Third-level system places 'appalling' stress on young people, says minister

Harris says  country needs a 'fully-integrated' third-level sector, and the system in place needs to 'change quickly'
Third-level system places 'appalling' stress on young people, says minister

TUI president Martin Marjoram at the TUI annual congress. Picture: Tommy Clancy

Ireland’s third-level education system has allowed a points race to “get out of control” and places “appalling levels of pressure and stress” on young people.

That is according to Minister for Further and Higher Education, Simon Harris, who was speaking at the annual conference of the Teachers’ Union of Ireland (TUI).

He said the country needs a “fully-integrated” third-level sector, and the system in place needs to “change quickly”.

“It [the third-level system] has allowed an almost elitist mindset to emerge which defines success in some people’s mind on where you went to college, rather on what you want to do in life and how best to get to that point,” he said.

“It has failed to recognise the brilliance of further education and training and how this should not just be a fallback option for students but, for many, should and can be a first choice. 

"It has allowed skills shortages in key areas to develop. It has ignored the worrying dropout rates from higher education.” 

He said he would publish a new action plan on apprenticeships later this month, which will commit to 10,000 new apprentices every year by 2025 and will “significantly expand” the number of apprenticeships across the public sector.

"Progressive reforms to further and higher education, and the apprenticeship regime, will help to create opportunities for everyone, regardless of age, gender or geographical location," he said.

Speaking about technological universities, Mr Harris said it will “transform the delivery of higher education in Ireland”.

He said it was not just a name change for institutes of technology, but it was about scale, investment, and expansion. It was about "wanting to expand the footprint of higher education in the regions", he added.

On the funding of the higher education sector, Mr Harris said the issue has been “ducked and dodged for far too long”.

He said there have been improvements made in recent years, but the investment level is not “where it needs to be".

The final report on the future funding of the sector is due in the coming months, and Mr Harris said he intends to act on it with government colleagues and will engage comprehensively with stakeholders, including the TUI.

Martin Marjoram, president of the TUI, welcomed the minister’s proposal to make access to third-level more equitable, adding that an integrated system would be "valued" by the union.

“We have long championed adult education, further education, youth reach, apprenticeships, and widening of access to third-level. We have no time for elitism or for exclusion,” he said.

“In an earlier address to congress, I decried the obsession with CAO points. Indeed, I would welcome a reform to take some of that pressure away from students and which also highlights, for them, their other options.”

He said it now falls to the minister to address "decades of underinvestment" in higher education.

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