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EACEA National Policies Platform:Eurydice
National reforms in further education and training and adult learning


14.Ongoing reforms and policy developments

14.3National reforms in further education and training and adult learning

Last update: 27 November 2023

National Reforms in Vocational Education and Adult Learning

In Ireland, Further Education and Training (FET) FET is primarily delivered or contracted by the 16 ETBs under the funding and strategic direction of SOLAS, the Further Education and Training Authority.  FET provision includes both labour market focused programmes and programmes with a strong social inclusion dimension. Provision includes adult literacy and basic education, programmes for early school leavers, the unemployed, and those in employment, and national apprenticeship programmes. Awards are made at Levels 1 to 6 of the National Qualifications Framework.  Since June 2020, responsibility for FET falls within the remit of the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science (DFHERIS). 

Future FET: Transforming Learning, the FET Strategy for 2020-24 was launched in July 2020 and is framed around a vision for future FET in Ireland. The strategy outlines how FET will provide pathways for a diverse group of learners, will support societal participation and strong communities, will prepare people for successful careers and a lifetime of learning and development and will be a major driver of Ireland's next critical phase of economic and social development.

The strategy sets out the role of FET within a more collaborative and cohesive tertiary education system for Ireland. It outlines the contribution FET will make alongside higher education providers to serve school leavers, lifelong learners, employees looking to upskill and marginalised people who want to re-engage in education, while also supporting employers and communities.  Priorities are set out across three core pillars: building skills; creating pathways, and; fostering inclusion.

Since its launch in 2020, significant progress has been made on the implementation of the FET Strategy across its three core pillars of building skills, fostering inclusion, and facilitating pathways and in its aim to deliver a more strategic and integrated FET system:

  • With regard to Building Skills, the range of upskilling and reskilling opportunities have been broadened through Skills to Advance, focussed on upskilling for those in employment, and Skills to Compete, a key SOLAS initiative, to support those who have lost their jobs as a result of COVID-19 to re-enter the workforce. 
  • eCollege has also been expanded and eCollege courses have been temporarily made available free of charge as additional supports to those impacted by Covid-19.  
  • Turning to Creating Pathways, the enhancement of the CAO website in 2022 for the CAO application process by the inclusion of links to information on, and applications for, FET programmes and to apprenticeship information and employment opportunities is significant in enhancing the visibility of FET and apprenticeship options for school leavers.

As part of Fostering Inclusion, a conceptual framework for Universal Design for Learning (UDL) for the FET Sector has been developed. This approach aims to reduce obstacles to learning by taking into account the needs of learners of diverse backgrounds and abilities. Once in place, this will help all learners in FET, whatever their particular needs, and will make FET as widely accessible as possible.  SOLAS published A Conceptual Framework of Universal Design for

  • Learning (UDL) for the Irish Further Education and Training Sector in 2020, and an accompanying guide UDL for FET Practitioners: Guidance for Implementing UDL in Irish Further Education and Training in 2021. This guide provides practitioners with the knowledge they need to implement universal design for learning.
  • Progress has also been made in the enabling themes identified in the FET Strategy - staffing, structures and capabilities, learner performance centred, digital transformation and capital infrastructure. The FET strategy underpins the development of new strategic performance agreements currently being finalised between SOLAS and each of the ETBs. 


Adult Literacy for Life (ALL) Strategy

The ALL Strategy is a 10-year strategy to address unmet literacy, numeracy and digital literacy in Ireland.   The vision of ALL embodied in the Strategy is to ensure that everyone has the literacy, numeracy and digital literacy to fully participate in society and realise their potential. All adults in Ireland should have the literacy skills to enjoy a good quality of life within their families, communities and workplace. It takes a new innovative systems-based approach to literacy, adopting a cross-Government, cross-economy and cross-society approach which closely references complementary initiatives across relevant national strategies and policies.

Since its launch in 2021, significant progress has been made on the implementation of the ALL Strategy. This includes;

  • creating an ALL Strategy Programme Office within SOLAS with the appointment of the Director of the ALL Programme Office, relevant sectoral leads and the recruitment of 16 Regional Literacy Coordinators
  • undertaking a pilot of the ALL Innovation and Collaboration Fund, which allocated €108,000 to 9 innovative and collaborative projects, such as a health literacy course in collaboration with a local Sports Partnership.
  • conducting a national, regional and local media campaign, involving radio (national and local); out-of-house advertising (high footfall areas); and digital and social media.
  • developing which provides over 210 local contacts points and access to a national Freephone for anyone who wishes to avail of literacy services;
  • publishing a suite of resources addressing literacy, numeracy, and language assessment and
  • launching the Universal Design for Learning for Further Education and Training Guidelines and Toolkit, with Education and Training Boards (ETBs) and AHEAD rolling out Universal Design for Learning training for FET practitioners.


National Training Fund

Established by the National Training Fund Act, 2000, the National Training Fund (NTF) is a dedicated fund to raise the skills of those in employment; provide training to those who wish to acquire skills to take up employment and provide information in relation to skills requirements in the economy.

The Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research and Science (D/FHERIS) is responsible for the overall management, monitoring and evaluation of the Fund, while the Minister for Finance manages and controls the investment.

The Fund is resourced by a levy on employers, which is collected through the PRSI employers’ contribution. Originally set at 0.7% of reckonable earnings, the rate was increased incrementally by 0.1% over three years, from 2018 to 2020, to the 1% rate currently applied.

Following a comprehensive independent review in 2018, a number of key reforms to the NTF were introduced to make it more responsive to employer needs, to give employers a greater say in informing priorities for the Fund and to improve overall governance, evaluation, transparency and oversight.

A key priority of the Fund is to strengthen and shape existing, and develop new, HE and FET provision to ensure alignment with workforce reskilling, upskilling and lifelong learning requirements.  This is essential to deliver on the talent needs of the economy and strengthen Ireland’s competitive position and reputation for an agile and responsive workforce.

The NTF allocates funding to 18 programmes, delivered across Government Departments, agencies and other bodies. SOLAS, Skillnet Ireland and the HEA account for approximately 98% of NTF funding.

Post-Leaving Certificate Programme Evaluation

With origins in the late 1970s, PLC courses offer a combination of general studies, vocational studies and work experience opportunities, catering for young people who have completed their Leaving Certificate, adults returning to education and unemployed individuals wishing to upskill. It takes place usually on a full-time basis over one academic year, leading to major awards at NFQ levels 5 and 6.  It is the largest full time FET programme and is provided in colleges of further education across all 16 ETB areas.  The programme is primarily delivered in the ETB sector with a smaller number of places in the voluntary, community and comprehensive sectors.

Resources are based on an overall national allocation of 32,000 places, although some colleges enrol beyond their allocation without attracting additional resources. Overall annual expenditure on the PLC programme is circa €160 million, with the bulk of these resources allocated by the Department of Education and Skills through the post-primary allocation model.


Recognising that apprenticeships were one of the great casualties of the recession – registrations fell by 80% over the period - the Minister is attempting to not only reverse this trend and rebuild traditional pathways but to significantly expand apprenticeships into new industries with a commitment to doubling the number of apprenticeships and traineeships by 2020.

Apprenticeship is a programme of structured education and training which formally combines and alternates learning in the workplace with learning in an education and training centre.  An apprenticeship prepares participants for a specific occupation and leads to a qualification on the National Framework of Qualifications. There was a total of 4,843 new apprenticeship registrations in 2017 bringing the population to 12,849 by year end.  Currently, over 5,000 employers use the apprenticeship system as a talent pipeline in Ireland.   

Building on the Programme for Government, the Action Plan for Education contains a commitment to enrol 31,000 people on apprenticeship programmes in the period 2016-2020 which represents a near doubling on current activity.  The achievement of these ambitious targets will require commitment from a number of stakeholders and strong employer demand. 

The Plan sets out a clear pathway for developing new apprenticeships, a development timeline of 12-15 months, clear annual targets for apprenticeship registrations as well as targets for the development of new programmes.


FET Strategy 2020-2024

The National Further Education and Training (FET) Strategy 2020-24, “Future FET: Transforming Learning” FET Strategy 2020-24 was launched by Minister Simon Harris on the 16th July 2020 and is framed around a vision for future FET in Ireland. This outlines how FET will provide pathways for a diverse group of learners, will support societal participation and strong communities, will prepare people for successful careers and a lifetime of learning and development and will be a major driver of Ireland's next critical phase of economic and social development. Priorities for the sector are set out across three core pillars:

  • building skills
  • creating pathways
  • fostering inclusion

There is also a strong focus on enabling themes, including staffing, capital investment and measurement and data.

The strategy states that, by the end of 2024:

  • There will be a greater overall penetration of FET across the population of Ireland
  • A greater share of school leavers will be choosing FET or apprenticeship as their first destination
  • People will move seamlessly between FET & HE with clear transition criteria in large numbers
  • A significant and growing cohort of people in employment using FET to upskill and of employers viewing FET as a critical enterprise resource
  • Progression levels through FET will increase strongly, with pathways from core skills and community education available to all who wish to pursue them
  • A digitally transformed FET system will offer a large portfolio of flexible, online and blended opportunities

To support the achievement of these goals, strategy implementation will be informed by core FET Targets, strategic planning and funding processes, the enhancement of quality assurance processes in FET and the transformation in the availability and use of FET data.

Announcement of Ten Year Adult Literacy, Numeracy Digital Literacy Strategy

Increased literacy and numeracy support is a key component of the new FET Strategy 2020-2024’s strategic priority of Fostering Inclusion. Reflecting this the Minster for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science announced on International Literacy Day, 8th September, 2020 that he has tasked SOLAS with the development of a new 10 year strategy for adult literacy, numeracy and digital skills.

The strategy will take a whole-of-government approach and provide a framework to support individuals to improve their literacy, numeracy and digital skills. The aim of this new strategy will be to ensure that everyone has the literacy, numeracy and digital skills to meet their needs and participate fully in society. Its development will involve input by relevant Government Departments and agencies and in consultation with key stakeholders.

Skills to Compete

Covid-19 has had a major impact on the FET sector, with significant implications for the sector going forward. In response to the urgent need for activation, upskilling and reskilling for people who have been displaced from their jobs as a result of Covid-19 the Skills to Compete initiative has been developed.

SOLAS has developed this initiative in partnership with the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Education and Training Boards Ireland (ETBI), and the ETBs, and with input from the Department of Social Protection, the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment and industry representatives.

By combining and ramping up three strands of FET provision – transversal skills development to help employability; building the digital capabilities now required for almost every job; and specific Level 4-6 courses targeting growth sectors and occupations - and linking this to tailored advice and support, Skills to Compete can deliver a powerful labour market activation response.

Skills to Compete will be delivered through ETBs and work in tandem with INTREO offices, Regional Skills Fora, and Enterprise Ireland to effectively target individuals in need and prospective employers. Responses will be adapted to reflect regional requirements, based on local ETB understanding and labour market intelligence.

Skills to Compete will begin in Q4 2020 and will provide for 19,000 additional full time and part time places focused on those who have lost their jobs as a result of Covid-19. It is envisaged that it will be required over a period of at least 18 months to fully address the labour market disruption caused by Covid-19. An effective communication strategy will be fundamental to the success of Skills to Compete and it is planned to actively promote it via a concerted marketing initiative at national level, reinforced by regional campaigns led by the ETBs.

Skills to Advance

The projected figure for individuals participating in Skills to Advance in 2020 is 6500.  Please see full details of the Skills to Advance initiative above in 2019 updates.

The National Training Fund

The NTF levy has increased from 0.7% to 1.0% between 2018 and 2020. This has allowed for a total annual investment to grow by over €190 million in this timeframe. This additionality can be seen in particular in the following areas (figures framed pre-Covid):

  • The overall Apprenticeship population will have grown by 60% since the end of 2017 to almost 20,000 by the end of 2020
  • The new ETB Skills to Advance programme will provide upskilling to 8,000 people in the workforce by the end of 2020.
  • The number of participants in Skillnet Ireland programmes will have increased by over 40% since 2017, reaching 69,000 in 2020.


Under a New Apprenticeship Plan 2012-2025 the Government have set a target of 10,000 annual apprenticeship registrations by 2025.  The new action plan will look at consolidating governance and funding structures across the existing apprenticeship programmes to firmly establish apprenticeship as a central route to skills development in Ireland. 

Apprenticeship will be central to the objectives of institutions and fully integrated into quality assurance and academic leadership arrangements, with appropriate space for flexibility in local delivery of these national programmes.

Consultation to inform the development of the new action plan is under way at the current time and it is expected that the plan will be finalised prior to year-end.

Covid-19 has impacted recruitment into apprenticeship programmes, largely due to staged lockdowns with recruitment down 60% on prior year levels at the end of June 2020. 

A time-limited Apprenticeship Incentivisation Scheme for employers of apprentices has been introduced whereby a €3,000 grant is paid over two years for each new apprentice who is registered between the period 01 March and 31 December 2020 and retained into Q3, 2021.  It is intended that this will stabilise apprenticeship recruitment levels as we enter the period of the new plan.


The National Youthreach Programme Evaluation

Goal 4 of FET Strategy 2014-19 aimed to improve and integrate the planning and funding of further education and training (FET) and commited SOLAS to organise and conduct a schedule of evaluations of FET programmes to ensure relevance to the labour market and effective progression for learners.

The purpose of these evaluations was to generate policy-relevant knowledge concerning the outputs and outcomes of the programmes and the effectiveness of provision. The first of these evaluations to be completed was the review of the Post Leaving Certificate (PLC) programme, which was published in 2018. The second evaluation to be completed was the evaluation of the national Youthreach programme, which was carried out by the ESRI throughout 2018. Its final report was published in June 2019. Youthreach Evaluation Report; SOLAS Response to Youthreach Evaluation Report.

Youthreach is part of a national programme of second-chance education and training designed for early school leavers.

The aim of the programme is to help young people in the 15/20 age group to make the transition from school to work through the provision of co-ordinated foundation training, education and work experience.

The programme offers participants the opportunity to identify and pursue viable options within adult life, provides them with opportunities to acquire certification, and includes a work experience element to prepare participants for progression on to further study, training or working life.

Skills to Advance

A new employee development policy framework - Skills to Advance was launched 2018. Skills to Advance provides key guidance, direction and targets for Education and Training Boards (ETBs) in supporting the upskilling of those in employment, working both directly with learners and through their employers.

Skills to Advance will enable targeted support for vulnerable groups in the Irish workforce, with a particular focus on employees those who have lower skills levels and who need more opportunities to advance in their working lives and careers, to sustain their employment and to avoid displacement or to avail of emerging job opportunities. The policy also supports small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) who need assistance to invest in and develop their workforce.

5,664 individuals took part in a Skills to Advance Programme during 2019.

National Training Fund

An independent review of the National Training Fund was commissioned by DES as part of a package of reforms announced to accompany the decision in Budget 2018 to increase the NTF levy. This review was published by the Minister for Education and Skills on 17 August 2018.  The report made 14 specific recommendations across 4 key areas:

  • Reform of the future direction of the NTF.
  • Utilising the NTF to support investment in Higher Education.
  • Enhancing enterprise engagement and input to NTF priorities.
  • Improvements in monitoring/evaluation of the NTF.

An Implementation Plan to deliver these recommendations was published alongside the announcement of Budget 2019 along with details of a new NTF advisory group. A number of steps have been taken to align with the recommendations set out in the independent report including:

  • Additional support for close to labour market skills requirements.
  • Use of part the surplus in the Human Capital Initiative.
  • An increased focus on supporting in-company training.
  • Greater support for close-to-labour-market skills programmes in areas of identified skills needs in Higher Education.
  • A reallocation of NTF funding of Further Education and Training for employment programmes below NFQ Level 5 to the Exchequer.


Following from the recommendations outlined in the report a national apprentice jobs platform was launched in 2019 and a call for over 500 pre apprenticeship places has been delivered by ETBs across the sector.  The Generation Apprenticeship publicity campaign has also been scaled up to inform the public (including parents and teachers as influencers as well as learners of all ages) about the range of apprenticeship offerings (see below). 

The number of employers engaging with the apprenticeship system has increased from 3,558 in 2015 to over 6,000 in 2019.  Apprenticeships are employer led - an apprenticeship is a contract of employment. Employers have to contribute to the development of the curricula for new apprenticeships and must be in a position to put in place arrangements to deliver the on the job training.

In June 2019 it was announced that capital funding of more than €7.5 million was being allocated for nine Institutes of Technology and the Technological University (TU) Dublin.

The funding forms part of the Government’s commitment, under Project Ireland 2040, to increase investment in higher and further education and training and to the modernisation of equipment available for craft apprenticeship provision.

The announcement brings the total capital funding allocated to support the modernising of craft apprenticeship programmes in the sector since 2017 to more than €23 million

This funding will support the roll-out of new syllabi for apprenticeships in Plumbing, Carpentry, Electrical, Brickwork, Motor Painting and Decorating, Vehicle Body Repair, Fitting, Toolmaking and Wood Manufacturing and Finishing.

It will enable Institutes of Technology and TU Dublin to provide apprentices with training in the most up to date techniques, including sustainable and renewable technologies such as solar and wind energy and energy efficient construction methods and materials.

6,500 apprentices are expected to undertake training in an Institute of Technology or TU Dublin in 2019.


National Training Fund

Following a consultation process, the Government, as part of Budget 2018, decided to raise the rate of the National Training Fund (NTF) levy by 0.1% in 2018 to 0.8% and by a further 0.1% in both 2019 and 2020.

This measure allows for additional expenditure of €47.5 million from the NTF in 2018 under the EU fiscal rules. 

Following issues raised by employers during a consultation process with them a number of key reforms to the NTF are being introduced to make it more responsive to employer needs and to give employers a greater say in informing priorities for the Fund.

This increase in the NTF levy takes account of the benefit to employers of having access to skilled graduates across further education and training and higher education to meet their identified skills needs as well as being able to access training for their current employees.

The increase is being accompanied by a programme of reforms in how the NTF is managed, evaluated and reported on. Some of the key reforms include:

  • A Comprehensive Review of the NTF;

  • Additional and refocused expenditure on programmes relevant to employers;

  • An NTF more aligned with employer needs;

  • A greater say for employers, more transparency and stronger evaluation;      

  • A new strategic dialogue model, incorporating strategic performance agreements clearly aligning local/regional and national targets, will be put in place in FET from 2018.

The rate of the National Training Fund levy increased by 0.1% in 2018 to 0.8% and will provide €47.5 million of additional investment in the Higher Education and Further Education sectors. The rate will increase to 0.9% in 2019 and to 1.0 in 2020 subject to implementation of necessary reforms to ensure that employers have a greater role in determining the priorities and the strategic direction of the fund. The report shows how over €415 million is being invested in programmes in 2018 which meet the skill need of the economy, support unemployed people in their journey back to work and assist those in employment to acquire new skills. This includes the expansion of the apprenticeship and traineeship schemes, additional investment in Springboard and additional support to increase skills for those in employment through Skillnet Ireland.

In 2018, the National Training Fund will:

  • Include for the first time, higher education provision most closely aligned with the needs of the economy;

  • Support the expansion of apprenticeships by over 6,000 new registrations and 10 new apprenticeship schemes in key economic areas including indigenous sectors such as retail and hospitality;

  • Support 3,900 traineeship places;

  • Introduce new pilot programmes aimed at those already in employment for upskilling and reskilling;

  • Support an additional 1,000 places on Springboard courses; and

  • Provide an additional €3.5 million for Skillnets allowing people in work to upskill.

The 2018 NTF allocations represent a major shift in the focus of expenditure from the Fund.  Programmes will be tightly focused on the skills and competencies needed across higher education, further education and training and other funding recipients. €415.4 million will be invested through the Fund in 2018 to support skills (up by €49m since 2017), including:

  • €182.5 million for Education & Training Board programmes focused on training people for employment;

  • €122 million for apprenticeships;

  • €37 million for Labour Market focused Higher Education;

  • €30.4 million for Springboard courses;

  • €21.7 million supporting Skillnet Ireland in meeting skills gaps in the economy.

This is part of the wider series of reforms announced as part of Budget 2018 responding to issues raised by employers during a consultation process with them to make it more responsive to employer needs, to increase transparency on the use of the Fund, and to give employers a greater say in informing priorities for the Fund.

The key reforms include:

  • A comprehensive Review of the NTF;

  • Additional and refocused expenditure on programmes relevant to employers; 

  • An NTF more aligned with employer needs;

  • A greater say for employers, more transparency and stronger evaluation;

  • A new approach to ensuring further education and training are aligned to local and regional needs through skills audits and performance agreements.

The comprehensive review of the National Training Fund is underway which is expected to be completed shortly will inform the 2019 budgetary process.The report can be accessed on the Department for Education & Skills website at the following link:

Post-Leaving Certificate Programme Evaluation

In January 2018, an independent evaluation of the Post-Leaving Certificate (PLC) programme was published.  

The PLC programme is the largest of the full time further education and training programmes with over 30,000 places and an investment of over €160 million each year.

The report, which was carried out by The Economic and Social Research Institute, confirms the positive role played by PLC provision. On average PLC learners are 16% more likely to be in employment than if they had just entered the labour market straight after the Leaving Certificate. 

The report also highlights a number of challenges for policy development in the PLC sector indicating a need for greater responsiveness of job-specific PLC courses to changing labour market conditions in terms of the types of courses offered and closer links with employers, as well as enhanced guidance for learners and extra training for teaching staff.

The findings from the evaluation have been considered, and the Minister and SOLAS have committed to implementing over 40 recommendations in response, including:

  • Allocating 500 PLC places nationally to new ‘pre-apprenticeship’ courses. These will give those going on to do apprenticeships a strong foundation and knowledge base and will give employers further confidence in the apprentices joining their company.

  • Ensuring that in future all courses will lead to Full/Major awards at NFQ Level 5 or NFQ Level 6 or equivalent.

  • Providing more flexibility for students. Providers are to be required to offer PLC outside of the full-time mode of delivery and to provide more flexibility e.g. distance, blended and on-line modes of delivery to be available to learners.

  • More co-ordination at a local level on provision, led by ETBs.

Employer engagement to become mandatory for new course proposals for job-specific/sector specific provision.


The Minister for Education and Skills announced capital funding of €8 million for 10 Institutes of Technology in June 2018. This Government is committed to more than doubling the number of new apprentices registered to 9,000 by 2020 and expanding further into new areas. Budget 2018 allocated €122m for apprenticeship training, an increase of almost 24% on the previous year. This will allow the Government to deliver 10 more apprenticeship programmes and over 6,000 more apprenticeship registrations in 2018.

The funding announced will enable the Institutes of Technology to purchase equipment and carry out enabling works for the delivery of new syllabi in 13 existing apprenticeship trades from 2018, in the following areas –

  • Mechanical, Automation, and Maintenance Fitting (MAMF);

  • Industrial Installation;

  • Sheet Metalwork;

  • Aircraft Maintenance;

  • Vehicle Body Repairs;

  • Wood Manufacturing and Fitting;

  • Brickwork;

  • Painting and Decorating;

  • Agricultural Mechanisation;

  • Toolmaking;

  • Electronic Security Systems;

  • Electrical Instrumentation & Instrumentation;

  • Electrical.

This investment will support an estimated 2,300 additional apprentices that will commence in one of these programmes in 2018 once the works are complete.