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6. asked the Minister for Employment and Learning, in light of the fact that enrolments in the further education sector, delivered by the Workers’ Educational Association and the Ulster People’s College in 2005-06 was 85% for the L1 category and below and was 54% for the same category in the statutory sector, what plans he has to ensure that the success of the non-statutory sector in creating opportunities in the L1 category and below is protected and enhanced. (AQO 958/08)
During 2005-06, statutory further education colleges enrolled 71,435 adults in provision at level 1 and below, which equated to 66% of their total adult enrolments.
During the same period, the Workers’ Educational Association (WEA) and the Ulster People’s College (UPC) enrolled 2,938 adults in provision at level one and below, which equates to 85% of its total adult enrolment. My Department is developing proposals to enable voluntary and community groups to collaborate more effectively with further education colleges to support adult learners.
There has been concern about the withdrawal of contracts from the WEA and the UPC. A number of other voluntary and community organisations have expressed an interest in delivering similar provision to that which is being purchased from the WEA and the UPC. Legal advice and Government guidelines indicate that competitive tender is the only equitable way to resolve the matter. The Department would be likely to be vulnerable to successful and costly legal challenges if it were to continue with the current single-contract arrangements.
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Does the Minister agree that the WEA, the UPC, and the Educational Guidance Service for Adults have a proven track record for attracting people from the hardest-to-reach groups back into education? Will he agree that interim funding should be provided for the groups to enable them to continue their work beyond March and August 2008, pending an assessment of failed CSR bids, the merits, or otherwise, of tendering for community education provision, and a full assessment of how best to deliver community education?
The Department’s contracts with the WEA and the UPC have been extended to August 2008. That follows the notification that was given to both organisations in December 2006 that any future requirement for non-statutory provision would have to be on the basis of open, competitive tender. Other organisations have expressed an interest, and, therefore the Department felt that the only equitable way was to put the contracts out to tender.
We are examining how third-party organisations might better collaborate with further education colleges, and it is hoped that proposals will be brought forward on the matter in the next few weeks. I take this opportunity to say that the work that both organisations do is very important, and it cannot be assumed that they will not continue to do that work as they will have the opportunity to tender for the work if they wish. Judgement will be made by the procurement branch of the Department of Finance and Personnel, which has guided my Department in the tenders that we have conducted hitherto.
Does the Minister agree that, although level-one qualifications are important, they are a minimum requirement and that employers are demanding level two as a minimum for entry into employment? Will he agree that a pathway from level one to levels two, three and four is necessary in order to achieve a skills base and future economic prosperity, and that those qualifications are best delivered through statutory provision?
As the Member points out, level one is a basic qualification. However, as I said in my original answer, during the last year for which figures are available, further education colleges enrolled 71,435 people to study at level one or below. In addition, a further 3,000 people approximately were dealt with by the WEA and the UPC. That is a huge number of people. I agree entirely with the Member’s analysis that a platform and a pathway are needed to get those people through to levels two, three and four. My Department is looking at how it engages with the community sector in delivering those, but the Member is right — unless we get clear pathways to levels two, three and four, our economy will struggle in the years ahead.