. The financial issue is that if the further education sector is permitted to decline, it will have to be reinvented at a greater cost to the public purse because our educational needs and economy require it. It makes sense for the Minister and the Department to build on what has been established at a lower cost but if the pioneering work undertaken in the colleges of further education is allowed to decline, it will have to be replaced by another form of further education at a greater cost.

I will focus on the further education sector, a unique success sector in our education system. It was established in 1985 which means last year marked the 20th anniversary of its foundation. During that time, it has blossomed. Between 1985 and 2000, approximately 24,000 students passed through it. In 2005 almost 30,000 students attended 220 further education colleges, of whom 70% attended the 50 largest colleges. Approximately 20% of school leavers take up the option of PLC courses compared with 40% who attend universities and institutes of technology. The further education sector is the largest second chance education provider in the State. More than half the students are aged over 20 years, while more than 20% are aged over 30. It is the major sector for second chance education but has been abandoned by the Government.

The McIver report has been at the Government's disposal since it was published three years ago. It was commissioned under the Programme for Prosperity and Fairness following a commitment made to the social partners. However, three years later it is still gathering dust. No moneys have been made available for the implementation of its recommendations. The Government cannot claim there is a lack of funding to implement them because the State is awash with money. Last year's budget surplus was €6.7 billion, yet more than €50 million was squandered on e-voting machines and €150 million on PPARS. It is estimated the McIver report would cost €48 million to implement, a drop in the ocean in the context of the moneys available to the Government. This highlights the absolute lack of political will and commitment on its part to the further education sector. The Minister for Education and Science relegated disadvantage, at the core of this sector, in this year's budget. Spending increased by only 3.8%, whereas the education package increased by 8.8% overall. Money is available. I would like the Government backbenchers who proclaimed support for the McIver proposals in the debate to put pressure on the Minister to ensure it is made available to this important education sector.

I am glad to have the opportunity to contribute to the debate, given my experience. I attended an institute of technology at third level. Subsequently, as a local government member, I had the privilege of being a member of City of Cork VEC and chairing the board of management of a further education college, Coláiste Stiofáin Naofa. Even then, prior to my election to the House, I was aware of the frustration regarding proper resourcing and recognition of the sector, which was a current issue. It is even more frustrating and galling that the same issues, particularly those related to proper resourcing, are still a matter of political debate. The recommendations of the McIver report could be implemented at a cost of €48 million. However, the Government has held fast against implementing them and the cost has probably increased to €50 million but that is no excuse for failing to provide the necessary resources.

When I was chairman of the board of management of a progressive, innovative school, I became aware of the wider views of the further education sector. It is sometimes pejoratively known as the second and a half level sector, which undermines the role it plays in society. We do not have the opportunity to discuss the education philosophy being pursued by the Government and it falls down most in this regard. It is locked into an approach to education based purely on economic outcomes, which only pays lip-service to the concept of lifelong learning. If it supported this concept, it would have no difficulty in resourcing different educational sectors appropriately. It was most disappointing that the only reference to higher education in the budget was to fourth level education and the funding of PhDs, doctorates, masters degrees and so on. This underscores the Government's purely economic approach to education. My experience of the further education sector is that not only does it live and breathe the lifelong education approach, it reaches out to sectors of society that education policies of successive Governments have failed to reach.

We must recognise that further education colleges have been born out of the old technical college sector. They have reinvented themselves to represent the communities in which they are sited. They offer opportunities to people to get back into education and to progress to other forms of education. By not recognising properly the role further education colleges play, the Government lets down the people in such communities.

I will conclude with comments on the biggest failure of the Government in terms of economic supports for people availing of further and higher education. Yesterday we had a significant court decision on back to education allowances. I am surprised that despite this issue having been raised twice on the Order of Business, by me yesterday and Deputy O'Sullivan today, the Government has still not indicated how it intends to follow through on that important ruling. If it cannot do the little things, we on this side of the House despair that it will ever tackle the bigger issues such as the McIver report.

It is very disappointing that we have had the McIver report three years and that nothing has been done. It is said that if the only tool one has is a hammer, one treats everything like a nail. The approach of the Government lacks strategic sense. It engages in reactive politics instead of being proactive and taking a long-term perspective on the major issues facing the country. One only has to look at the areas of education, health and transport to see prime examples of poor planning, quick fixes and tortured decision making.

Third level education illustrates the case graphically. Third level students are customers, in the broadest sense, of the education system but they experience at first hand the Government's stingy and short-sighted approach to third level education. There is great talk about the creation and development of the knowledge economy. However, the development of a progressive, innovative and broadly based third level sector needs significant and progressive measures in terms of money and policy initiatives to improve our investment in this area.

The third level sector could be a magnet for home and overseas students in all fields of academic endeavour. A recent OECD study put Ireland in the top five wealthiest countries of the 30 members of the OECD. We could take many approaches to the third level issue and do more for the students of the nation. I suggest we create a partnership between the Government, the universities, third level institutes and the private sector. There is a role for the private sector and there are many ways it could become involved in research and development. This is the only way to find creative ways to release potential. I am aware initiatives in this area are taking place in UCD.

Change and investment are the keys to the advancement of the third level sector here. This needs enlightened guidance and commitment from Government so that all stakeholders can develop. We have the opportunity to make the advances required. All we need to advance are the will and foresight to take a partnership approach with the private sector and the universities and to tap into research and development with the companies creating jobs locally.

We have seen job losses recently in our region in the area of high-cost jobs. Emphasis has been put on a base of third level colleges but, regrettably, significant numbers of students are leaving the region. St. Angela's College in Sligo is a fine college which has a school of nursing and the country's home economics training centre for teachers. Dr. Devins spoke about Sligo Institute of Technology which is a fine college with a fine staff who do a good job.

The Government has an opportunity to involve all stakeholders. Much more can be done. It is disappointing that although the McIver report has been published three years, we are only discussing it now.

On behalf of the Minister, I thank Deputies for their contributions to the debate. The introduction of the strategic innovation fund will address third level reform and ensure that Ireland continues to develop as a knowledge economy in a rapidly changing global environment. The fund will enable the higher education system to achieve a new level of performance that will create a platform for effective return on the wider investments that will be made through to 2013, including investments under the ambitious forthcoming national research plan.

In framing proposals, there will be a requirement on institutions to contribute funds from their own resources to copperfasten the reform efforts. This is important in ensuring that the fund can leverage fundamental change by promoting new thinking and priorities in the use of existing resources. The Minister has committed to seeing a comprehensive and sustainable programme of change through for the long term. The commitment, with its guaranteed five-year fund, allows for far-reaching proposals for change to be brought forward.

The commitment of the Government on higher and further education is evident. On the capital side, the infrastructural developments planned under the €900 million capital envelope are an essential part of that commitment. This has been targeted to continue to upgrade and modernise campus facilities throughout the country and to address development needs in areas of strategic national importance.

On the issue of research and development, there was no dedicated programme of funding for research and development under the Department of Education and Science prior to 1998. Deputies should look at the scale of the €605 million projects approved for funding since then. The Government's intention is to continue to build on this through the new national research plan under preparation. The development of a new fourth level system of advanced research is a key priority as we seek to achieve national goals of enhancing quality and volume of research activity here. This is not an optional issue for the State but something we must do. Investment in higher education will be identified as a central element of the successor to the national development plan for the period from 2007 to 2013.

Third level access programmes have seen the development of close links between the higher education institutions, area partnerships, teachers, parents and students in primary and secondary schools, especially those located in areas of concentrated socio-economic disadvantage, through a range of activities and initiatives. These programmes have encouraged and will continue to encourage more young people to access and participate in higher education. It is envisaged that additional financial support will be available to support strategic and effective access initiatives on the part of higher education institutions from both Higher Education Authority core funding and through the strategic innovation fund.

There is no question that the institutes of technology have done a tremendous job in the educational landscape of the country. They became autonomous third level institutions in 1993. They have undergone a number of dramatic changes in terms of the range of courses offered, the staffing, which is up 68%, and student numbers, where full-time numbers are up 51% and part-time numbers are up 45%. Following on this period of growth, the institutes now face new challenges. These will be served by transferring responsibility for the day-to-day management of the sector from the Department to the Higher Education Authority. The Minister is preparing legislation to effect this transfer.

Many Deputies referred to the position on further education. The Government's record of investment in this area was outlined by the Minister of State, Deputy de Valera. There has been a 60% increase in PLC places under this Government to more than 30,000 places. This has resulted in new educational opportunities and learning pathways for school leavers and adults returning to education. The relevance of the skills and qualifications provided in this sector to our wider labour market, the widespread availability of programmes and the inclusive nature of access to these programmes is a powerful combination of factors behind the importance of the sector for society and the economy.

From the perspective of individual learners, further education in general offers huge valuable opportunities for personal development and progress.

Does the Minister of State expect them to run on a shoestring?

The establishment of a national framework of qualifications has enhanced the value of all learning qualifications for the purpose of building on these through progression and access to further learning. Many PLC graduates now progress to higher education. As we seek to develop a culture of lifelong learning, these formals links will continue to be built upon by the Department.