THE shocking extent of the FAS training scandal was laid bare last night after it was confirmed that more than 1,700 certificates are being withheld from students because of course irregularities.
Junior Education Minister Sean Haughey said problems had been uncovered with 54 different courses run by outside companies on behalf of the state training agency.
Mr Haughey said 1,719 certificates had been withheld from 968 students as a result. All of the courses are in the north-east.
Many of the students have been in limbo for months, having completed their training but with no certificate to show for it.
The minister's admission is the first time either the Department of Education or FAS has acknowledged the full scale of the crisis.
The huge figures involved will cause serious reputational damage, both at home and abroad, to the qualifications offered by the agency, at a time when its services are urgently needed.
The revelations come at the end of a two-year period during which a series of scandals over spending, procurement and foreign travel expenses have been exposed.
The training-course irregularities were discovered during a nationwide review, initiated last October after the Irish Independent revealed how a tutor for a computer-aided design course doctored results to allow students to pass exams they would otherwise have failed.
In a statement, Mr Haughey admitted the quality of certain FAS courses was not high enough.
He said a revised tender framework "with the aim of raising the quality of the training offered" was being introduced.
Fine Gael education spokesman Fergus O'Dowd described the situation as "an absolute disgrace".
"We have mass unemployment and now almost 1,000 people are unsure they will get their qualification because of irregularities with their courses," he said.
A report on the nationwide review -- which looked at 302 contracted courses -- is expected to be published by FAS on Monday.
During the review, officials found evidence of exam papers being marked incorrectly, possible manipulation of test results, and other non-conformance issues. The problems were not limited to the north-east.
Sources familiar with the findings said evidence of "suspected malpractice" had been found, but that most of the issues had been or were in the process of being resolved. Mr Haughey said the FAS board and its director general Paul O'Toole were putting new procedures in place to ensure "instances like this should not recur".
The minister added that the changes would include:
The revised contracts will be introduced next month while the new marking scheme is to be introduced in the first half of next year.
Last night, FAS sought to play down the seriousness of the issues that have led to certificates being withheld.
A spokeswoman for the agency said it did not believe the problems found were the result of "deliberate manipulation" but rather "procedural issues".
"FAS is working to resolve these issues as quickly as possible and we are aiming to request these certificates from the relevant awarding bodies in the next number of weeks," the spokeswoman said.