Higher Education Minister Simon Harris has described Ireland’s third-level sector as “elitist” and vowed to introduce a fully integrated system which caters for all.
Mr Harris said the lack of an integrated system has led to skills shortages, inequality and high drop-out rates from higher education.
He said the focus should not be on where you went to college, but how you got there.
Speaking at the annual conference of the Teachers’ Union of Ireland, Mr Harris said there is a “mountain of work to do” in the education sector.
He criticised the current third-level model, saying it places huge pressure on students.
“It has allowed a points race to get out of control and placed appalling levels of pressure and stress on young people in our country.
“It has allowed an almost elitist mind set to emerge which defines success in some people’s mind on where you went to college, rather than what you want to do in life and how best to get to that point.”
Funding for higher and further education is an issue that has been “ducked and dodged for far too long” in this country, he added.
He said it reminded him of a famous Father Ted joke, “is there anything to be said for another report?”
“This new dedicated department will seek to rectify that. We expect the final report on the future funding of the sector in the next few months and I want you to know two things: I don’t intend to be dusting it or seeking a shelf to stick it on," he said.
Mr Harris said while some ministers believe in incremental change and doing a “little bit each year” he is not of the same mindset.
“When it comes to reforming third level, that is not an option.”
He welcomed improved funding in recent years but said it is still not at the level required.
“We live in a country where despite our success and relative prosperity, one in eight adults cannot read or write. One in five struggle with numbers and nearly one in two lack basic digital skills. This does not get discussed enough. Perhaps it doesn’t fit in with the narrative we like to portray,” he told the conference.
“I intend to shout from the rooftops about it. We cannot leave people behind. Covid has shone a very bright light on inequality and we must respond”.
Mr Harris also confirmed that his department is looking to introduce pilot schemes for rapid Covid-19 testing across Irish colleges.
He said his department is aiming to deliver 10,000 new apprenticeships each year by 2025 and referenced an additional investment of €20 million to help deal with the backlog in apprenticeship programmes caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.