The worldwide economic downturn hit the Republic of Ireland harder than most, plunging the country into a depression so severe that it needed a multibillion-euro bailout to stay afloat. Although the latest financial forecasts are more promising, the country is still experiencing high unemployment and tough austerity measures. Now, the further education (FE) sector has become the latest casualty of the crisis, and is set to suffer drastic cuts as the government tries to balance the books.
Measures announced in the 2013 budget will result in increased student- teacher ratios and, according to the government, will lead to the loss of 200 full-time teaching jobs. But teaching unions believe that the human cost of the cuts will be far greater, with up to 500 full- and part-time jobs at risk - more than a quarter of the country's entire FE workforce of 1,900.
They say that the austerity measures will threaten thousands of student places, close courses and increase unemployment, which already stands at more than 14 per cent.
Hundreds of FE teachers across the country have protested against the cuts, and some opposition politicians have reacted angrily, calling the proposals "stupid and retrograde". The Teachers' Union of Ireland accused education minister Ruairi Quinn of "destroying" a "vibrant and progressive" education sector.
The union's president, Gerard Craughwell, said that FE was a victim of ignorance and indifference. "In the UK the sector is very structured, but here in Ireland it developed piecemeal, without any central planning," he said. "As a result, we have failed to properly define what FE is, so there is a general lack of knowledge about what goes on in the sector."
According to the union, many FE teachers work on innovative, job-focused courses, in disciplines including media, animation and veterinary nursing. "We will lose many specialists who work on programmes that would lead directly to employment," Mr Craughwell said. "This move could lead to further unemployment for Ireland."
Some politicians agree. In a heated debate in the Irish parliament earlier this year, the proposals came under attack. Richard Boyd Barrett of the Socialist Workers Party (Ireland) said that the cuts are "retrograde, stupid and defy any logic".
"The government regularly claims that its priorities are to create jobs, reskill and retrain those who have lost jobs in order to prepare them for a return to employment, and to protect the vulnerable against the impact of austerity and cuts," he added. "The cuts in the FE sector fail . these priorities and do precisely the opposite to what the government claims it is committed to doing."
Under the government's proposals, student-teacher ratios will rise from 17:1 to 19:1 in a bid to save EUR12 million from the FE budget. The education minister has told the Irish parliament that the government will still spend almost EUR900 million on FE this year.
The FE savings are part of a EUR90 million cut to the country's overall education budget this year. Teachers, along with other public sector workers, have also endured pay and pension cuts and are holding a ballot on national strike action, the result of which is expected later this month.
In the Republic of Ireland, courses for students who have finished secondary education (which is compulsory up to the age of 16) are known as Post-Leaving Certificates. They are administered by regional Vocational Education Committees, are studied for at colleges and generally contain a mix of vocational and academic work, as well as work experience elements.
The Irish government sanctions more than 32,500 Post-Leaving Certificate places across the country, and has said that this will continue. But the committees fund a further 6,000 places themselves, and opponents of the cuts claim that these are at risk.
A spokeswoman for the Republic of Ireland's Department of Education and Skills said that the committees and other providers have until September to plan for the reduced allocation. They have been asked to submit statements detailing the likely effects of the measures.
"These impact statements are currently being considered but no decision has yet been made on any alleviation measures. It should be noted that in order to make any adjustment to this decision, compensating measures will have to be applied to other areas in the sector," the spokeswoman said.
The cuts come amid growing concern over falling numbers of adults accessing education across Europe. As reported in TES last week, the European Union has a target of 15 per cent of adults in education by 2020, but participation rates actually fell from 9.5 per cent in 2006 to 8.9 per cent in 2011. The Republic of Ireland is one of the poorest performing of the Eurozone countries in this regard, with only 6.8 per cent of 25- to 64-year-olds in education in 2011, down from 7.5 per cent in 2006.
Meanwhile, the level of young people classed as Neet (not in education, employment or training) is one of the highest among Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development countries. In 2010, 21 per cent of 15- to 29-year-olds were classed as Neet in the Republic of Ireland, compared with an OECD average of 16 per cent.
- EUR900m - Further education budget in the Republic of Ireland, 2013- 14.
- 32,688 - FE places sanctioned by the Irish government.
- 6.8% - Proportion of adults aged 25-64 in education in 2011.
- 21% - Proportion of young people aged 15-29 not in education, employment or training in 2010.
- 14.2% - Overall unemployment in 2012.