Learning for Life: Minister Simon Harris speaks about department plans

Our future is in our own hands and the Covid-19 pandemic has brought this into stark relief, according to Minister for Further and Higher Education Simon Harris.

Speaking at the Young Scientist exhibition just days ago he stressed how science and technology are no longer a distant concept, but an immediate necessity.

He said: “We’re all watching the news every day, wondering will there be a breakthrough, has that vaccine been approved yet? We use technology to connect and communicate.

“The battle for the future wellbeing of our country used to be about, can we get people to come and locate a big factory in our town and in our country?

“The battle for the future of our country now is going to be about the talent, ingenuity and the brains of the people in this country.”

The establishment of Minister Harris’s new department shows a shift in thinking on ‘further education’ with more shorter courses and apprenticeships on offer.

He acknowledged the shortcomings within the education system. He told Dublin Gazette: “With regard to third level, we will have to become more flexible and adaptable to meet the needs of lifelong learning, bridge the digital divide and provide people with the skills they need. 

“However the system has risen to this challenge during the pandemic so I’m confident we can get this right and we have made a good start with the provision of 50,000 additional education and training places including many on those short, modular courses that I believe will be so important for the future.”

Simon Harris studied Journalism and French in DIT and remembers it as a “great experience” in terms of both his education and the social aspect which saw him make life-long friends.

But he is keenly aware that this is not the only route to third level education and he is keen to make his department as inclusive as possible.

He said: “The Department has a very long title – I’m the Minister for Further & Higher Education, Research, Innovation & Science – so it’s really bringing together all aspects of third level education and uniting them with enterprise so that we develop the skills that people need for their own wellbeing and careers and for the needs of the economy. 

“Going into the new year, my priorities are to help get people back on their feet after the pandemic by ensuring we have increased further and higher education and training places so that people can take them up and learn the new skills they need. 

“An important piece of work we have under way is a one-stop-shop so that people can more easily see their options. We are also developing Ireland’s first ever National Adult Literacy, Numeracy and Digital Skills Strategy.

“This is a vital priority as far too many of our people struggle with this – one in six of us has problems reading and understanding information and about half lack digital skills. 

“Another priority in 2021 is a new National Access Plan which is all about increasing participation by students with disabilities and from disadvantaged groups. 

“We will also publish a new Apprenticeship Action Plan early this year, which is a really important option for people that I want to see us develop further.”

He added: “Finally, I got approval from Government in December to reform the governance of higher education by legislating to bring in slimmed down, competency-based governing bodies.”

Once new legislation passes it will grant more oversight powers to the Higher Education Authority to ensure best practice and accountability, and deliver high performance teaching, learning and research.

The advice from the minister for anyone looking at post-school paths is: I really want to encourage everyone to look at all their options. There are many routes to get to where you want to go and no one is better than any other. 

“I feel the conversations around the dinner table as people are considering what to do after leaving school have been too limited for too long and there has perhaps been a bit of a snobby attitude to further education and training which I want us to drop.”

He also predicts that the jobs market will change significantly in coming years but the key is to “follow your dreams” and remember that “success is liking what you do”.

He concluded: “I know this has been an extraordinarily difficult time for everyone and being honest we know we still have a rocky road ahead but there is hope now in the form of the vaccines which have become available. 

“It means we have another tool in our armoury and another ally on our side as we try to protect each other from this awful virus. So this January, I just want to wish people all the best for the New Year and for brighter times ahead.”

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