I welcome the opportunity once again to address the Seanad on the key issue of lifelong learning. I thank the Senators who have contributed so far for the informed nature of the debate and look forward to the contributions of the Senators who are due to speak. As Minister of State with responsibility for lifelong learning, I know there is growing awareness that education is a lifelong process and that learning should occur at all stages of life, from preschool to post-retirement. Nowadays we must continually develop our skills and further our knowledge to keep pace in a fast-changing world.
As a small open economy in an increasingly globalised world, this has never been more true. We are totally committed to the provision of lifelong learning opportunities, despite the significant economic challenges we face. The Government is fully aware of the need for people to continually upskill with the necessary skills for the jobs of tomorrow. This commitment is manifested in the creation of the labour market activation fund, worth €20 million. The fund is intended to support the provision of training and education programmes for the unemployed, prioritising the low skilled and those formerly employed in declining sectors such as construction, retail and manufacturing, with particular emphasis on the under 35s and the long-term unemployed. Following an open tender competition in which 370 tenders were received, the Tánaiste announced yesterday the award of contracts to 26 organisations across the private, not-for-profit and public sectors to support 6,500 additional training and education places in programmes for priority groups of the unemployed. These programmes will come on stream from this month, a very welcome development.
In terms of additional measures, during the years the Government has expanded opportunities in further education which plays a key role by providing access, transfer and progression opportunities for the lower skilled, the disadvantaged and the hard-to-reach, including the unemployed. Expenditure in this area increased by 60% from €256 million in 2002 to €426 million in 2010, as Senator Ormonde mentioned. Part-time learning opportunities for the low-skilled, the disadvantaged and the unemployed are available all year round through the back to education initiative, adult literacy and community education programmes. Together, these programmes are catering for an estimated 125,000 learners in 2010.
In addition, full-time further education opportunities are being provided throughout 2010 for over 40,000 learners, including the unemployed, mainly at levels 3 to 6 on the national framework of qualifications, under the Youthreach, senior Traveller training centre, vocational training opportunities scheme and post-leaving certificate, PLC, programmes. The expansion of opportunities continued in 2009, with an additional 1,500 PLC places for the 2009-10 academic year, bringing the total number of places available nationwide to nearly 31,700. The increase in demand for education opportunities can clearly be seen in the significant increase in the number of back to education allowance recipients, up to over 18,000, many of whom are participating in further and higher education programmes.
The higher education sector has a key role to play in helping people who have lost their jobs to develop their workforce skills. Increasing numbers are choosing to enter higher education, a welcome trend at a time of reduced opportunity for direct school leaver entry to the labour market and increasing demand for reskilling and upskilling among the broader adult population. The number of Central Applications Office, CAO, applications received by 1 February this year for places in the 2010-11 academic year is up approximately 6% on the same time in 2009. This increase is broadly in line with expectations and the increase seen the previous year. Higher education institutions have been responding to the increase in demand by increasing the number of places they offer. In this regard, CAO acceptances in 2009-10 were 45,582, up 8.3% on the figure for the previous year, 2008-09, which, in turn, had seen an increase of 5.4% on the figure for 2007-08. At a time of considerable pressure on budgets and staffing resources, this demonstrates a significant willingness on the part of higher education providers to respond to increasing demand.
During 2009 a number of new initiatives were taken by the higher education sector to support unemployed persons return to education and engage in upskilling. Over 900 unemployed persons participated in short courses in the institutes of technology, while 160 students undertook accelerated level 6 programmes. In addition, from September 2009 almost 1,800 unemployed persons were supported to embark on part-time undergraduate and postgraduate courses in areas that support the goals of the Government's smart economy document. Similarly, in the training sector there have been substantial increases in the resources aimed at tackling unemployment. The FÁS employment services, together with the local employment services, have doubled their capacity to cater for the rise in referrals from the Department of Social Protection. This increased the annual referral capacity to 147,000 persons in 2009. Furthermore, my Department will fund the provision of approximately 157,000 training and work experience places this year for the unemployed. This compares to the 66,000 places delivered in 2008 and the 130,000 delivered last year.
There are additional training places on short courses available to the unemployed. In 2009 FÁS delivered approximately 92,000 short course training places to the unemployed. This is a quadrupling of the number of similar courses provided in 2008 and reflects the Government's efforts in increasing relevant supports for the unemployed. Short training courses are designed to respond to individual training needs in the development of new skills and competencies. Courses are delivered in a variety of ways in order to be as flexible as possible. This has enabled more people to access them. To try to address the significant contraction of activity in the construction sector and its impact on apprenticeships, FÁS has restructured the apprenticeship system to allow redundant apprentices to progress to the next off-the-job training phase in the education sector.
Coupled with all of these initiatives, the Department of Social Protection works with social welfare recipients through a network of facilitators to identify appropriate training or development programmes. These will enhance the skills the individual has and ultimately improve his or her employment chances, as well as help him or her to continue to develop personally. The facilitators work in close co-operation with other agencies and service providers, including FÁS, VECs, other education and training providers and the local and community and voluntary sector. They also provide advice and support to clients who wish to access the back to education and back to work schemes of the Department of Social Protection.
The Government has sought to provide additional education and training opportunities with the support of the European globalisation adjustment fund, co-funded by the EU. Details of that scheme have been circulated to Members.
The training and upskilling of the country's workforce is a vital element of this country's recovery from the current downturn, both in the context of encouraging the emergence of indigenous enterprises as well as attracting inward investment into Ireland. My Department is therefore focused on ensuring the delivery of high quality activation services to its priority cohorts, including those with low skills or education levels, those who have been on the live register for an extended period and those who were previously employed in sectors that have been most affected by restructuring and where recovery to near previous levels is not a realistic prospect in the short to medium term.
Members will be aware that, in 2007, the Government published the national skills strategy, based on a detailed analysis by the expert group on future skills needs. A number of Senators have referred to that. While the economic situation has changed significantly since the publication of the strategy, the goals and objectives remain valid. The current economic and labour market difficulties in Ireland mean that the implementation of the strategy is even more important, not just for the economy as a whole but especially for the many individuals who are experiencing unemployment and who require new skills to get back into employment.
Significant progress has been made towards the achievement of the strategy targets. The percentage of those in the labour force with higher education qualifications has increased from 33% in 2005 to 39% in 2009, as was mentioned during the course of the debate. The percentage of the population aged 20 to 24 with at least upper secondary level education increased from 86% in 2005 to 88% by 2008 and retention at leaving certificate of those who entered school in 2001 has also risen from just over 81% to almost 85%. The percentage of those in the labour force with less than a junior certificate has fallen from 27% in 2005 to 21% in 2009. In this context, progress is clear in relation to third level but a priority is upskilling the low skilled, bringing those with skills equivalent to levels 1 to 3 on the national framework of qualifications up to levels 4 and 5. We are committed to achieving our targets. We have a long-term strategy continuing until 2020. We will endeavour to reach those targets and we have no reason to fear we will not do so.
The bringing together of responsibility for education and skills training under one Department, the Department of Education and Skills, will enhance our ability to deliver a more cohesive response for individuals, potential employers and local communities. The alignment of skills training and FÁS with the further education and training activities of the VECs and the institutes of technology provides an opportunity for the elimination of duplication and the streamlining and strengthening of provision to deliver the best possible outcomes for learners. There has been further co-operation between FÁS and the VECs, especially having regard to the FÁS-Irish Vocational Education Association national co-operation agreement, and I welcome that.
I am delighted to have had this opportunity to highlight the numerous initiatives and opportunities for those who want to engage in lifelong learning. Currently the focus is on upskilling due to the level of unemployment, particularly youth unemployment. We must continue to invest in the skills of our workforce to enhance employment skills. We must ensure we have the necessary blend of skills required to succeed as a knowledge-based economy. Ireland is competing in an ever-increasing global competitive marketplace where the key to success is establishing competitive advantage. We must constantly review our education and training provision to ensure we are meeting the needs of industry and the economy. We must encourage greater participation in lifelong learning by facilitating and motivating people of all ages to increase their skill levels and qualifications, to acquire new skills and knowledge in different areas and to renew existing skills to stay abreast of technology and other developments. Lifelong learning is also important for personal development and social cohesion which are imperative if we are to continue to develop a fair and just society in Ireland.
The challenges presented by the global financial crisis require a concerted and coherent response. Therefore, we must work together, domestically and internationally, locally and regionally, as partners and joint stakeholders in our country's future. We must consolidate our investment to ensure long-term sustainability and build a flexible and robust education and training system that promotes social inclusion as well as upskilling and re-skilling.
The Government will continue to promote lifelong learning and support initiatives in this regard. Much progress has been made in this area and I am committed to building further on our achievements to date. In this way we will improve not only the lives of learners but the lives of their families and community and our economy.
I regret we do not have more time to develop some of the issues raised during the course of the debate. I have no doubt we will revert to them at a later stage.