New Solas chief executive Andrew Brownlee looks to make reforms in the further education sector

Newly minted chief executive of Solas Andrew Brownlee has indicated that wider reform is needed to “unleash the full potential” of the further education sector over the coming years. Solas, the state agency for further education and training, is exploring different ideas to invigorate further education and attract more school leavers.

Solas is looking into adding “taster” courses for further education and training courses in secondary school similar to a model in Scotland where modules formed part of what is equivalent to our Leaving Certificate. He thinks that the 24 types of programmes on offer could be further simplified as well.

To address criticism of further education colleges that they mimic a secondary school year and close for the summer, Solas is looking into ways to make further education colleges open for longer. They’re trying to meet the demand for more upskilling and “bite sized” courses. Speaking to the Irish Times, he said: “We’re going to look at how we develop a more flexible, year-round approach and how to use technology to deliver year-round courses . . . and find ways to ensure our facilities are open throughout the year and can service needs at different points in time.” he said.

He also said that Solas will work with trade unions who are “very important stakeholders.” He said that: “They are committed to the future of further education and technology as well and they recognise the need to develop and chance. Teachers and instructors are critical stakeholders in moving this forward.”

He is also looking into further education options being added to the preference process of Central Applications Office. This can potentially give further education choices more visibility to students as they decide on career options.

He believes that “it’s the right option for a much more significant group of school leavers than are choosing that at present,” Speaking to the Irish Times, he said: “A 17- or 18-year-old doesn’t always know what the right option is. Sometimes a one year post-Leaving Cert course or 18-month traineeship can help in deciding what the best option is.”

Furthermore, he describes the result of further education as excellent: 90% of graduates end up in employment or in other types of education. At the moment, one in five students entering institutes of technology are from further education courses. However, further education courses can also bring a school leaver to third level courses, but this isn’t always clear or consistent. Solas will be looking into making these links between further education and third level clearer for school leavers.

He is exploring several ways to “get that message across” that further education is a viable option into full-time employment and higher education without having to commit to another four years of education. “I think we have a real offering which we can make more of in the next few years.” he said.

Mr. Brownlee credits higher education as playing a transformative and positive role in shaping Ireland, but feels there is a “cultural issue” here. He has expressed concern that “there’s an almost obsession with people going into higher education. And I think there is an opportunity now to see if we have that balance right.” Therefore, routes to further education are ignored in favour of going straight to third level education.

This “obsession” is clear from the Higher Education Authority’s (HEA) and Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) recent figures. Ireland has one of the highest proportions of school leavers entering third level education in the European Union with 60% progressing to tertiary education. According to the HEA, 44,000 new entrants entered higher education and 70,000 graduated with undergraduate or postgraduate qualifications last year. Over the last year, just over a quarter of a million people (232,000) or one in 15 adults are studying a third level course in Ireland according to the HEA. This has indicated that “Ireland is clearly a society committed to learning,” according to HEA chief executive Paul O’Toole. “This talent pool will help us meet whatever challenges we face.”Numbers from the OECD show that that almost half of Irish adults (47%) gained a bachelor’s degree. This is one of the highest shares across all OECD countries. But very few enter further education and training compared to other countries in the EU.