Support for low-skilled students under threat

SUPPORT services for schools, colleges and education centres working with low-skilled students could come under pressure as Vocational Education Committees (VECs) have been told to cut non-teaching staff by up to 10% by the end of 2012.

The rationalisation of personnel in the 33 city and county VECs could be a pre-emptive measure before the expected announcement that as many one-third of them are to be axed and amalgamated with neighbouring services. As well as more than 250 vocational schools and community colleges, VECs run further education colleges, adult literacy services, Youthreach programmes for early school leavers and other localised education supports.

But they have been instructed this week that the number of non-teaching staff must be 8% to 10% lower by the end of 2012 than in March 2009, equivalent to around 2.7% reductions per year. While most of this could be achieved by the non-replacement of retiring staff, a policy already enforced on VECs by the recruitment ban across the public service, the move may mean about 150 jobs being lost for good in the period concerned. “This is something like the employment control framework already in place at third-level colleges, but at least schools are guaranteed that they will not lose any teaching staff,” said Michael Moriarty, general secretary of the VECs umbrella body, the Irish Vocational Association (IVEA).

“The chief executives of each VEC will have to decide how their staffing is to be organised to keep within the restrictions. A lot of these administrative positions are working in head offices, or providing support to schools, and helping to run programmes like Youthreach or other local courses,” he said.

Education Minister Mary Coughlan could announce radical plans within weeks to rationalise the VEC system, as proposed last year in the report of An Bord Snip Nua. It suggested merging some smaller committees to reduce the number to 22, a figure the Tánaiste’s predecessor in the Department of Education, Batt O’Keeffe had described as “reasonable”.

The IVEA opposes the move, insisting the local knowledge of staff and VEC members — including councillors and staff representatives — are vital to delivering services appropriate to each city and county.

These services include the processing of tens of thousands of third-level student grants each year. The long-delayed Student Support Bill which is expected to return to the Dáil in amended format later this year would hand responsibility for the other grant schemes from city and county councils to VECs and allow the minister set annual deadlines for applications being opened and finalised.

In the meantime, VECs and councils will handle a record number of grant applications this year, as rising unemployment and falling incomes make far more undergraduates eligible for support. The official deadline for applications passed yesterday.

Figures published by the Irish Examiner last week showed an average of 100 of last year’s college graduates are taking up work overseas each week, but University College Cork Students’ Union said a recent Government initiative to create 50 placements for unemployed graduates is piecemeal. “This will negate just two-and-a-half days of graduates emigrating from Ireland, leaving the remaining 100,000 with little hope of Government intervention as they move abroad over the coming five years in search of jobs,” said union president Keith O’Brien.


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