Reform of Further Education & Training Sector – Overview of SOLAS, ETBs, NEES, and QQI
While the restructuring of the VECs into 16 ETBs has been government policy for some time and was implemented on 1 July 2013, the programme of assistance agreed with the EU/ECB/IMF Troika in November 2011 also committed Ireland to a structural reform agenda (to maximise the potential for economic growth), a fiscal consolidation strategy (to return government debt to below 3% by 2015) and a reorganisation/recapitalisation of the banking sector. The structural reform agenda includes the establishment of a Further Education and Training Sector as well as a Labour Market Activation strategy. The structural reform programme provides for the dissolution of FÁS and the establishment of a new Further Education and Training Authority (SOLAS), the establishment of 16 Education and Training Boards (ETBs), the establishment of the National Employment and Entitlements Service (Intreo), the establishment of Qualifications and Quality Assurance Ireland (QQI), and the launch of the Pathways to Work Initiative.
The Education and Training Boards Act 2013 was implemented on 1 July 2013. This abolished VECs and established 16 Education and Training Boards (ETBs).
As the separate Further Education and Training Bill is enacted, phasing arrangements will emerge around the incorporation of the existing Training Division of FÁS into the ETB network.
Establishment of SOLAS
The impending SOLAS legislation will provide for the dissolution of FÁS and the establishment of SOLAS as a new statutory authority to oversee the Further Education and Training sector. As legislation is enacted, phasing arrangement will emerge around the incorporation of the 16 FÁS training centres and the 800 FÁS staff into the 16 ETBs. Ultimately SOLAS will be left with a staffing complement of about 10% of that of FÁS (circa 200). SOLAS is to be responsible for the co-ordination and funding of training and further education programmes around the country, while ETBs will ultimately be responsible for the delivery of publicly-funded FET programmes. SOLAS will enter into annual Service Level Agreements (SLAs) with ETBs. These SLAs will align the strategies of ETBs with national priorities across education and training provision. It has been indicated that there will be a clearer focus on the needs of learners and job seekers. There will be a greater focus on skills provision for occupations in growth areas like the services, ICT, medical devices, food, and bio-pharma sectors. With the support of other bodies, SOLAS will analyse demand for future FET provision and respond to emergent skills needs. Online and blended provision of FET courses will be expanded in keeping with the current digital age.
All employment and benefits services will be integrated into a single delivery unit, called Intreo, to be managed by the Department of Social Protection (DSP). Already the FÁS Employment Services have been transferred to the DSP (January 1st 2012) as part of the establishment of Intreo. Intreo is a signal delivery unit – or “one-stop-shop” – which will support people to establish their benefits entitlements, advise them about their training options, and assist them in securing employment. Intreo is part of the government’s reform of labour market activation policies as set out in the Pathways to Work Initiative launched on February 23rd 2012. Intreo will offer users a higher level of individual employment and education and training advice, with more frequent face-to-face interviews. Intreo will closely interact with ETBs and SOLAS in regard to the referral of individuals for Further Education and Training. This will require specific protocols and operational mechanisms to be agreed between SOLAS and ETBs, and DSP/Intreo.
The Further Education and Training Awards Council (FETAC), the Higher Education and Training Awards Council (HETAC), The National Qualifications Authority of Ireland (NQAI) and the Irish Universities Quality Boards (IUQB) are being amalgamated into a new single agency – Qualifications and Quality Assurance Ireland (QQI). It is clear that QQI will also play a significant and key role in the development of an integrated FET sector.