Future of VECs and SOLAS explained at Oireachtas Committee meeting

19 Oct 2011

Mr. Dermot Mulligan:  Thank you, Chairman. I am happy to be here today to say a few words about the changes that have been recently announced regarding the future development of the further education and training sector. Members will recall that the employment services and employment programmes functions of FÁS are currently being transferred to the Department of Social Protection, which is establishing the new national employment and entitlements service.

Mr. Dermot Mulligan:  Thank you, Chairman. I am happy to be here today to say a few words about the changes that have been recently announced regarding the future development of the further education and training sector. Members will recall that the employment services and employment programmes functions of FÁS are currently being transferred to the Department of Social Protection, which is establishing the new national employment and entitlements service. The changes I will describe today involve the remaining training and corporate functions of FÁS and the further education programmes provided by vocational educational committees. I will first of all briefly describe the changes in the FET sector, which the Government approved in July. They include two key organisational changes, the first being the creation of a new authority called SOLAS to be responsible for the co-ordination and funding of further education and training. The role of SOLAS for the FET sector will be akin to the role of the HEA for the higher education sector and it will be staffed mostly by former FÁS head office staff. The second key change is that VECs will ultimately deliver all publicly funded further education and training programmes, and FÁS will be disbanded.

In recognition of their skills and expertise, and the need for an orderly transition in the establishment of SOLAS, the existing members of the FÁS board have been invited to continue to serve out their current terms as members of the SOLAS board, once the relevant legislation has been passed. Mr. Michael Moriarty of the IVEA has been recently appointed to the FÁS board. The establishment of SOLAS will give the FET sector a single, coherent national management structure to drive the implementation of the changes necessary to ensure the delivery of a quality, modern, relevant FET service to learners and jobseekers.

These changes represent the most significant change in the further education sector in over 70 years and the most significant change in the training sector since the establishment of FÁS itself over 20 years ago. In the new arrangements, the Department of Education and Skills and the Government will define the broad strategy and national priorities, decide on the funding level, develop the legislative framework and oversee implementation. SOLAS will, in turn, enter into annual service level agreements with VECs, Skillsnet and other bodies for the delivery of specific FET programme outputs for specified financial allocations.

Regarding why SOLAS is being established, I will now say a few words about why the Government decided on these changes for the FET sector. It was decided that in order to meet, first, the objectives of national skills strategy and, second, the needs of learners, we needed to do two key things. First, we needed to fully integrate the separate further education and training sectors into one sector which would be a key pillar of our system of education and skills. Second, we needed a clearer focus on the needs of learners, including jobseekers particularly, and on the needs of business and the labour market.

These significant changes to the FET sector will have three key impacts. First, there will be a clearer, learner-centered focus on the needs of jobseekers and other learners. For the first time, jobseekers will be systematically referred by the Department of Social Protection, under the national employment action plan, to further education programmes, in addition to the existing referrals to FÁS training courses. This will require specific protocols and operational mechanisms between the Department of Education and Skills, SOLAS and VECs on one side, and the Department of Social Protection and the new national employment and entitlements service on the other.

Second, there will be a greater focus on providing the new skills required by the new jobs in today’s economy. SOLAS will ensure that there is a greater focus on skills provision for occupations in growth areas like the services, ICT, medical devices, food and bio-pharma sectors. This will, in turn, mean less skills provision for jobs in the traditional construction and manufacturing sectors, which have been on the wane. With the assistance of the expert group for future skills needs, SOLAS will also analyse demand for future FET provision and respond quickly to emerging skills needs.

Third, there will be significant modernisation of course provision, particularly in terms of delivery. This means SOLAS will ensure that FET courses are provided in new ways that are more appropriate to the current digital age and more efficient in terms of the use of resources. In particular, it will significantly expand the online, blended and evening provision of FET courses.

These new programmes under SOLAS will be integrated, flexible and responsive to the needs of learners and the requirements of a changed and changing economy. SOLAS will also be underpinned by strong quality assurance standards and will be subject to international benchmarking and course content reviews. There will also be an increased focus on outputs and outcomes, especially in the further education sector. This will lead to greater value for money at a time of significantly increased demand for FET supports due to the rise in unemployment.

I will now say a few words about the implementation steps for the transition to these new arrangements. A SOLAS implementation group has been established to implement these changes in the FET sector. The implementation group is chaired by the Minister for State with responsibility for training and skills, Deputy Ciarán Cannon, and its membership includes the Department of Education and Skills, FÁS and the Irish Vocational Education Association.

The group had its first meeting on 31 August and it will have its second meeting this week. The immediate task for the group is the development of a draft action plan to implement the necessary changes to put these new arrangements in place. This draft action plan will then be the subject of consultation with interested stakeholders before being finalised and published.

The intention is that over a period beginning with 2012, SOLAS will manage an increasing proportion of the financial allocation for further education and training services from the Department of Education and Skills. These new arrangements will require the Labour Services Acts to be amended and, to ensure legal certainty, will involve amendment of the Vocational Education Act and the Education Acts. This will facilitate the VECs taking over responsibility for the provision of training services, in addition to their existing further education responsibilities. The proposed legislation will be published early in the new year.

The Government has indicated that it wants the implementation of this significant change process to be largely complete by the end of 2012. These changes will be implemented carefully to dovetail with the reduction in the number of VECs, which has been announced. The heads of the relevant legislation will be published in the next few weeks and the Bill itself will be published, hopefully, early in 2012.

In conclusion then, I would say that the clear objective of this major change management process is to give increased focus to the needs of learners, especially jobseekers, and in meeting those needs to ensure that further education and training programmes are modern, flexible and relevant to the labour market and its skills needs.