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.