Tuesday, 11 March 1997
Dáil Éireann Debate
Mr. Martin: The Bill is “an Act to provide for the regulation of private educational institutions and for the protection of students attending such institutions, for those purposes to enable the Minister for Education to issue licences to private educational institutions and to require them to enter into and maintain bonds, to provide for the establishment of a fund to be known as the private students' protection fund and for the payment of contributions by private educational institutions towards the resources for that fund and to provide for other matters connected with the foregoing.”
The background to the introduction of this Bill by the Opposition is the recent collapse of the Advanced Technology College. Over two years ago, in its programme — A Government of Renewal — the Government gave a commitment  to introduce legislation to regulate the private third level colleges sector, particularly in respect of the protection of the consumer rights of students. In other words, it stated that it would introduce financial bonding which would, in essence, provide a guarantee to students attending private colleges that their courses would be completed in the event of a company going into liquidation or collapsing, as happened in the case of the Advanced Technology College.
The collapse of the Advanced Technology College was a disaster waiting to happen. The warning signs were apparent for some time because Newman College and ACT had previously collapsed in similar circumstances. On both occasions, it was left to other private colleges in the Dublin area to come to the rescue of a number of students attending those colleges. Some of the existing private colleges took on board a number of students from Newman College and ACT and facilitated them in completing their courses.
To their credit, a group of private colleges have recognised the need for regulation. I understand that their proposals have been with the Minister for some time and, like her promises to introduce legislation, they have not been acted upon. Will she provide a clear indication why the Government has not introduced legislation to deal with the provision of financial bonding arrangements for private third level colleges?
The basic facts of the latest instalment of mismanagement by the Minister of the private colleges sector are well known. Students who, through their own hard work and that of their parents, paid thousands of pounds in fees arrived at their place of education one morning to discover it had collapsed overnight. The first and most important point is to strongly condemn the scandalous and cavalier attitude of the owners. Clearly there had been a wilful and cynical deception of the staff and students. In my opinion, there is a prima facie case of reckless trading. Will the Minister inform the House if an investigation is taking place under the Companies Act? If not already involved, the Garda Síochána should be brought in to investigate this matter.
The students were treated in an appalling manner by the owners of the college. Its doors were shut and there was a complete absence of information regarding the students' futures, what had taken place and the reasons for the collapse. This week, we witnessed the unhappy spectacle of students taking High Court proceedings to seek the appointment of an examiner. It is a disgrace that the Minister for Education, Deputy Bhreathnach, refused to meet the students. Her refusal is indicative of her complete inaction with regard to private colleges in general.
On the Order of Business last week, the Tánaiste was asked if the Minister would meet the students, their parents and the group trying to resolve this matter but to no avail. Her failure to meet these people was a breach of faith. The Tánaiste informed me that whatever could be done would be done. However, his promise has  not been fulfilled and hundreds of students approaching the end of the academic year and important examinations have been left high and dry. To date, the Minister for Education's response has been “let them eat cake”. If the academic careers of these students are to be salvaged it is essential that an examinership be established. The Minister has a duty to do what she can to ensure that such an examinership is viable. She must overcome her ideological grudge against private colleges, recognise that they have evolved as a response to gaps in the State sector and take immediate and necessary action in respect of the Advanced Technology College.
The appointment of an examinership is vital because there was a complex range of courses on offer at the Advanced Technology College and other colleges would not be in a position to readily assume responsibility for them. Some of the computer science and business courses could be replicated in other colleges but that is not the best solution. The existing staff at the Advanced Technology College are prepared to help the students complete their courses during the next three months. Essentially, we are requesting that the Government provide a sum of money to the examiner to enable the college to remain in operation for three months. This would allow the students to complete their courses with the help of the staff. Many of the courses, such as cinematography, film, photography, etc., are of a specialist nature and involve the use of complex equipment.
Members are aware of the reasons students attend places of education such as the Advanced Technology College. They do so because sufficient places are not available in the State's third level colleges to cater for the increased demand in recent years. That demand has occurred for demographic reasons and there has been a dramatic increase in the numbers attending second level education during the past five years. It is envisaged that this increase will peak either this or next year. As a result of the growing participation in education generally and the need to pursue further qualifications after post-primary level, those students who do not secure a place in the State's third level universities or regional technical colleges — plcs in some cases — have no alternative but to pursue their education in private sector third level colleges.
The Labour Party seems to be of the opinion that these students are the sons and daughters of well-heeled, upper middle class families who can afford private education and it is their tough luck if anything goes wrong. To date, this has tended to be the view emanating from the Department of Education. The initial response of the Minister's office to the parents that this matter was none of the Department's business and they should not have registered their children for the courses was disgraceful. There was a complete lack of sympathy and compassion from the Department. The Minister can nod and make any facial expression she wishes, but that does not hide the fact that  the initial response was disgraceful and quite unbecoming in respect of the plight of students who found themselves in great difficulty.
It is important to make the point about the insufficiency of college places. Thousands of people applied to the Dún Laoighaire College of Art and Design for its cinematography and film courses but there were only a small number of places on offer and many applicants were disappointed. Therefore, people will seek to pursue courses in private colleges. Many of our students have gone abroad. The number in third level institutions in the United Kingdom has scored over the past five years, resulting in their being deemed eligible for the higher education grants scheme. Why has all of this happened? The answer is that we have had an insufficiency of places in our third level sector coupled with a huge demographic growth. If we acknowledge all of that we must also accept that the private third level sector has a viable and important role to play. We must acknowledge students' rights to attend private colleges and accept that they form part of the national effort to provide third level places and that they will continue to have a definite role to play until we have a sufficiency of places within the State sector.
That fact has not been acknowledged by the Minister in her four years in office. Generally her attitude to third level colleges appears to take the form of some ideological difficulties with their very existence and origins. The immediate requirement in relation to the Advanced Technology College is the underwriting of an examinership, which is the cheapest, most expeditious way to solve this mess. Before people start accusing me, Deputy Eoin Ryan or others of offering simplistic solutions or throwing money at the problem, I understand the amount required is estimated to be in the region of £150,000. We should remember that the State has bailed out banks and large insurance companies for far greater amounts. In this case we are talking about enabling 500 students to complete the final three months of their education, enabling them to complete their course and secure certification. Without setting any precedent that would be a generous deed on the part of the State.
This Bill, if accepted by the Minister, will create new circumstances with an obligation on third level colleges to have financial bonding. This is remarkably different from prevailing circumstances in which no such arrangements are in place. While the Minister may worry about creating a precedent, if we pass this Bill and put in place the proper legislative framework governing financial bonding, we will not be creating any precedent in the event of her supporting an examinership in the case of the Advanced Technology College. That is the Bill's raison d'etre— to support the students and their parents' campaign. It has been introduced on the basis of its own bona fide merits, in line with the Government's commitment to introduce such legislative arrangements.
 On behalf of the students and staff involved I want the Minister to state where she stands in relation to an examinership for the Advanced Technology College. Do the promises of the Tánaiste and Labour Party mean anything? Does the Labour Party stand for anything any more in relation to the difficulties confronting these students? Time is fast slipping away for any action in relation to this college. There is a further hearing in the High Court on Thursday next with a full hearing later in the month. With each successive week the position becomes ever bleaker for the students involved. Fianna Fáil's objective is to ensure that whatever can be done is done.
The collapse of the Advanced Technology College represents the latest instalment of a totally unsatisfactory saga. The Minister's continued failure to make any response whatsoever to the needs and demands of the growing private colleges sector allowed circumstances to arise in which the Advanced Technology College collapsed. It is the aim of my party to ensure that will never recur.
In order to secure the proper regulation of private colleges I prepared this Bill with my colleagues, Deputies Eoin Ryan and Woods, in response to the circumstances that have evolved. The private colleges sector is a vibrant, enterprising one catering for real needs in education. Many private colleges have been to the fore in seeking change and submitted detailed proposals to the Minister some time ago. Unfortunately, for the students and staff of the Advanced Technology College those representations, as in the case of so many others, fell on deaf ears in the Minister's Department.
This Bill will provide for the regulation of private educational institutions, their students and staff. It will require the Minister to license private colleges, requiring them to enter into a bound to guarantee against business failure. I hope the Minister will at last acknowledge the need for this legislation and accept its underlying principle. I urge her to accept it on Second Reading and if amendments are necessary on Committee Stage, we will be open to their acceptance. I do not think she can deny the principle behind the Bill, which is that private colleges should be regulated and statutorily obliged to have financial bonding. Any reservation on detail or the thrust of any particular section can be addressed on Committee Stage.
Under this Bill a licence will be a necessary condition to the operation of a private college. Any Minister will have to be satisfied as to the financial bona fides of a college before granting a licence and the business record of any operator will be taken into account. The Minister can attach terms and conditions, as appropriate, to any such licence which can be used for registration and other purposes. The withdrawal of any such licence would also be a matter for the Minister and any private college would have to continuously satisfy the appropriate conditions.
 Furthermore, the Bill confers powers of inspection on the Minister which will ensure that he or she can effectively monitor the private colleges sector. In addition, the refusal or revocation of a licence by a Minister would be subject to appeal to the courts.
A condition of obtaining a licence to operate a private college will be the entry into a financial bond, the purpose of which will be to ensure that, in the event of a private college being unable to discharge its responsibilities, moneys from the bond will be available to the Minister who, as trustee, will apply them to secure ongoing obligations. The uses to which the bond may be put by the Minister include helping students to continue their education, refunding as far possible moneys paid for services not rendered and defraying reasonable expenses incurred by him or her while acting as trustee in such circumstances. The Minister will also be responsible for accounting for the bond.
In addition to the bond into which private colleges will have to enter as a matter of course, this Bill provides for the creation of a private students' protection fund, the purpose of which will be to assist students of bonded colleges, as necessary, over and above the resources of the bond. Furthermore, the fund can be used if for any reason a delay is incurred in paying out under the bond. However, the fund cannot be used to make payments for which the bond has already provided.
This Bill is timely and represents a vital response to the failure to date to regulate the private colleges sector. Hundreds of students, their parents and teachers have been bitten financially by the lack of financial regulation. Studies have been disrupted. It is difficult enough to study for a difficult examination once but the pressure of having to do so again is appalling. We are aware of many individual students having to work part-time, late at night, to fund the courses in which they participate at the Advanced Technology College.
As I have already pointed out, these are not all children of rich parents merely enjoying the luxury of a private third level education. These are students who have been forced to earn the money with which to pay for that education for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the lack of places in the State third level sector. I have met these 500 students and their parents.
I have already given two examples of difficulties that occurred in this sector over the past three years. Some four or five years ago in Cork the College of Aeronautics collapsed, whose individual students, training to be pilots, had paid thousands of pounds. This private college was opened with great fanfare, was assisted by the State, collapsed and went into liquidation. I witnessed the trauma experienced by students while trying to help them secure places in other colleges. Given the specialised nature of the training involved, many did not find alternative places. Iona Training Centre provided some places. I am aware of  the financial commitment of these young people who, in some instances, borrowed the money to pursue their courses. When the courses collapsed they had no protection.
One of the last articles by the late Christina Murphy, a great education journalist in The Irish Times last year, highlighted a case in Cork where a body established itself as a higher education institute almost overnight and began to advertise. It said it would provide degrees to enable people teach in Irish primary schools and the degrees would be vetted by a British university. The article revealed the body in question did not have a franchise to offer that degree course. Many parents of students had paid deposits of £100 which they subsequently recovered. Where it not for that article many people would have been affected, perhaps not financially but certainly in the context of securing employment here on the basis of that degree because the State did not recognise the college in question. In the past four or five years a number of examples of difficulties in certain colleges have highlighted the need for a proper legislative framework. That is what we are attempting to do here.
There are some excellent private colleges performing extremely well and it is unfortunate for them that the sector gets a bad name because of the sins of a few. For example, Portobello College has its own bonding arrangement. The principal there believes passionately there should be a bonding obligation for all private third level colleges. I have visited the owners of Griffith College, Dublin, who are doing excellent work as are LSB College Limited and Skerry's College, Cork. Over the years other colleges have provided high quality courses for many young people which have enabled them to go into the market place and secure jobs.
We acknowledge those colleges are doing an excellent job in terms of the quality of the courses provided and the standards achieved. Many have been acknowledged by the NCEA who have designated a number of the colleges for the provision of various courses. Those I have mentioned are NCEA designated and some are on the CAO list and have an excellent track record.
The Bill is about protecting them because until we have a proper legislative framework collapses such as this will continue to occur. Without regulations and controls people can be ripped off and unfortunately the Minister did not regulate the colleges sector. It is our duty to legislate to protect students, parents and staff. Despite promises in the programme, A Government of Renewal, the State has failed to legislate. There is a moral obligation on the Government to do something for the students of the Advanced Technology College. We have allowed this system to continue unregulated and have not moved despite many warnings. Given the Government's negligence in this area, it has an obligation to financially support the examinership and ensure the college is viable during a three months period in order that staff and students can complete their courses.
I urge the Minister to see beyond party politics and support the Bill. In the past five years there has been a change in the treatment of Private Members' Bills. When in Government we accepted Deputy Shatters' Bills — Judicial Separation and Family Law Reforms Act, 1989, and the Adoption Act, 1991. A number of private Members' Bills have been accepted by the Government and a number have been rejected. Fianna Fáil will not stand aside and leave the 500 students without anybody to speak for or help them. We will do what is open to us as an Opposition party. The ultimate is to put forward and seek Government approval of legislation. We have raised the matter on the Order of Business, on the Adjournment and we now have a Private Members' Bill to progress the matter. It is a pity it has taken so long and that we could not have had intervention at an earlier stage.
Mr. E. Ryan: I did not expect we would have to move a Private Members' Bill tonight. The week before last I received a telephone call from some students at the Advanced Technology College, Merrion Square, who told me they had been studying at the college for the past two years. There were told some changes would be made in the college but before they knew what was happening they realised the college was being closed. Out of frustration and anger they occupied the building where they remained for a number of days. Following a request I visited the college. Given that they had occupied the college for a number of nights, the conditions under which they were living were appalling. The owner of the college had turned off the water and had refused to allow food to be taken in. Nearing the end of their occupation they were getting food in by hauling bags up the front of the building. While at the college that afternoon, a gentleman arrived from a water filtering company and removed the pump from the building so that no water could get to the students.
On behalf of the students I tried to negotiate with the owner of the college. I told him the way in which the students were being treated was outrageous, that it was not leading anywhere and if he wanted to resolve the matter he should sit down with the students and negotiate with them. Unfortunately he refused to do that and said he wanted the students to leave the college. The students would not leave the college because they considered they would have no ground on which to bargain. As it happened the students moved legally and were successful in court on Friday evening in a bid to save the college. In the meantime they decided to try to meet as many people as possible with the view to setting up a structure that would save the college. At this stage parents began to congregate at the college and asked me what they could do. The issue had been raised in the House on the previous evening by Deputy  Keogh of the Progressive Democrats but unfortunately the Government's answer was negative. Both the parents and I were shocked by that answer. They and I naively believed some avenue must be open through the Department of Education, the Minister's office or through another Department but no ideas were forthcoming.
On Saturday afternoon in Jury's Hotel there was a meeting of students and parents. Some parents of final year students had spent £6,000 on courses; their children would have qualified this summer but now their money was gone down the drain. At the meeting a Government backbencher, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, said the students were being treated outrageously and the Minister and the Government should do something about it. However, that, too, fell on deaf ears.
This country's film industry has been well promoted by the Minister for Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht, Deputy Higgins. It is a growth industry and has focussed a lot of attention on Ireland. We are rightly proud that many high-profile films have been made here. Many students in this college hope to graduate and work in that industry. A few weeks ago, the Taoiseach said we had a shortage of multi-media graduates; students in this college are pursuing such courses. There is a lack of qualified people for industry and that is a growing problem because we do not have graduates to fill the jobs becoming available. Everyone, including the Government and various State bodies, recognises that. In many ways it is a good complaint but we must be mindful to address it. If we have a shortage of graduates in these and other courses provided by this college, I cannot understand why the Government would not ensure these courses could be completed in the few months that are left.
The Minister has no idea how angry people are, not because Fianna Fáil or the Progressive Democrats are whipping them up but because they simply cannot believe she will not meet them. If she even met them to say she could do nothing some of them would accept it but they cannot accept that she, as Minister for Education, will not meet them at all. The parents cannot understand how she can watch 500 students go out on the street. Many of them are in shock.
This is not the first time this has happened; it occurred with Newman College and that is probably why the subject was mentioned in the Programme for Government. There are many good private colleges, some of which were mentioned by my colleague Deputy Martin. Portobello College, Griffith College, the LSB, etc. They are running excellent courses and doing a good job. Long may they continue to prosper. This is a growth area because the State is not able to cover it. There is nothing wrong with the private education sector. In some cases it sets a better standard than the State sector and it provides a variety of courses, so it is not to be discouraged.
 Many people on the Labour Party front bench made their names through student politics. They stood in buildings close to here and marched for great ideals and socialism. However, when 500 students are thrown on the street, their Minister and party colleague will not meet them. I am not asking her to sort the matter out, all she has to do is meet them because it is the least she could do.
We have seen a huge growth in private colleges and many foreign students have come here. It is not good that they should see a private college go bust while nothing happens. The issue is being watched and discussed by students all over Dublin. As I said both when we were in Government and since, we should encourage and nurture the practice of attracting foreign students to third level education in Ireland. It is the fourth biggest industry in England and many private colleges here say we have not pursued it as much as we could. Ireland is an attractive country to which to send students to be educated. It is stable and safe and, for many Middle Eastern countries, it is much more politically correct to send students here rather than to England. It is a potential growth area which we have not tapped as much as we should.
Last week the Tánaiste told Deputy Martin that everything which could be done would be, but that is not the case. This side of the House has been accused of introducing Private Members' Bills for reasons of political expediency but we do not do so. The Bills we introduced have acted as a catalyst for this Government to take action. We introduced a Child Pornography Bill and straight away the Minister addressed the problem; we introduced a Bill on syringe attacks and the Minister has prepared legislation in response. Our job as an Opposition is to raise issues of concern to the public and put the Government under pressure. If introducing this Bill means the Government will take action on this issue, that will be a good night's work and we will be happy. I hope the Minister has no ideological grudge against private colleges because it is important that they grow and prosper. It is necessary to underwrite the examinership of this college immediately, as this is the cheapest and most expeditious way to sort out the mess.
Deputy Woods, Deputy Martin and I, among others, have put a lot of work into this Bill. The Government has failed to legislate although it promised to do so in the Programme for Government. Private colleges submitted detailed proposals to the Minister some time ago. Unfortunately this Bill will be too late for the staff and students of the Advanced Technology College. I was most impressed with the staff's commitment to continue the courses until the end of the year and prepare students for their final exams.
My colleague, Deputy Martin, dealt with the details of the Bill. It is not perfect but it is not meant to be because we are in Opposition. However, we hope the Minister accepts the principle of it. If amendments are required, we will  support them if we agree with them. Other Private Members' Bills have been passed and I ask the Minister to support this Bill. I also ask her to meet the students of this college and their parents.
Minister for Education (Ms Bhreathnach): I sympathise with the students, and their parents, of the Advanced Technology College, which is in financial difficulties. I am conscious of the commitment of students and parents to providing for students' education and of the financial and other sacrifices involved for them. Developing a policy and regulatory framework in this area is complex. However, the Government is committed to developing an appropriate regulatory framework for private colleges. Much work has been carried out in developing one but work remains and it will be done.
This is not an area which lends itself to overly simplistic solutions, such as are seen in the proposed Bill before this House. The rights of parents and students are involved. The rights to conduct private business within the terms of the laws governing the operation of companies is relevant. The procedures for dealing with private companies which experience financial difficulties are relevant. There are consumer protection issues, which embrace the concerns of other Departments of State. There is a range of issues related to the quality of education provided in such institutions.
Finally, there is the complex issue of framing appropriate legislation taking account of the relevant constitutional provisions, the right to carry on business in a private commercial capacity, the rights of consumers to be protected and the rights of students to a quality education. The deeply flawed Bill presented to us ignores many of these issues but the Government, through its programme for Government, and the commitment in the White Paper on Education is committed to moving forward on these fronts.
I propose to set out what we have done and where we propose to go. I will also set out why this Bill fails to adequately address the complexity of the issues involved. The Bill being proposed by Fianna Fáil is a knee-jerk and oversimplistic reaction to the difficult situation faced by students of the Advanced Technology College, which ignores the remedies being pursued through the courts. An application to have an Examiner appointed to the Advanced Technology College is currently before the courts. The objective of the procedure for the appointment of an Examiner is to allow a company experiencing financial difficulties an opportunity to put together a rescue package which would in turn be adjudicated upon by its creditors, shareholders and the court.
The legislation provides for the making of an interim report to the court on the future viability of the company within a timescale of 21 days, although the court has the power to grant an extension to this. The Examiner is also required  to form a view as to the manner in which the company has conducted its affairs and in particular whether any question of negligent trading arises. Therefore, there is a statutory procedure for private commercial colleges which get into financial difficulties and it is being availed of by the students of the Advanced Technology College. As creditors of the company they will have the opportunity of stating their case to the Examiner and the court, as appropriate.
It is clearly important that every effort should be made to protect the financial investment of students and their parents. The Government recognises the need for regulatory control of private education and, in this regard, the programme, A Government of Renewal, outlines its commitment to introduce legislation to regulate private education to ensure proper educational standards, consumer protection and employee rights.
This Bill significantly fails to adequately address the questions associated with the regulation of private education. Furthermore, the complexity of the issues and the risk of getting it wrong if we rush to legislate is borne out by the Bill in which there is serious confusion as to the intended target of its provisions. The introduction of a regulatory framework which will stand the test of time and serve the consumers of educational services demands a considered approach involving dialogue with the relevant interests, a detailed assessment of the various options available and a clear understanding of the implications associated with each option. A rushed approach based on a regulatory framework designed for a different set of consumers with different needs and concerns is clearly inadequate and oversimplistic.
Ms Bhreathnach: It is a pity to waste time. There have been advances in meeting the programme's commitment to regulate private colleges and I consider it is important to outline the initiatives I have taken in this regard.
Before doing so, we need to look at the current arrangements. Under section 20 of the National Council for Educational Awards Act, 1979, the Minister for Education may, with the concurrence of the Minister for Finance, and after consultation with the NCEA, designate an educational institution other than a university as being an institution to which the NCEA Act applies. Since its foundation in 1972 and its establishment on a statutory basis in 1979, the NCEA has pursued its mission of putting in place quality certification at third level in the extra university sector.
A number of private commercial colleges have been designated under the NCEA Act, such as the Dublin Business School, formerly Accountancy and Business College; The American College, Dublin; Burren College of Art; Griffith College, Dublin; HSI College, Limerick; The Institute of Education, Business College; LSB College Ltd.; Mid West Business Institute, Limerick; Skerry's College, Cork and St. Nicholas Montessori College, Ireland. The work of the NCEA is complemented by the National Council for Vocational Awards whose function is to develop a comprehensive national certification and assessment system for a wide range of vocational programmes, particularly those in the education sector, in consultation with the relevant interest group.
The development of a national qualifications framework is being progressed by Teastas, the Irish National Certification Authority, which has  a wide ranging remit, including the development, implementation, regulation and supervision of the certification of all non university third level programmes and all further and continuation education and training programmes; responsibility for the plans, programmes and budgets necessary for the achievement of these functions, including the plans, programmes and budgets of the NCEA and the NCVA; the establishment, direction, supervision and regulation of a national qualifications framework; and ensuring international recognition for all the qualifications under its remit. Teastas is charged with welding the many existing certification systems into a coherent framework and in so doing establishing flexible routes by which students can gain access and progress to further qualifications.
My approach to the question of regulating private colleges is clearly set out in the White Paper, Charting Our Education Future. There has been significant growth in recent years in the number of private commercial colleges. The White Paper outlines how new control procedures will be put in place in relation to private commercial colleges offering third level programmes which seek State certification. It is important to regulate such colleges so as to guarantee the academic integrity and quality of the courses and qualifications on offer; to prescribe institutional norms in regard to, for example, staff qualifications, support services, teaching/research balance, entry standards and the balance of course provision; and to protect the financial investment of students and their parents.
There is a dual focus in the area of policy, namely, to ensure the quality of provision in private colleges and to provide for adequate consumer protection. The White Paper sets out the parameters of the control procedures which will, in addition to requirements to protect students' financial investment, involve rigorous evaluation of the quality of courses on offer; an evaluation of the physical and educational facilities, teaching staff and other support services available; a requirement that each institution receiving NCEA designation provide at least three courses of certificate or diploma standard; and the provision of relevant statistical information to my Department and the NCEA. The evaluations will be carried out on an ongoing basis. These new control procedures will be the responsibility of Teastas, the Irish National Certification Authority.
The first report of Teastas, which was published in January 1997, is currently under detailed consideration. This report presents the initial proposals and recommendations of the board on a national qualifications framework and the organisational structure for Teastas. It also outlines the progress made during an extensive consultative process. The key issues in relation to the development of a national qualifications framework are quality assurance, accreditation, access, progression  and mobility and international recognition. My Department has commenced discussions with Teastas on the system of approval for institutions seeking State certification. These discussions will also encompass issues in relation to financial and academic bonding.
In the interim considerable progress has been made in formulating educational standards. Private colleges now offer courses for which tax relief is available under the 1995 and 1996 Finance Acts. This improvement has been introduced during my time in office. In keeping with the commitment in the White Paper, I published a code of standards to which institutions must adhere in order to be eligible for tax relief. That information can be made available to parents by the Department of Education. These codes of standards were developed by the Working Group on Third Level Private Commercial Colleges which I established to advise me on the appropriate criteria for recognition of colleges and courses, including admission and quality standards.
The working group was representative of Teastas, my Department, the NCEA and the Department of Enterprise and Employment. In response to media advertisements, it received a large number of submissions from interested parties and met with representatives of a number of the colleges involved. The codes of standards require institutions to meet specified criteria in the following areas. In the academic environment institutions are required to have an academic board and adequate internal processes for self-evaluation. In the physical environment institutions are required to have adequate accommodation, equipment and access to library and other learning facilities, including facilities for research and computer facilities. They are also required to have adequate finance for student clubs and societies. In the case of staffing and staff development, institutions are required to have sufficient professional, technical and other staff with appropriate qualifications in the areas of teaching, administrative and clerical support, technical support, library and information technology services and advisory, counselling and guidance services. The staff must undertake work that will keep them abreast of developments in their field of specialist knowledge and have access to appropriate training in pedagogical skills.
The working group was also asked to consider the issues of academic and financial bonding and consumer protection. Following careful evaluation of the advice available to it in relation to possible provisions for academic and financial bonding and consumer protection, the working group concluded that such provisions should not be included in the codes of standards. It recommended that my Department should address these issues in association with Teastas and the NCEA——
Ms Bhreathnach: There is a quality mark associated with the Department of Education and I am responsible for ensuring it is upheld for students, their parents and colleges. My Department  has commenced discussions with Teastas. The working group was impressed with the consideration being given to the questions of academic and financial bonding by the private colleges which are very concerned about what is happening. For example, the Institute of Education Business College already has a bonding system in place.
A number of NCEA designated private colleges represented by the Higher Education Colleges Association are further developing proposals for academic and financial bonding for consideration in the context of decisions on the future framework. My Department has been actively involved in the development of a regulatory framework for third level private commercial colleges. This work is, of its very nature, slow and incremental having regard to the complexity of the issues involved and the need to develop an effective and efficient framework. This work is in complete contrast to the hastily framed Bill being proposed by Fianna Fáil. This Bill fails miserably in its attempt to regulate private colleges.
Ms Bhreathnach: The Bill fails miserably in attempting to regulate private colleges, and there will be little protection for many who find themselves in situations similar to that of the students of the Advanced Technology College. We owe it to those students to spell that out.
The Bill proposed by Fianna Fáil is almost a mirror image of the Transport (Tour Operators and Travel Agents) Act, 1982 which is designed to protect holidaymakers who travel abroad on chartered holidays for a fortnight once a year, if they are lucky. The Bill as proposed represents an over simplistic approach by Fianna Fáil which is attempting to apply the statutory framework  introduced for travel agents and tour operators who regulate a large market that affects people for a fortnight each year at the most. Nothing other than a superficial comparison can be drawn between the position of travel agents and tour operators and that of education providers.
Ms Bhreathnach: The provision of education is not analogous to the provision of chartered holidays. I therefore consider that the Transport (Tour Operators and Travel Agents) Act, 1982, on which this Bill is largely based, provides an inadequate template for this kind of legislation.
Ms Bhreathnach: The issue facing a holidaymaker in the event of a travel agent or tour operator experiencing financial difficulties is the recovery of a deposit paid in the event that the person has not started their holiday, and how the holidaymaker will get home if he or she is abroad on holiday. Of all the annual customers of a particular travel agent or tour operator, the proportion affected by any financial difficulties is limited to those already on holiday and those who, having paid their deposits, have yet to travel.
The issues facing students in educational institutions who experience financial difficulties are far more complex. Students may have invested a number of years or months in pursuit of the course, in addition to their financial investment. Students will want the opportunity to complete their courses and obtain the relevant qualifications. They are not asking me or the Deputies opposite to get their money back. Furthermore, all the students enrolled in the institution are equally affected by any financial difficulties encountered.
Ms Bhreathnach: The Bill fails to adequately recognise the additional complexities involved in the area of private education. It focuses exclusively on the financial aspects of consumer protection with no regard for the objective of ensuring proper educational standards. The Bill ignores the question of academic bonding which is equally important to the question of financial bonding.
Ms Bhreathnach: The long title of the Bill indicates that its purpose is to regulate private educational  institutions to protect students attending such institutions. The Bill introduces a mandatory licensing system, under the Minister for Education, for anyone proposing to provide private education at post-primary levels for more than ten students. The Bill requires educational institutions to enter into and maintain bonds and establishes a protection fund to be financed by contributions from educational institutions.
The definition of a private educational institution in section 2 covers an institution, company, partnership or association of persons whose business is the provision of private education at post-primary levels for more than ten students. This definition appears to include——
Ms Bhreathnach: ——all the voluntary secondary schools in the State. In preparing legislation for education it must be borne in mind that large parts of the system are privately owned, although publicly funded — the subject of another ongoing debate in this House. The drafters of the Bill made the fundamental error of failing to accommodate this fact.
Ms Bhreathnach: The private nature of much of the education system requires full consideration before this House should be asked to consider a Bill like this. No explanation of private education at post-primary level is provided.
Ms Bhreathnach: The Bill, as drafted, includes summer schools and hobby pursuits. There must be a clear understanding of the scope of any regulatory framework. There can be no ambiguity as to the type of institution to be included in the Bill.
As proposed, the Bill could result in a situation whereby no educational institution could provide private education at post-primary level for more than ten students without a licence from the Minister for Education. Are the proposers of the Bill serious? The desirability of introducing a mandatory licensing system needs to be fully explored, having regard to the cost implications for consumers who will ultimately bear the cost of such licensing.
A regulatory framework requires an efficient, effective administrative structure to ensure compliance with all statutory requirements. Such a structure would have significant resource implications. A balance needs to be achieved between the costs of, and benefits to be derived from, a regulatory framework. We are not talking about taking £5 from everybody passing through Dublin Airport. Does the Opposition seriously intend to require a licence for each voluntary secondary school?
Ms Bhreathnach: The Bill, as framed, is extraordinarily wide in its application. There is not a little difference between the education system and the holiday tours business. It could include not only every voluntary secondary school but also every summer school, part-time course, the Irish Times Training Centre, the Oscar Wilde Summer School and every course in yoga, reflexology or flower arranging which caters for more than ten students.
The constitutional implications of any legislation of this nature require detailed consideration because Article 42.2 of the Constitution states: “Parents shall be free to provide this education in their homes or in private schools or in schools recognised or established by the State.” An initial consideration of the Bill raises serious questions as to the constitutionality of introducing a mandatory licensing system for private educational institutions. The constitutional guarantees for the owners of schools need to be addressed.
In preparing the Education Bill, 1997, I was conscious of the competing constitutional rights of the various institutions in education. I had to seek a balance between the rights which could be objectively supported as being in the interests of the common good. Without detailed legal advice I could not be satisfied that the approach adopted by the Bill is constitutionally sound or is the best approach in the circumstances.
The framework set out in the White Paper involves a dual approach involving academic and financial bonding. It recognises the reality that students' investment is not just a financial one but one of time invested on route to a particular desired qualification. The benefits of such an approach are recognised by a number of private colleges, represented by the Higher Education Colleges Association, which considers that proper academic bonding would reduce the cost of financial bonding.
In relation to financial bonding, a number of options will have to be considered. These bonding arrangements should be on an individual college basis or on a sectoral basis with a common fund. The size of the private commercial colleges sector needs to be acknowledged.
The question of academic bonding may include provision whereby students affected by the collapse of a college could transfer to another college to complete their courses. For obvious reasons, what is envisaged could only operate in private colleges which are State certified. I have  already referred briefly to the constitutional issues. My proposals outlined in the White Paper are for a regulatory framework to be limited to private commercial colleges which seek State certification. This is the optimal approach because we can have at that stage a balance between the academic and the financial bonding.
Legislation has to address the real world. This legislation ignores the fact that the fundamental concern of students at the ATC and other students in private colleges is the continuation of their education.
Ms Bhreathnach: We need to build on the progress to date so that a proper regulation of private commercial colleges offering third level programmes which seek State certification will be put in place. This Bill is a distraction and an irrelevancy and it does nothing to advance that process. I oppose the Bill because it does not offer anything to the colleges, the students or the private education sector.
Mr. Lenihan: I would like clarification on the question of when the Minister met the students or parents of Advanced Technology College as it is unclear. I do not wish to be accused of misleading the House but it has been suggested that the Minister met those who were designated to represent the students and parents caught up in this unfortunate matter. Has the Minister met those who were designated by them?
Mr. Lenihan: I am glad that is on the record, because I do not want to be accused of misleading the House. My information is that the Minister had not met a delegation constituted to represent the parents and students at this entity, and that is the position. However, the central burden of the Minister's argument is that this Bill does nothing to help the students of the college. It is my respectful submission to the Minister that it does and is part of a very well thought out strategy by our spokesperson to assist those who have been caught up in this dreadful affair. No Government wishes to commit itself to assist a college of this type when it believes it might lead to an open-ended commitment for the Exchequer; but if a proper bonding system were put in place, it would be possible to deal with the problem of ATC on a one-off basis. Surely an administration such as this, spending the amount of money it has been spending since budget day and facing into an imminent general election, could find a place in  its heart for this group who have been affected by the collapse of the college.
It was disappointing to hear the Minister oozing sympathy for the students and parents of the Advanced Technology College, saying how conscious she was of the commitment of the students and parents and how aware she was of their financial and other sacrifices, and yet not prepared to meet the parents or those designated to represent the parents or students of this body.
The rest of the Minister's contribution, was most disappointing because of what it told us about her thinking and the quality of official thinking in the Department. So much of the speech consisted of nit-picking, taking fine points, looking at a Bill and finding that this or that subsection was defective in some minor respect. I will return to that later because the Bill does not bring within its scope the voluntary secondary schools. Much of the Minister's contribution was devoted to this kind of negative, carping criticism. Not once in her contribution did she outline a positive strategy for addressing the problem that has arisen in the college. Our spokesperson, to his credit, put forward a positive strategy based first on creating financial confidence in the sector through a bonding system — that is essential because no Government wants to become involved in interfering in this private educational sector unless it can be sure that financial probity and confidence can be maintained in the system hereafter. That is guaranteed in this Bill and opens the way for the Minister to take an initiative in regard to this specific institution. The Minister, however, is not interested in clearing the way towards this end. In the long list of beneficiaries we have seen queuing up before the forthcoming general election, this is one group that will not be allowed to join the queue. That is the message from the Minister.
The Minister suggests that developing a policy and regulatory framework in this area is complex. It is far less complex than the regulatory and policy framework the Minister has been attempting for some time to devise for the primary, secondary and university sectors. She accepts that the Government is committed to developing an appropriate regulatory framework, and much work has been done, but much remains to be done. When I see the kind of work the Minister has done on the Universities Bill and the Education Bill, I am worried about what she might produce to deal with private educational institutions. If it is drafted on the analogy of her earlier legislative efforts, we will have a great deal more talking in this House, and the Constitution will certainly come into play at that stage.
The next point the Minister made is that the rights of parents and students are involved. It is great to hear her say that but, again, one looks at her legislative efforts in the university, second level and first level sectors. I make this point because my right as a Deputy to comment on these matters has been curtailed by the decision of this Government to close the debate on the  Education Bill, one of the most fundamental items of legislation ever introduced in this State. The Minister of State, Deputy Currie, was in another jurisdiction for part of his working political life. He knows how fundamental the 1944 Act was in the United Kingdom. This is the equivalent legislation here and there is an attempt by the Labour Party to nationalise by stealth a huge swathe of the Irish educational sector in the last weeks of a Dáil, just before a dissolution. It is a scandal and the upset and worry it is causing to people of the minority religious faiths throughout this State is enormous. That is what the Minister should address. She should also address the upset and worry of the parents of the students of this private college, instead of introducing theoretical socialistic solutions to our educational system which do not inspire public confidence.
The Minister had the effrontery to suggest that the question of rights to conduct private business within the terms of the laws governing the operation of companies is relevant. This Bill has nothing to do with rights to conduct private business within the terms of the laws governing the operation of companies which is a matter regulated by a companies code which the Oireachtas has amended many times and which provides for relationships within companies. Nobody is questioning the right of a company to conduct a private business. What we are putting forward is a practical thought out scheme to ensure the financial probity and well-being of companies which carry on this particular business, and no reasonable person could object to that or suggest it is not in the interests of the common good.
Consumer protection legislation is in existence in this State and if the Minister wishes to extend the ambit of that protection to this sector, that course of action is open to her colleague, the Minister for Trade and Tourism, who carries the responsibility for that legislation. It is not an issue that arises on our Bill.
The Minister suggests starkly that there is a range of issues related to the quality of the education provision of such institutions. Happily, to date, such institutions have been immune from ministerial inquiry in these matters. The quality of our educational institutions down the years was built up by parents, the different Churches, teachers and by the Department in setting standards through the inspectorate. It was a true partnership, not the kind of partnership the Minister is at present trying to construct in education, a sort of collectivist partnership where the State nationalises by stealth the entire primary, secondary and third level sector and attempts to inhibit creativity and initiative in these institutions. Here the Minister is concerned with the quality of education provision in such institutions. The persons who go to these entities make a decision about the quality of the educational provision in them, and people can be trusted to make these decisions themselves. It may surprise a socialist Minister to hear it, but people are capable of making intelligent choices and do not need the Minister for  Education to tell them what a quality education is.
Then there is the complex issue of framing appropriate legislation, taking account of the relevant constitutional provisions — the Constitution was finally introduced. Again I suggest in relation to the education Bill that the Minister should have regard to the constitutional issues there if she is examining her constitutional obligations at present, because she has very serious constitutional obligations in relation to the provision of education. One of them is that while the Minister is obliged to supplement private initiative in education, she is not allowed to supplant or nationalise private education. That is something she has purported to do in the education Bill. She now suggests that our Bill is in some way unconstitutional in devising a very minimal standard of financial protection for these private colleges.
It is a very disappointing contribution from the Minister, most of all for the poverty of official thought in it and the lack of any thought out initiative to deal with the problem that has arisen in the Advanced Technology College. One issue that very much concerned me when I heard what the Minister said was this question of the definition of an educational institution. The Minister was concerned that the definition of a private educational institution in section 2 would extend to or include all voluntary secondary schools in the State, but it is clear that the definition of private educational institution in the Bill means an institution, company, partnership or association of persons whose business is the provision of private education at post-primary levels for more than ten students and is referred to in the Act as an educational institution. A voluntary secondary school is not engaged in a business, which in law means an occupation or activity carried on with a view to a profit — as we know, the voluntary education sector has not been carried on with a view to a profit. The voluntary school, therefore, does not fall within the statutory definition under this Bill and no question of bonding arises. The Minister is in error in suggesting that.
The Minister went on to suggest that every summer school, every part-time course, the Oscar Wilde summer school and courses in yoga, reflexology and flower arranging fall within the scope of the Bill, but none of those courses is carried on with a view to a profit. They are voluntary activities which citizens are free to undertake. It is remarkable the Minister made such a suggestion. If the definition of private education institution is defective, it could be amended in Committee, thereby addressing the Minister's concern.
The only other point of jurisprudence raised by the Minister related to the analogy between education providers and travel agents and tour operators. In the Labour Party thinking on education there is no analogy. It has not got around yet to  telling tourists what the politically correct destinations are.
Mr. Lenihan: As far as parents and students are concerned, there is an analogy. Perhaps the Minister does not like an analogy to be drawn between the high world of education and what she saw, rather patronisingly, as the low world of the travel agent. As far as the consumer is concerned, what is provided is a service for which they pay, and what we are endeavouring to provide in this Bill is a basic mechanism to ensure financial protection for those who engage in that service. Far from being a disreputable form of jurisprudence or dishonourable to equate the provider of a private educational service with a travel agent, there is a well established precedent in the Acts of the Oireachtas for this approach. I was surprised the Minister did not refer to auctioneers or solicitors because similar arrangements have been put in place by the Oireachtas to ensure these classes of persons do not take money entrusted to them.
Mr. Lenihan: There is no need to refer to the Bar because it does not have to handle clients' money, that is left to solicitors. The Bar simply sings for reward and, some say, is more than adequately compensated for doing so. Since the Bar does not have to handle clients' money, it does not need to be bonded, although some would say it should be outlawed.
It is superficial for the Minister to suggest that it is a cause of derision that the legislation is modelled on legislation relating to travel agents when similar legislation has been well established in terms of the bonding of a wide range of persons who are entrusted with other people's money. The key feature as far as the parent or student is concerned is the entrusting of money to a private institution. What is required is a bonding arrangement to ensure there is no defalcation of money or withdrawal of promised service, or in the event that there is such withdrawal, there is guaranteed return of the money. That is the core proposal in the Bill, but the Minister did not address that point.
The Minister said that legislation dealing with travel agents and tour operators is an inadequate template for this kind of legislation, but I am at a loss to know what is an adequate template. The issue facing the holiday maker or tour operator experiencing financial difficulties is the recovery of the deposit paid, and that is the precise difficulty faced by parents and students. The position is much the same with entities which go into receivership or liquidation. It is not correct for the Minister to say that the issues facing students are far more complex. The issues facing these  students are very simple and the remedies required very urgent, but the Minister did not recognise the simplicity of the problem or the urgency of a solution.
The Minister suggested that there would be constitutional implications involved and that we must be conscious of the competing constitutional rights of the various interests in education, but she should have thought out that matter more carefully when drawing up the Education Bill. This Bill, which is a minimalist measure constitutionally, would provide financial security for those who deal with private educational institutions. It is in the interests of the common good that such provision be made. No Supreme Court would strike down legislation which provides, in the interests of the common good and of social justice, for the regulation of a private activity such as this. That relates to Article 43 of the Constitution, which provides adequate constitutional protection for this type of legislation. There is no question of anyone's rights in regard to education being interfered with, unless of course the Minister decides to go one step further, as she envisaged in her contribution, and prescribes the courses students should take, what they should be taught or the kinds of boards that should exist in colleges.
Far from doing nothing to help ATC students, this Bill goes a long way towards helping them by providing for an adequate system of financial bonding for this sector. In so doing it allows the Minister to find an amicable resolution of the problems faced by parents and students. I was very disappointed by the response to this matter. This is an urgent problem which should be addressed. It is not good enough for the Minister to talk about the Constitution, certification of courses and the complex issues involved. It is disappointing the Minister has refused to meet those involved in this tragedy.
Mr. Lenihan: I urge the Minister of State, in his gracious way, to bring my pleas to the notice of the Minister and urge her, before we dissolve this Dáil, to deal with the problems faced by parents and students of this institution.
|Last Updated: 21/05/2011 05:42:51||Page of 251|