Priority Questions

Third Level Charges

Fergus O'Dowd

Ceist:

52 Deputy Fergus O’Dowd asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Education and Skills her views on the fact that a proposed increase in the student registration fee will restrict participation levels at third level; when she plans to publish the Colin Hunt report on the future of the third level sector; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [41601/10]

As I am sure the Deputy will appreciate, I am not in a position to comment on budgetary proposals. Speculation on any decision in respect of student registration fees is just that — speculation.

The student services charge is levied by the higher education institutions to defray the costs of examinations, registration and student services. Students eligible under the means-tested student grant schemes are not obliged to pay this charge. It is paid on their behalf under my Department's student grant schemes in addition to any maintenance grant and tuition fee support to which they are entitled. Some 43% of undergraduate students fall into this category and do not pay the charge. The Government is conscious, however, that for those in income groups just above the grant eligibility threshold, any increase in the charge would be an important affordability consideration. Research indicates that a range of complex factors which extend beyond financial barriers — such as societal and cultural issues, parental and teacher expectations and previous academic attainment — also have an impact on the participation rate of various income groups.

The growth in participation in higher education has been significant during the past three decades, with the number of new entrants almost trebling in that period. The expansion of higher education opportunities continues to be an important policy priority for the Government. In the past three years, higher education institutions have sought to respond to the increases in demand from school leavers and adults returning to education, including unemployed people, by increasing the number of full-time places on offer and also by expanding part time and other flexible types of provision. The Government is committed to ensuring that opportunities to engage in higher education continue to be made available to potential learners and that access to higher education will continue to be determined by a student's ability and not his or her financial circumstances.

A key challenge for the development of the sector will be in enabling it to meet future demand on a sustainable funding basis, without compromising on quality. A widening of the funding base for the sector — to reduce the relatively high level of dependence on the Exchequer — is one of the issues to be considered in that context. The terms of reference for the high level group which was established to develop proposals for a new national strategy for higher education provided for an extensive examination of all issues relating to the future development of the higher education sector. The group has now completed its work and I am consulting my Government colleagues in respect of the report. The timeframe for publication of the report will be decided in that context.

Is it not the case that the Minister has been in possession of the Hunt report for at least two months, if not longer? Is it not also the case that issues relating to the report and the reform of third level education have been published in The Irish Times in particular? It is a disgrace that Members are not in a position to give their full consideration to this issue. In light of what the Tánaiste stated, the matter will not be considered in the House until the long consultation process is brought to an end.

Is it not the case that the incomes which families have determine whether young people can attend university? There has been a significant and adverse change of means in hundreds of thousands of homes as a result of the unemployment brought about by the Government's policies. Notwithstanding the agreement between Fianna Fáil and the Green Party, will the Tánaiste indicate how much the Government intends to raise through the proposed increase in the student registration fee?

As stated in the reply to the Deputy's parliamentary question, I am not in a position to deal with the budgetary discussions that are taking place at present. That is unfair to our colleagues——

It is unfair to the country.

——and it is only leading to speculation. Second, I agree with the Deputy that it is totally inappropriate that someone might leak certain parts of a document without the Government or Members of the House being informed. The Government is currently considering the matter. I have completed the normal Government processes whereby I asked my colleagues for their views to be brought back to Cabinet for consideration and it will then go to the Oireachtas which is the more appropriate way in which these matters can be dealt with, as opposed to mere speculation and leaks in the newspapers. It shows no regard for the Government or the House

The facts are that the document has been leaked by somebody who is very close to it, either in the Tánaiste's Department or the Hunt commission because I have been briefed on its alleged contents by people up and down the country. The Tánaiste is trying to change public opinion without telling us what the facts are. The McCarthy report identified €271 million of potential cuts which could take place in the third level budget. How many of those cuts has the Tánaiste put in place since last year? Is it not a fact that there are significant issues around contact times between lecturers and students?

According to the McCarthy report savings of €140 million could be made. If some of the institutions were rationalised €9.2 million could be saved. There is a list of savings, none of which the Tánaiste referred to in her reply. The people who will pay for the inefficiencies in third level education will be parents or young people who will have to borrow money they cannot pay back. The key point, which is the information the Tánaiste has and research shows, is the fact that people cannot afford to pay and it is a factor in them not going to third level education. The Tánaiste is putting an extra penalty on such people as a result of the Government's decision.

The Deputy should tell me if he was allegedly briefed or briefed one way or the other.

I have not seen the report.

I cannot deal with an allegation of which I am not aware.

Allow the Tánaiste to reply to the question.

It is important to say that there are 69,000 people who are eligible for grant aid and support out of the 157,000 people who are attending higher education. In my response I indicated that there is a cohort of people over and above the eligibility criteria who have found it difficult in some circumstances. We should differentiate the question the Deputy asked which concerned the budgetary process, a question which I am not in a position to answer, and the future of higher education, which will include where the synergies need to be. When we refer to the Croke Park agreement, central to this will be the issue of contact time with students.

We have invested considerably in research and development and have involved people of the highest calibre in the world. Their expertise should be shared at undergraduate as well as postgraduate level. It is all about quality of education and making sure that in certain circumstances the educational opportunities are in place and are fit for purpose for a modern economy. The Hunt report was commissioned because we have not had a third level strategy. It has mushroomed. There will be a 20 year strategy for the future development of higher education in Ireland. It will take change and will have challenges but it is the best we can provide.

Vocational Education Committees

Ruairí Quinn

Ceist:

53 Deputy Ruairí Quinn asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Education and Skills if she will provide both the estimated immediate and long-term savings that will arise from the rationalisation of vocational education committees from 33 to 16; if she will provide a copy of the analysis conducted by her Department in advance of this decision being taken; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [41460/10]

The Government's decision is to reduce the number of VECs from 33 to 16 in order to deal with issues of scale and having regard to the current and prospective requirements of the education sector. Consideration of such a reduction had begun earlier as part of an examination of options to reduce the overall number of agencies. Subsequently, the special group on public service numbers and expenditure programmes recommended a reduction in the number of VECs from 33 to 22 and estimated savings of €3 million.

I am satisfied that a saving of that order is a reasonable projection in the medium term. There may be some increase in this figure given that there will be 16 rather than 22 VECs. This figure largely represents recurrent savings. The more immediate savings will be achieved primarily through a reduction in overall staff numbers. Some further savings should come through the sale of existing VEC buildings.

The Deputy referred to the analysis that informed this decision. He will be aware that it is not the practice to publish the contents of memoranda and the analysis provided to Government in reaching decisions. However, I want to avail of this opportunity to give the House a clear understanding of the rationale and basis for the decision. A number of Government priorities informed this decision, of which achieving savings was but one. The decision is fully consistent with the Government's objective of reducing the overall number of agencies and transforming the delivery of public services. At the core of this restructuring is the need to address the current low scale and size of operations, in particular in VECs. For any Government seeking more efficient and effective ways of delivering public services the current scale and size of some of the existing VECs is untenable. Based on 2009 allocations, 20 of the 33 VECs had an overall budget of less than €30 million and 15 VECs are responsible for five or fewer schools. Again using 2009 data, excluding the city of Cork and Dún Laoghaire, where school activity is concentrated either heavily or exclusively on PLC provision, total ordinary second level enrolment was below 1,000 in nine of the VECs. Even allowing for some adult and further education activity it is difficult to justify their continued stand-alone existence.

The Government decision can put the sector on a new footing for service delivery into the future. VECs have served this country well. When these changes are implemented the sector will be even better positioned to serve the needs of future learners.

I thank the Minister of State for his reply. In principle, the Labour Party supports the idea of the rationalisation of VECs. We have all been living with the uneven nature of very large and substantially sophisticated VECs by virtue of their volume and the much smaller ones to which the Minister of State referred. The announcement was made on 12 October, just under one month ago. Legislation is promised in the New Year.

Has a working party been established in the Department? Is there a person whose sole task is to drive this project? When will he or she meet the CEOs of the VECs? When does the Minister of State think he will have a draft programme on the implementation of the Bill? Any organisation that is trying to deliver a service such as daily and adult education finds it difficult enough in these times and to have the uncertainty of its future hanging over its head does not motivate staff or create good productivity.

I thank the Deputy for his support in principle for this measure. There is a timeframe of about 18 months to implement this decision. Discussions have taken place with various stakeholders including the Irish Vocational Education Association and the association of CEOs. An implementation group has been established in the Department to oversee this initiative and it is led by an assistant secretary in the Department of Education and Skills. I have clearly set out the rationale for the decision. I am pleased that the House in general supports this initiative. Legislation is promised in due course but in the meantime the work continues in order to implement the decision.

Can the integration and merger of existing VECs take place without legislation? There was a reference in the reply given by the Minister of State that he would achieve some savings through the selling off of VEC buildings. Surely with a growing educational population at primary and secondary level we need every educational building which we currently possess.

The work can continue on an administrative basis without legislation.

They cannot come into existence unless the legislation is in place. There cannot be one CEO and one membership board.

No, ultimately legislation will be needed. The groundwork will be done in the meantime on an administrative basis. The position regarding buildings has to be worked out. It depends on local factors in each of the VECs, what is and is not needed and so forth. I can take the Deputy's view that we should retain educational buildings if there is a need for them but again these details have to be worked out.

Departmental Agencies

Fergus O'Dowd

Ceist:

54 Deputy Fergus O’Dowd asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Education and Skills the details regarding the proposed future reorganisation of FÁS; if her Department has held discussions with FÁS regarding the proposed changes; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [41602/10]

The reorganisation and reform of FÁS and of the State's provision of training and employment services is a process that I initiated over a year ago.

The first phase involved the putting in place of a stronger board and corporate governance structure in FÁS and this was provided for in the Labour Services (Amendment) Act 2010. The second phase, announced by the Taoiseach, involves the division of responsibility for training and employment programmes and services between the newly mandated Departments of Education and Skills and Social Protection. These changes will improve the delivery of employment, training and community services to the public by bringing together related responsibilities in these areas.

The Employment Programmes and Services and Skills Training (Transfer of Departmental Administration and Ministerial Functions) Order of 2010, which came into force on 1 May 2010, provided for the reallocation of responsibility for FÁS as an agency and its related funding from the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Innovation to the Department of Education and Skills. The Department of Social Protection will, following the commencement of the relevant sections of the Social Welfare (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2010, assume funding and overall responsibility of FÁS employment services and employment programmes.

The social welfare and pensions Bill 2010, which is due to be published shortly, will provide for the full transfer of FÁS employment services and employment programmes to the Department of Social Protection and this would include the transfer of relevant FÁS staff, property, land as well as certain rights and responsibilities to that Department. This will amend the Labour Services Act 1987.

In the period between the commencement of the Social Welfare (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2010 and the commencement of the relevant sections of the social welfare and pensions Bill 2010, a service level agreement will be put in place between the Department of Social Protection and FÁS. Officials from my Department, FÁS and the Department of Social Protection are working closely together to advance this agenda.

The third phase involves the re-structuring and re-mandating of FÁS as a newly-focussed skills and training provider. I met with the board of FÁS this morning to discuss its proposal for a new training agency. Work has commenced on this process and will continue in tandem with the integration of the employment programmes and employment services into the Department of Social Protection.

I thank the Tánaiste for her reply. Will she identify the number of civil servants at senior level or, if she knows, principal officer level, who have now been moved in to FÁS to deal with the issues there? I suppose the key question we on this side of the House all want answered is, has the leopard changed its spots. Have practices changed utterly in FÁS?

One of the issues that arose recently was the question of certification of courses, which were fixed — where people had failed they were deemed to have passed. Has the Tánaiste heard anything further on this issue and is she aware of an allegation that some participants in the course batch of which I speak, who had originally failed and were passed, were brought back for re-sits, that not all of them re-sat their examinations but they are getting their certification? That is a serious issue. I ask the Tánaiste to investigate it with urgency because the credibility of FÁS remains at stake. Has the leopard changes its spots or not?

I do not have detail to hand on the number of public servants who will be transferred as it was not part of the question but I would be more than happy to give Deputy O'Dowd the numbers in due course. This relates to the division of FÁS training agency and FÁS employment services, which will transfer to the Department of Social Protection. I reiterate that there has been a considerable reduction in the numbers within the FÁS agency over the last period.

The board of FÁS has been asked to do a number of things. The first was to deal with the issues of corporate governance. All of those issues have been addressed and the mandates set down to them have been met. There is no point in Deputy O'Dowd shaking his head because that has happened.

They have not been met.

Through the Chair, Tánaiste.

The issue of corporate governance — all of these issues have been met.

The second issue was to do with the qualifications and quality assurance. That work has been happening. Third, there has been an investigation carried out in a number of areas. We are also changing the methodologies and the quality assurance provisions within FÁS. That is ongoing.

Fourth, it is important to refocus on what benefits a new strategic FÁS will bring, and that benefit will be learner focused. We will be strategic in the skills and training needs of FÁS——

I want to get in a further supplementary.

——which will not overlap with other providers in further education and VECs. The strategic focus will definitely be on how we will provide employment opportunities for our people.

The key question I asked relates to the credibility of the new structures. I repeat that I believe the leopard has not changed its spots, that since the investigations took place participants who were to re-sit examinations did not turn up and the certification is issuing to them, and that is not acceptable. That is at the core of all of this.

It is a year since there was an EU audit of European Social Fund moneys which were expended on FÁS programmes. There has been a draft decision of the EU, which the Tánaiste has not published for some months. At what stage is that draft finding against the Department, what response did the Tánaiste make to it and what is the present situation regarding the money that is alleged to be outstanding?

First, that is totally outside the remit of this question. That being said, the issue on ESF funding has been clarified by officials in my Department to the committee. We will see a draw-down of the ESF entitlements on the basis of a new computerisation which is being provided for.

The position is as follows. I want to give confidence to many who work within FÁS who, as all of the Members of this House know in their hearts and souls, provide a great service. We must give confidence to those staff. We must be learner focused and ensure that we can provide relevant training and skills, regardless of the participants, academic acumen. We also must provide training opportunities for those with a disability.

We will see a situation where the strategic focus of FÁS will be based on the full implementation of its strategic plan. I will wholeheartedly support the board in the transfer to the Department of Social Protection, in the provision of new services and in how we will ensure that the learner will benefit.

Deputy O'Dowd stated he believed the leopard has not changed its spots.

It is called fiddling examination results.

I listened carefully to what has been said by Deputy O'Dowd. He indicated two or three weeks ago that he did not want to see private provision of services through FÁS and now part of his new documents is that FÁS should be abolished and we should provide its services only through the private sector.

No, the monitoring of that.

Allow the Tánaiste to conclude, we are over time.

The monitoring and quality control of programmes, and their relevance, have been changed. That has been done. We are working through a number of historical issues that will be dealt with fully.

Real and live right now, not historical.

Departmental Expenditure

John O'Mahony

Ceist:

55 Deputy John O’Mahony asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Education and Skills if she plans to spend the remaining half of her capital budget this year; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [41603/10]

The Exchequer expenditure figures for October 2010 were published last week. Education capital expenditure of €456 million is running €102 million behind profile at present.

The school building budget is less than €50 million behind profile. The substantial reduction in construction prices has meant that my Department is achieving greater value for taxpayers' money. Contract prices are now sometimes up to 40% lower than when they were at their peak and a significant proportion of this is an additional reduction on 2009 average prices. Furthermore, difficulties within the construction industry linked to very low tender prices are creating delays, for example, confirmation of the availability of a bond prior to a contract being awarded is taking much more time. In addition, the costs of sites have been reducing and there have also been some delays in completing planned site transactions arising from legal and planning issues.

There are 32 major projects commencing on site in the second half of the year. This is a significant number of sites progressing through tender and to construction. In total, it is expected that by the end of this year 53 new schools will have commenced on site. This compares to projects for 34 schools going on site last year.

As I mentioned at a meeting of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Education and Skills in June last, I had asked my officials in June to draw up possible contingency plans in the context of the expenditure challenges. I am looking at possible revised expenditure allocations to compensate for the softening of expenditure on schools capital within the Department's overall capital budget.

The Department's current budget is tight this year and there is little contingency available if unexpected expenditure arises in the next eight weeks. This may arise in the area of pensions, for example, where a number of late applications for retirement may be received. Therefore, it may be necessary for me to take a prudent approach and set aside a small amount of the capital budget to cover for recurrent spending contingencies. This will be kept under constant review.

The main other areas where the Department's capital expenditure is running behind profile are ICT grants and higher education. In terms of ICT grants, €24 million was allocated to almost 3,300 primary schools last week and the funding has issued. There is no underspend in this area. The budget for higher education institutions is some €32 million behind profile. This is a matter of the timing of the issuing of payments.

It would not be expected at this time of the year that the entire capital budget would be spent. The Government is continuing to roll out a vastly improved infrastructure for those at all stages of their education.

Last week it was stated that there was €330 million still to be spent. What has happened to almost €300 million of that in the past week? I assume the Minister has not spent it in the past week. What does €50 million "behind profile" mean? This is the second year in a row that there has been a huge underspend coming to the end of the year. By the Minister's own figures in a statement issued last weekend, €250 million has yet to be spent. Will she assure us this will be spent? Last year, we had a similar situation and the former Minister, Deputy Batt O'Keeffe, stated it would be spent by the end of the year. However, at the end of the year €80 million was brought forward into this year's budget. This is unacceptable. It is amazing because for the past two years, this side of the House has heard there is no money for anything and that there will be cutbacks. The Minister has money and will not spend it. A total of 10% of the children of Ireland will spend their entire schooling in prefabs, which is money being wasted because the Minister will not spend money in her capital budget.

Clarity must be given in that there is a €50 million underspend on schools at present. There were timing issues and all Members of the House are acutely aware of this because they speak to me about these issues and the frustrations in the delays in a number of projects either through planning or other issues which frustrate the process by which the delivery programme takes place.

A total of 4,000 schools were supported this year through the summer works scheme. This is a significant scheme whereby almost everybody who applied was successful. We have also given conservation grants and rolled out the ICT grants. All of this is under hand. It is my intention to have expenditure in my capital programme completed this year. I will also introduce a number of new systems and methodologies in the delivery of the capital programme on the basis of new initiatives in devolved procurement through VECs and local authorities, which have commenced in counties Monaghan and Louth. I have also moved on transferring the worth of the rental of prefabs, as the Deputy raised quite rightly, into a composite amount of money that can be devolved to schools to build an extension. I believe in the ability, particularly of schools with less than six classrooms and their boards of management, to deliver these types of programmes. We have a new geographical information system, GIS, inventory and site acquisition system. We are dealing with the programmes and it is my intention to have that money spent.

Members must understand only one minute is allowed for supplementaries.

Is the Minister stating the figures given by her Department last week were wrong? Is she stating the €50 million spent on buying prefabs for the past three years and the €50 million spent on renting prefabs for the past two years will be wiped out? These are the questions the communities are asking. I wish to make a suggestion on this issue. The devolved school scheme has been wonderful because it has delivered at local level. Does the Minister envisage increasing the amount of capital spending through the devolved scheme? Local builders are crying out for employment and usually their children go to the schools. Local communities are in control and they are delivered at a much quicker rate than those through the Department's programme.

There are a number of programmes. I believe there is capacity in smaller schools to deliver devolved programmes. I also believe in the capacity of other public authorities in the delivery of devolved programmes of a larger size. This will happen; it is part of the new initiative I have in the new methodologies of delivering these programmes. I am sure the Deputy is familiar with a number of them.

The other important issue is that the full extent of expenditure of allocations in departmental announcements this year will not be until 2012. This is how the system works. It can be very frustrating and I know this from being a local Deputy for many years. The capital underspend on schools is €50 million. Last week, €24 million was spent on ICT. Clearly, a number of other timing issues exist. For example, for the first three months of this year it was very difficult to achieve any drawdown of expenditure on the basis of the weather, about which I could do very little. Other issues have it slowed down. I can state that this year there is a larger programme on site than last year and I will continue to ensure that expenditure takes place.

The Minister is going to the bottom of the barrel talking about the weather.

It is bad weather for canvassing.

The committee has been familiarised with this issue.

Computerisation Programme

Deirdre Clune

Ceist:

56 Deputy Deirdre Clune asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Education and Skills if she is concerned at the level of investment in information and communication technology in schools which has led to only 2% of schools with access to high speed broadband; her plans to address this situation; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [41604/10]

Under my Department's schools broadband programme, connectivity to the Internet is routed through a national broadband network, developed by HEAnet, the national education and research network provider. HEAnet controls the broadband access to schools and it provides centrally managed services for schools such as security, anti-spam, anti-virus and content filtering. Access to resources such as on-line versions of Britannica and World Book are also only available through the schools broadband network.

As the Deputy is aware, my Department has secured broadband services on behalf of schools and under the resultant contracts the best available connections, within resources, were provided. However, in some cases only satellite services were available. Since the commencement of the roll-out of phase two in 2009 of the schools broadband programme, there has been more than a 50% increase in bandwidth capacity. This is due to improved bandwidth speeds being made available to schools and the substantial reduction in the number of schools which are connected via satellite. Schools are offered satellite connections only where no alternative was offered during the procurement process. Should a better solution become available from the contractors over the lifetime of the contracts, schools may be migrated to the new solution. In addition, my Department is working with the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources on a pilot project using 100 megabits broadband connectivity to 78 post-primary schools.

It is important to remember that broadband is just one element of a wider policy on the use of ICT in schools. Since 1998, almost €300 million has been invested in the ICT in schools programme. The programme has addressed four broad areas: the provision of essential ICT infrastructure and networking within schools; the provision of access to broadband connectivity to schools; up-skilling teachers' ICT skills; and integrating ICT in the curriculum and providing curriculum-relevant digital content and software.

As part of the Government's commitment to ICT in education, the Smart Schools = Smart Economy report was published in November 2009. This report builds on the 2008 strategy group report, and contains relevant recommendations in the context of how best to realise the potential of ICT use in schools. Some €22.3 million in ICT grants was provided to primary schools in 2009 and a further €24 million of funding to primary schools has just been announced. In addition, funding of almost €21 million was recently provided to post-primary schools.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House.

The National Centre for Technology in Education contributes to the ICT in schools programme in several key respects. Under its teaching skills initiative, the NCTE offers ICT-related training programmes. An estimated 12,000 training places were provided in 2009. Scoilnet, the national portal for digital content in Irish education, provides a central resource to teachers, pupils and parents, offering access to a growing repository of advice and information.

My Department will continue to implement the ambitious ICT in schools programme which will ensure that our schools are making the best use of ICT in teaching and learning.

The question I asked related to the fact that the level of broadband service being offered to schools, particularly primary schools, has been criticised by the INTO. It is so bad that some schools have refused to pay for it and have gone about getting their own service. Is the Minister of State concerned that HEAnet, which was devised to provide broadband to our schools, has been rejected by the INTO, which is the representative body of primary teachers who deal with children in schools? The progress in this area has been abysmal. The Minister of State mentioned that 78 post-primary schools out of a total of 3,260 have high-speed broadband in an era when we are attempting to develop a smart economy. Technology, and learning through technology, is essential. What plans does the Minister of State have to advance high-speed broadband access to all schools?

Schools are offered satellite connection only where a better alternative is not available to give them higher speed access. Fixed wire and wireless broadband deliver faster speeds for schools. Of the almost 4,000 schools availing of the school broadband service, only 150 schools are now on satellite and this number continues to reduce with the roll-out of faster broadband speed connectivity to the schools in question.

In her initial response, the Minister of State mentioned the grants provided last week for IT provision in schools. With regard to teacher training, teacher competence in this area and continual professional development, has the Minister of State examined how teachers avail of IT and how they get themselves up to speed in imparting knowledge to students? It continues to be a criticism that teachers are not trained to deal with the subject of information technology.

The education centres are providing good service in upskilling teachers in ICT training. This is manifested——

Are there standards or statistics to measure this service?

——in many of the centres around the country. As the first step in implementing the recommendations of the report on broadband, a total of €22 million in ICT grants was issued to primary schools in 2009 and a further €45 million was also issued to schools. In tandem with the funding for schools there is also funding for teacher training. I will get that figure for the Deputy if she requires it.

What is the level of uptake among teachers for such professional development in this area?

I can provide the Deputy with figures at a later date about the numbers partaking in the upskilling services for ICT training.