Minister for Further and Higher Education Simon Harris has warned that the lack of a fully integrated third level sector has fostered inequality, elitism, skills shortages, stress on students and high drop-out rates from higher education. 

He has also confirmed that his department is planning to introduce pilot schemes for rapid Covid-19 testing across third level education sites. 

Addressing the annual conference of the Teachers' Union of Ireland online, Mr Harris said the current third level model had failed to recognise the brilliance of further education and training, which should be a first choice, rather than a fallback option, for students.

"It has allowed a points race get out of control and place appalling levels of pressure and stress on young people in our country. It has allowed an almost elitist mindset emerge which defines success in some people's mind on where you went to college rather on what you want to do in life and how best to get to that point," he told delegates.

Mr Harris said the issue of funding for third level education had been "ducked and dodged for far too long". 

He acknowledged that despite some progress and increased funding levels in recent years, it was not where it needed to be - but said his department intended to rectify that. 

The minister pledged that the days of adult education being overlooked were over, saying he intended to provide a focus, energy and priority in Government "...that is urgently needed, long overdue and essential to our future wellbeing as a country".

He said the final report on the future funding of the sector was due in the next few months, adding: "I don't intend to be dusting it or seeking a shelf to stick it on. I intend to act on it with government colleagues and to engage with our stakeholders."

Mr Harris pledged to publish a new Action Plan on Apprenticeships later this month, committing to 10,000 new apprenticeships with more female participation every year by 2025 - including across the public sector and a wider range of industries.

He acknowledged the pandemic had hit the delivery of apprenticeship programmes, and pointed to an additional investment of €20 million to boost craft apprenticeship provision and address the backlog in electrical plumbing and carpentry craft apprenticeships.

The minister said the system would have to make it easier to move from further education to higher education with single transferable credits.

He also stressed the importance of tackling inclusion in education.

"We live in a country where despite our success and relative prosperity, 1 in 8 adults cannot read or write. One in 5 struggle with numbers and nearly 1 in 2 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 delegates.

"Well, 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 told the conference that the creation of technical universities was expanding the footprint of higher education in the regions, adding that they would transform its delivery in Ireland, and contribute to more balanced regional development.

He praised TUI members for their "flexibility, dedication and agility" during the pandemic, and for adapting to new ways of working to ensure learners did not lose out.

He also said that supports introduced during the pandemic would need to become ongoing supports to build further on in the months and years ahead.

The minister acknowledged the "significant" stress and "huge workload" imposed by the pandemic - and called for all sides to work together over the coming weeks to charge a way forward to enable more onsite attendance in the next academic year. 

On rapid Covid-19 testing, he said: "Alongside all the public health work under way, I want to see a number of rapid testing pilots across our sector as another tool in our effort and I am working intensively with Science Foundation Ireland and others to develop a pilot programme and will provide more details of that very soon."

He committed to a programme of investment in new technological universities including the expansion of campuses in Waterford "to name just one".

Mr Harris said the Government was commencing work on changing organisational structures regarding academic career paths and academic contracts.