Qualifications and Quality Assurance (Education and Training) Bill 2011 [Seanad]: Second Stage (Resumed)
Wednesday, 23 May 2012
Dáil Éireann Debate
Deputy Brendan Smith: I mentioned to the Minister prior to the adjournment of the debate on the Bill yesterday that he might clarify when replying to Second Stage or on Committee Stage, whichever is the most satisfactory, why the National University of Ireland was excluded from the merger of these bodies.
Deputy Brendan Smith: That is perfect. The Bill states the recognised universities of the NUI must establish quality assurance procedures and have those procedures approved by the authority. While the NUI would be covered by the quality standards outlined in the Bill and would be required to meet them, it would remain as a separate awarding body. The Minister outlined again yesterday, as he did when he published the Bill, that:
The objective of the Bill is to create a single agency, ensuring there are no longer any overlapping responsibilities, consistency in quality and standards and introducing a more cost effective service. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response on the decision to leave the National University of Ireland out of this new framework. NUI argued that it may lead to reputational damage to the awards on the higher education side and that most member agencies in the European Association for Quality Assurance in Higher Education are concerned solely with higher education. What about the institutes of technology, which are also in the higher education sector but would be awarded by a separate body, the new authority?
Yesterday evening I referred briefly to the international education mark and the code of practice. The Bill contains new provisions on the regulation of providers offering education and training services to international students whereby the new authority will develop a code of practice. Providers will be able to apply for the international education mark based on their compliance with the code of practice and it seems while the authority will encourage providers to apply for an international education mark it will not be mandatory. On Committee Stage we should consider at length whether the code of practice and applying for the international education mark be made mandatory. According to the regulatory impact assessment for the Bill, which was published last year, providers of international education services would benefit from the international education mark and the code of practice for international learners, which would help contribute to Ireland’s reputation as a high-quality education provider. This is important to encourage more international students to study here, which brings with it significant economic benefits. It is very important that we ensure education service providers are seen to meet the highest international standards.
In July 2011 the Minister announced the new structure for further education and the establishment of SOLAS, which had been outlined by his predecessor. On behalf of Fianna Fáil I welcome the proposed new structures. Several weeks ago at a committee meeting to discuss the Estimates for the Department of Education and Skills I mentioned to the Minister the need to put in place the new structures as soon as possible. I realise it is a big task and a major opus for the Department and I understand the new structures cannot be put in place overnight, but it is important that they are put in place as soon as possible and that the right structures are used. I hope the Minister and his officials can progress establishing the new structures as soon as possible. He will have our support in bringing the Bill through both Houses of the Oireachtas as speedily as possible.
During the interregnum between old and new structures there is always the danger of uncertainty creeping in, and negative messages get more amplified than positive ones. I caution against this uncertainty, as often doubt can set in the minds of members of staff with regard to their security of tenure, employment, where services will be delivered and the extent of these services.
The continuing pressure on budgets and staff in higher education impacts on standards and our international reputation. The Minister must face up to the question of how we maintain standards while continuing to increase participation. In March 2012 the Times Higher Education world reputation rankings showed Ireland was not represented in the top 100 universities in the world. No Irish universities ranked among the world elite in a list reflecting the views of more than 17,000 academics throughout the world. These issues need to be addressed if we are to attract increasing numbers of foreign students.
As we discussed in other debates on education, including during Question Time, we all welcome increasing participation in further and higher education. The rate of expansion of higher education opportunities in Ireland has consistently been among the highest of all OECD countries in recent decades. We were fifth highest of all OECD countries in terms of the higher education attainment levels of young adults aged 25 to 34 in 2007. By 2009 we achieved the highest participation rate in tertiary education in the EU. This was a very welcome milestone and we must ensure we continue to build on this solid progress. The Acting Chairman, Deputy Paudie Coffey, has a particular interest in the development of technological universities. There is much interest throughout the country in the institutes of technology and possible clustering. As the Minister stated clearly, and he is correct, this will depend on very rigorous assessment and the attainment of internationally set educational standards.
I referred to the world rankings of our universities. In reply to a question I put to him at the end of April about the recent Times Higher Education world reputation rankings which failed to feature an Irish university being a cause of concern for all of us, the Minister stated:
This message and these statistics are very important and the wider public should know this. I quoted the Minister’s reply because it did not gain traction in the broadcast or print media. Too often we have negative commentary on the delivery of public services and the inadequacies of our education system. We should also have traction for information on the qualityprovision.
Mr. Boland of the Higher Education Authority, referring to the ranking compiled by Universitas 21, an international network of research universities, stated: “The Universitas 21 approach, in looking at overall systems of higher education, demonstrates in a way which other ranking systems failed to do the great strengths of our higher education and research system.”. It is important that we note this.
I do not know whether it is appropriate to quote our eminent President Michael D. Higgins, but recently he criticised the focus on global rankings. He stated some universities place more emphasis on the ability of staff to improve their standing than on their teaching ability. We should bear in mind the comments of President Higgins, a man of great distinction, as a teacher, as an academic, and obviously as our first citizen and a former distinguished Member of the Oireachtas.
I welcome the legislation and there are some issues we will be able to tease out on Committee Stage. Fianna Fáil wants this legislation, which has already gone through the Upper House, advanced through this House as soon as possible.
Deputy Sandra McLellan: The Qualifications and Quality Assurance (Education and Training) Bill seeks to consolidate services currently provided by the Higher Education and Training Awards Council, HETAC, the Further Education and Training Awards Council, FETAC, the National Qualifications Authority of Ireland, NQAI, and the Irish Universities Board, IQUB, under a new agency — the qualifications and quality assurance authority of Ireland, QQAAI. I acknowledge the valuable work done by each of these bodies and the roles they have played in enabling private colleges to gain access to national awards and providing public reassurance regarding the standards in those colleges. The establishment of the National Framework of Qualifications should bring greater clarity to the complex range of qualifications developed over time across the educational spectrum.
The Bill sets out to streamline services and put in place a single, more efficient, organisation that ensures quality in further and higher education and training. An amalgamated body should be better placed to progress plans for development across further and higher education by drawing on the experiences and expertise that currently exists and which can be pooled to offer greater efficiency. It will also simplify the process of communication for providers, especially those who deal with the range of qualifications and quality assurance bodies. The new agency will help education and training providers in their dealings with one organisation, and provide greater clarity for learners and award holders. The coherence of the new system will enhance Ireland’s provision of education and training.
At present, because several bodies are tasked with providing the types of services covered by the Bill, there has been some overlap and duplication of responsibilities. Any attempt to improve the delivery of a more efficient service is a laudable aim that can only be achieved if the new authority is properly resourced and staffed with qualified and experienced personnel who are capable of delivering a more effective service.
Sinn Féin supports making qualifications more understandable in different countries across Europe and it is equally important that the Bill provides that education bodies, wherever possible, ensure their awards are recognised within the national framework of qualifications, NFQ. It must also enable international comparison between degree programmes and continue to improve the quality of Irish degree courses. Any new body overseeing quality must strive to create transparency in the Irish education system; ensure independent quality assessment; enable international comparison between degree programmes; and continue to improve the quality of Irish degree courses.
For the first time, the Bill provides for the external review of the quality assurance procedures of universities and the transfer of this function from the IUQB to the new agency. In addition, recognised universities of the NUI are expected to establish quality assurance procedures that must be approved by the new agency. The authority will also encourage providers to apply for an international education mark, based on their compliance with the code of conduct.
One of the concerns expressed by the National University of Ireland and echoed by others is that amalgamating a higher education awards body with a further education awards body may lead to reputational damage to the awards on the higher education side. For example, most member agencies in the European Association for Higher Education Quality Assurance are concerned solely with higher education. The model of a single agency covering the entire spectrum, from basic literacy awards to doctoral degrees, has not found favour elsewhere, particularly in the countries represented in the European Association for Higher Education Quality Assurance where, by definition, the majority of the member agencies are concerned solely with higher education.
The NUI, while understanding the desire to achieve seamless progression between the two sectors, warns of the possible reputational risk to the qualifications on the higher education side and the implications this would have for higher education colleges. There are also concerns that the Minister will attempt to pressurise the universities into abolishing their own quality bodies and procedures when the Bill becomes law.
The role and activities of the NUI should not be undervalued, yet the Bill contains a veiled threat to the continuing existence of the organisation. In what amounts to a warning about the continuance of the National University of Ireland as a federal university, it would tarnish a brand that enjoys high recognition and standing nationally and internationally, and is potentially more damaging to Irish higher education than the proposed change to its awarding role. The international reputation of NUI degrees at bachelor, master and doctorate level is well established and the existence of the NUI should not be lightly discarded. It is equally important that quality assurance schemes in established universities that are working well are not undermined by ministerial appointments.
One of the core objectives of the Qualifications (Education and Training) Act 1999 was to promote and maintain procedures, and access transfer and progression. Through education and learning, its central aim was to engender confidence and develop skills for all learners, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds. Accreditation of prior learning is particularly important for disadvantaged or marginalised socio-economic groups whose prior learning experience must be recognised and considered when they have applied for diploma or degree courses. The QQAAI must be cognisant of the implications arising from increases in third level fees that restrict access to students from poorer families. The Government must ensure equality of access to education, starting at preschool level and applied to all aspects of learning at primary and post-primary level through to third level. This is one of the cornerstones of ensuring we have a progressive and fair education system that works towards positive outcomes across lifelong learning for all of our citizens and I would be interested to hear how the Minister intends to address these matters.
During the Seanad debate on the Bill, Senator Ó Clochartaigh referred to the Bologna Declaration of 1999 that aims to provide a common European system of credits and create a system that makes it easier to compare degrees. There is merit in developing this type of cross-European co-operation and standardisation, but it should be remembered that the Bologna Declaration has received its fair share of criticism. Instead of making European higher education more compatible, comparable and attractive for students, it has been seen by some to facilitate the commercialisation of higher education and, in the process, engendered the type of competitiveness that hampers the development of a broader, holistic approach to learning.
There are also strongly held views that there has been a change in the emphasis of universities from centres of knowledge and learning into institutions that churn out qualifications. In the process, students are being treated as customers on a conveyor belt system, which is over-regulated and fails to allow for national differences or individual considerations. The emphasis on the attainment of vocational degrees has resulted in a reduction in funding for some non-vocational areas and this has led to sponsorship by big business of the more “employable” education programmes. Many institutions offer a broad education and it is important that this approach is preserved, as there is more to education than the mere grinding out of results for the lowest costs possible and for the international league tables, which can be rather misleading. We should be cautious in how we implement reform and a central aim must be the preservation of the positive, unique aspects of our higher and further education systems, while striving to make improvements.
The RIA claims that the Bill will incur no additional cost to the Exchequer and will eventually result in savings of €1 million annually. This reduction in costs should be realised over time and will be achieved through economies of scale and reductions in staff numbers and CEOs. The Minister should clarify if there will be job losses resulting from the establishment of the QQAAI and what the cost to the Exchequer of terminating senior management and CEO contracts will be. Even more important, savings made through the amalgamation of the existing exam bodies should be redirected into essential front line services.
The RIA also warns of possible costs that might be incurred by universities in implementing revised quality assurance practices. I hope the Minister will give assurances that any additional costs will not result in a rise in student fees. I also hope the Bill will be able to establish quality assurance procedures that will help address the recent slippage of Irish universities in world rankings, which saw Trinity College Dublin drop 13 places, UCD drop 20 places and NUI Galway drop 66 places.
The Bill provides that only the Minister can appoint the eight members of the QQAAI board, but consideration might be given to allowing interested parties, individually or in appropriate groups, to make at least some nominations. By expanding the board’s membership it would be possible to include people with wider business, management, community and learner perspectives, as well as international expertise. It is also important that there is student representation on the board. The current proposals appear to provide little space for an Irish academic voice or for any significant university input. Any new agency should have a meaningful relationship with the universities with regard to external quality assurance, and it would seem essential for it to include some relevant expertise at board level. The appointed CEO will wield a good deal of power under the legislation and it is important that there is clarification about to whom he or she will be accountable.
The new authority aims to encourage providers to apply for an international education mark based on their code of conduct. Nowhere in the Bill is it mentioned that course providers must guarantee that courses will run to their final completion. Last summer, there was understandable uproar when some well-known language schools in Dublin closed after having accepted fees from students. Providers should have to show they are financially viable before getting this mark and this should be applicable to all higher education providers.
One of the most worrying aspects of the Bill concerns section 21(2), which implies that conditions of staff will not be protected except for remuneration. Furthermore, subsection (3) does not include conditions relating to superannuation, so pensions of existing members might be threatened when transferred to the new body. There are well founded fears that conditions of service, pension rights and salary pay scales are not covered by the Bill and that this may have implications for staff being redeployed across the public sector. The Minister should consider amending the Bill and use the wording contained in section 52(8) and (9) of the Qualifications (Education and Training) Act 1999 that legislates to protect the transfer conditions of staff so their existing entitlements in respect of tenure, remuneration, fees allowances, expenses and superannuation remain in place.
The NQAI, FETAC, HETAC and IUQB welcome the publication of the Qualifications and Quality Assurance (Education and Training) Bill 2011, which provides for a new single national agency, the Qualifications and Quality Assurance Authority of Ireland, QQAAI, to replace these bodies. It is anticipated that the QQAAI will be established in 2012. This legislation will amalgamate the existing national qualifications and quality assurance bodies for learners into one new agency. The agency will be responsible for a wide range of functions and should hopefully provide a more integrated, efficient and coherent range of services to learners across the further and higher education and training sectors that will meet the highest international standards.
It is important that the new agency does more than just consolidate the existing functions of the NQAI, HETAC, FETAC and the IQUB. It will be tasked with building on Ireland’s reputation for quality in education and training and will be well placed to highlight and promote best practice throughout the Irish educational and training system. It must serve learners and the public and build on the past achievements of the existing individual agencies, under the national framework of qualifications. One of its key aims must be to provide greater opportunities for learners and support and promote a culture of quality in Irish higher education by independently evaluating the effectiveness of Irish universities.
Deputy Tom Fleming: The establishment of the qualifications and quality assurance authority of Ireland is a progressive step. It will combine the existing National Qualifications Authority of Ireland, NQAI, the Further Education and Training Awards Council, FETAC, and the Higher Education and Training Awards Council, HETAC, into a single cohesive body. This should ensure that we are competitive in terms of the standard of education for international studies with the development of an international education mark and code of practice for international education.
A strong university system is a vital component for Ireland’s future both in terms of universal standards being met and enabling our students to access the best institutional management toolkits, equivalent to those operating in European and American universities. In an economically competitive world it is obvious that in the 21st century countries will only be as strong as their universities and knowledge will determine the well-being and success of nations. Success in this knowledge-intensive world is predicated on this being delivered by institutions performing to globally competitive standards.
In Ireland, the education system has been criticised by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, OECD. Ireland has prided itself in the last two decades on its high standards but the latest OECD findings appear to point to the contrary. In 2000, the OECD survey of 15 year olds ranked Ireland in an impressive fifth place in literacy, well above the OECD average. However, the past decade has seen an influx of immigrants into Ireland which means that over 8% of the school going population in 2009 comprised non-nationals. This made a significant difference and, as a result, Ireland has dropped dramatically from fifth place to 17th in literacy levels. This is the most dramatic drop by any OECD country.
The new chief inspector in the Department of Education and Skills, Dr. Harold Hislop, recently published a report on school inspections in primary schools. The results were shocking. Inadequacies in almost 15% of English and mathematics classes were discovered when the inspectors arrived unannounced at the schools. Almost 500 schools were visited in the past year. The key findings of the report are: that one in six students in Ireland have poor reading skills; overall, 17% of students are lower achievers in reading; ironically, girls secondary schools continue to demonstrate higher reading scores and the first generation of migrant children had very low levels of achievement in reading. This report demonstrates that at primary level education we must re-educate and upskill our teachers. Following an intensive investigation of our second and third level educators, emphasis should be focused on raising their standards, particularly in science and mathematics subjects.
Foreign investors and potential foreign investors in the past four or five years have indicated that they are very dissatisfied with the standards and quality of students in mathematics and science subjects on leaving our universities and colleges. The Minister is striving to address this matter and is also making an effort to put a better system in place in our training colleges to address this at primary level as well. I very much welcome his endeavours in this respect.
It is alarming that Irish universities fell in the university rankings for 2010, as Deputy McLellan mentioned. While these institutions have enjoyed high prestige worldwide and have attracted thousands of students down through the years, their ranking is plummeting at present. For instance, Trinity College has fallen from 76th to 117th position, while UCD has fallen from 94th to 159th position in the rankings. Hopefully, this position will be reversed and this Bill in particular will create an environment in which Irish universities will return to their former rankings. One positive aspect is that UCC, NUI Galway and other universities are included in the listings of the top 500 universities worldwide, which is highly encouraging.
As for the Bill, Members must ensure the overarching authority ensures that Irish education awards are recognised internationally. In addition, the aforementioned authority should create a sector or body that promotes Irish universities, colleges and institutes of higher education internationally. In addition, the availability of the English language should be used to encourage international students to study in Ireland. I note the United Kingdom has a long history of welcoming overseas students to its universities and colleges. Last year, there were 1.8 million full-time undergraduate students in higher education in the United Kingdom, which included 104,000 international students. Moreover, the United Kingdom makes use of the British Council, which can be found in practically every country in the world, and which operates from its embassies and other representative agencies. Some institutions went further, even to the point of opening up offices to recruit international students into the United Kingdom. I suggest the new authority here should, through the network of Irish embassies and consulates located throughout the world, develop well thought-out ideas to sell Irish higher education to international students. Apparently, the average income to be derived from such students is approximately €6,000 each, depending on the particular field of study on which they embark in Ireland. Incidentally, there has been a huge influx of students into the United Kingdom’s universities from various countries, including, significantly, Asian countries. It attracts 67,000 from China, 39,000 from India, 17,000 from Nigeria, 16,000 from the United States of America, 13,000 from Malaysia and 10,000 each from Hong Kong, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, and Ireland should tap into this market in the near future.
In addition, the authority should develop the quality of science and mathematics courses to the highest standard by providing funding for research and by encouraging students to take up such courses. This in turn will encourage investors to create jobs based on science and technology in Ireland. The availability of a good number of science and maths students of a high standard can only be positive for the State’s economy in the future. Finally, I note the Minister’s recent announcement of the new Erasmus programme within the European Union. I congratulate him on his achievement in securing significant increases for this programme, as up to €19 million will be available over its timeframe. It also coincides with Ireland’s Presidency of the European Union and we certainly should greatly benefit from this transfer and interaction of students between the Continent and Ireland. Ireland should grasp and make the most of this opportunity, as it should be highly beneficial for the Irish education system and students. It constitutes another step in the direction in which Ireland should progress.
Deputy Clare Daly: I will make a couple of brief points. The idea of establishing a single organisation, rather than several, to deal with standards in further and higher education and training obviously is eminently sensible. While people may raise some objections as to how it is done, the principle of it being done is appropriate, should be examined and should be proceeded with. As other Members have noted, the issue of standards in education is critical and in an Irish context, standards have been falling in recent years. While I do not suggest Deputy Tom Fleming made this point, I do not accept any implication that in dragging down our standards, this is the fault of immigrant children. I consider the falling standards to have much more to do with the education cutbacks that were carried out by Fianna Fáil and the Green Party obviously but continued by the present Administration, as well as the failure of the Government to ensure an adequate investment in education that is appropriate to the growing population. In this context, one cannot consider the issue in isolation because funding for education is critical. Members have had many debates previously on how even economically, it makes far more sense and is far more cost efficient to invest in children from an early age and to reap the benefits of so doing in later life. In this context, the continuation of cutbacks in SNA provision, the damage done in rural schools, the attempts on the DEIS schools, the increasing class sizes and so on will be, and already have been, extremely detrimental to the individual development of children and to the well-being of society as a whole. Members must consider this point both from the perspective of individuals and by recognising what in my opinion is a crime, namely, one would fund people’s education and not have jobs for them at the end of it. All this knowledge and all this expertise that has been developed here at home is being exported because gainful employment is not available for people at the end of their education. Consequently, a holistic approach is required when addressing these issues and in this context, it is linked to the fiscal treaty because were the targets being set to be enforced on the economy, it undoubtedly and inevitably would lead to further cutbacks and education undoubtedly would be to the forefront in this regard, as it already has been.
In respect of the proposed amalgamations, this Bill follows on from amalgamations that took place previously on foot of the 1999 Act, with the amalgamation of the National Council for Educational Awards and the National Council for Vocational Awards, as well as the establishment of FETAC, HETAC and all the other organisations this legislation now proposes to amalgamate. In this context, I wish to address the issue of the protection of employees in that transfer. I consider this to be the weakest part of the Bill and the provision to which Members must pay attention. This should not be a difficulty and I am somewhat surprised as to the reason it has been left out or the reason for the provision’s wording, which has caused great concern for staff in that area. Although it was possible in previous legislation to enshrine the rights and entitlements for all the terms and conditions of the staff in those bodies, this Bill is leaving the position much more open. Deputy McLellan made the point in respect of section 21(2) but it should be spelled out because it pertains to people who are employed in these organisations and who will be transferred over to the new authority. It is quite explicit and states “Save in accordance with a collective agreement negotiated with a recognised trade union or staff association... a person referred to in subsection (1) [that is, an existing employee] shall not, while in the service of the Authority, be subject to less beneficial conditions in relation to remuneration than the conditions in relation to remuneration” to which he or she already was subject. This refers solely to remuneration and the fact that section 21(3) then goes on to specifically exclude superannuation makes the original clause even worse and makes people feel more vulnerable. Section 21(2) spells out there will be no protection provided except in the area of remuneration, while section 21(3) specifically excludes superannuation. Members must consider this provision in the context of the changes to public sector pensions that have taken place recently and the fear among people to which it gives rise, because unless this legislation is amended, as it stands the pensions of existing staff members could be undermined seriously in the transfer. Could they be exposed to a situation whereby they would be treated akin to new entrants? It is clear, based on the Act as currently drafted, that this could happen, putting those people in an incredibly vulnerable position.
Section 52(8) of the 1999 Act covers other areas of employment and states that the rights and entitlements, in terms not only of remuneration but also tenure, fees, allowances, expenses and superannuation, enjoyed on the commencement of the Act by a person shall not, by virtue of the Act, be any less beneficial than are the rights and entitlements enjoyed by a person immediately prior to its commencement. The following subsection lists the organisations which are being amalgamated in this Bill in the context of spelling out whose terms and conditions are being protected. That Act states that the rights of staff currently employed in these bodies, of whom there are approximately 30 or 40, should not be exposed further. I hope this is an issue which the Minister intends to address otherwise the people concerned and the Technical Group would not be happy to support this legislation, in particular in the context of the radical changes that have taken place in regard to the terms and conditions of public sector employees. We do not want current employees to be placed any less favourably than their peers.
There has been much talk of this amalgamation resulting in savings of €1 million per annum. It is stated in the relevant documentation that these savings will be made over time. However, there is a need for clarity around what jobs will be affected. Will it be CEO posts in respect of which administrative functions will be eroded and so on? I have no problem with the amalgamation of the bodies concerned. There are greater problems in our education system than those being addressed by this amalgamation. The further progression of this Bill is dependant on protection of the terms and conditions of all existing employee arrangements in the transfer to the new body.
Deputy Mattie McGrath: Go raibh maith agat. I too welcome the opportunity to contribute to the Second Stage debate on the Qualifications and Quality Assurance (Education and Training) Bill 2011. While I welcome the proposed amalgamation, we must ensure we protect what we have. We must not be afraid to amalgamate but must be careful how we move forward.
On 27 July 2011, the chief executive designate of the QQAI, Dr. Padraig Walsh, in a statement welcoming the publication of the Bill stated that this legislation will provide a more integrated, efficient and coherent range of services to learners across the further and higher education and training sectors to the highest international standards, which is a noble and worthy declaration in terms of where we want to go and should and must be. FETAC, HETAC, NQAI and IUQB are all agreed that this move strengthens a focus on high quality learning experiences across all educational and training provisions nationally. The strength of existing quality assurance systems will grow, opening up new opportunities for people to engage and succeed in learning. That should be our mission statement. It is what we want to achieve. We need to open up new opportunities, in particular educational opportunities which lead to employment.
While the NUI agrees that a single agency may lead to efficiencies over time it believes there is a risk in amalgamating a higher education awards body with further education awarding bodies. It believes this may lead to reputational damage to the awards in the higher education arena. It is important we keep a watchful eye on this to ensure no such damage occurs. The NUI argues that most member agencies in the European Association for Higher Education and Quality Assurance are concerned solely with higher education. We must acknowledge the NUI’s concerns. Higher education awards are internationally recognised and we must ensure they are not damaged in any shape or form. However, this declaration may not be the be all and end all: we should perhaps examine this further.
There is a need for a change of emphasis in our universities. Previous speakers on the Opposition side referred to the conveyor belt system, namely, taking in as many students as possible, training them up and getting them out, which is a cause for concern. This type of system has diminished the role of our universities. Members will be aware that our universities have slipped in the rankings in previous years. While we must protect the uniqueness of our universities we must be cognisant of the message we are getting — which we did not get today or yesterday — from international direct investment companies in Ireland. Four years ago I and up to 80 other politicians attended a talk given by an man from an important high technology company in Galway at which we were told that we needed to act fast to reverse the trend in the area of science and physics. While previously our students of science and physics had been highly regarded and respected they were no longer achieving high standards in this area. The man concerned had and continues to have linkages with Galway university.
On the invitation of the American ambassador, I and a number of my colleagues, visited his residence some months ago and took place in a round table discussion with senior business people who told us they are hugely concerned about the standard of achievement in mathematics, physics and science. They told us that despite all the work being done by the IDA, Enterprise Ireland, the Ministers for Foreign Affairs and Trade and Enterprise, Jobs and Innovation to attract foreign companies here and the huge costs involved in this regard they are bringing their own graduates in physics and science with them to fill specific positions, which is a damning indictment of our university system. These companies are availing of our low corporation tax and so on but they are not employing Irish people. The problem is not that they do not want to employ Irish people but that we do not have suitably qualified people for the job. We must be cognisant of this and deal with it.
I am concerned about the slippage of our universities in this regard. Have the Department of Education and Skills, the CEOs in our universities and the senior people in charge taken their eye off the ball? Are they simply trying to educate the multitude — I accept everyone has an equal right to education — or have they become lethargic and lazy? It is one thing to be told by the OECD that our universities have slipped in the international rankings but it is another to be told this by international investors. I note my colleague, Deputy Tom Hayes, is in the House. We have also been told this by companies in south Tipperary, although not that bluntly. This problem needs to be addressed. We all know that it is necessary for companies to bring particular people with them but that they are having to bring in their own employees because we do not have suitably qualified people is madness.
I am concerned about the number of people the Minister proposes to appoint to the new board as this leaves no room for outside expertise. The Minister proposes to appoint eight members. Surely the bodies being amalgamated should be given some recognition. I do not know from where the appointees will be drawn but I am sure they will be of sufficient expertise. However, the Minister should allow for the appointment of 12 members so as to provide for outside representation, perhaps from companies investing and wishing to invest here.
For private companies operating in this area there should be something such as a bond. It is unbelievable that one can pay fees to private companies which then close down. It is tough enough at present for families to survive and anybody who trades in that way should be solvent, should not trade recklessly or take in fees for a season and close shortly afterwards. There must be a bond or some other way in which people can get back their money. It is not only about money but about the trauma and distress caused to students and families.
Overall, we must ensure that our education system and our universities are fit for purpose. We must get back into that league table because that is where we should be. We must be able to stand shoulder to shoulder with any of our partners in Europe and attract international students, for a number of reasons. Obviously, it is a big boost to the economy to have a student come to this country. It is ludicrous that seven students from different countries have not been allowed to come to this country. The only way they can do so is through Northern Ireland, which is ridiculous. We have the capacity and we should have the proper tool which would attract students. We had it before and must go back to it and ensure that students come to this country. We must have courses that are internationally recognised for students when they return to their own countries. They will be able to talk about the wonderful education they received, the wonderful system they experienced and the nice place they were in, Ireland of the thousand welcomes.
Most important, however, is the standard of education. We have to be able to convince the OECD we are fighting back. Some 8% of school goers are in trouble and this starts in primary school. We can blame the big classes and many other elements but there are many inadequacies in the system. Everybody must be protected but I do not want to see colleagues refer to the different levels of posts. I do not want to see a big row about people maintaining their positions, the chief executive officers and the deputy CEOs. We have had too much of that in this country. There has been too much enhancement of CEOs and senior people who create little dynasties for themselves. We must think what we are about, namely, educating our people and being internationally recognised, not having little empires and kingdoms built. People want different grades and then want to have the same grade when they go elsewhere. We have too much of that and it has gone on for far too long. It has left us nowhere and only brings bitterness, with people not pulling together or working together as they should and for the sake of the country.
I wish the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Howlin, well in his endeavours. It is time this was dealt with properly. I do not say we must not recognise people’s rights and levels because we must do so but heads must be banged together. We need to have a system that is fit for purpose and for what it is designed to do, that does what it says on the tin and is internationally recognised.
We need to move on this and I wish the Minister for Education and Skills well. He needs to do a root and branch review of education standards in all schools. I may be straying a little from the mark but I refer to the attack on DEIS schools, especially small rural schools. The best people, the best business people, and the best internationally recognised people have come from small local schools. Everybody in the Chamber knows that as well as I do. It is not because they are in the metropolis or a big town that everything is good. The best products and the most driven achievers have come from small schools. The present attack on these schools must be withdrawn. It is not right, fair or proper. It is the weakest section because it does not have the clout but it must be protected. Those schools have served the country well for generations and decades and will serve it well for generations and decades to come. They allow weaker 11 year olds or people with lesser abilities to compete fairly and go on to second and third level and achieve, or to go into business after second level, or whatever. They cannot be mushroomed and attacked as is happening to them.
Deputy Regina Doherty: I welcome this legislation which will amalgamate the existing national qualifications and quality assurance bodies for students into one new agency. The Irish education system has served us well in the past, helping to recalibrate Ireland’s international reputation and promote the country’s talent, something of which we are very proud.
The functions of the new agency will be to consolidate the existing functions of the National Qualifications Authority of Ireland, NQAI, the Higher Education and Training Awards Council, HETAC, the Further Education and Training Awards Council, FETAC, and the Irish Universities Qualities Board, IUQB. The four bodies are agreed that this move strengthens a focus on high-quality learning experiences across all education and training provision nationally. The strength of current quality assurance systems will grow, opening up new opportunities for people to engage and succeed in learning.
We will soon have a new acronym, QQAI, standing for the qualifications and quality assurance authority of Ireland, which will be responsible for a wide range of functions, providing a more integrated, efficient and coherent range of services to students across the further and higher education and training sectors, to the highest international standards. The new authority will bring with it the power to decide the standards of learning which must be met by the student before an award is given. In addition, the authority will have the power to review programmes it has already validated and to withdraw that validation if it deems there are reasonable grounds for so doing.
Such quality assurance provisions will mean that the QQAI will be responsible for building on Ireland’s reputation for quality in education and training and it will be strongly positioned to highlight and promote best practice throughout the educational and training systems. The national framework of qualifications, NFQ, will be further developed by QQAI which will, in time, lead to greater opportunities for students. The currency of all awards on the framework remains guaranteed, building on the many achievements of the individual agencies and untied by the framework of qualifications. The amalgamation will support and promote a culture of quality in Irish higher education. It will independently evaluate the effectiveness of quality processes in Irish universities to deliver a better and more cost effective service. It has been estimated by the Department that the amalgamation will save the Exchequer in the region of €1 million per annum, which must be welcomed.
A significant element of this Bill is that it provides for a code of practice for the provision of educational services to international students. Based on their compliance with this code of practice, education and training providers will be able to apply for an international education mark-based system. One concern that might have existed about the proposed legislative framework was that by mixing the quality assurance process of the university sector with the quality and standards of other educational bodies, the autonomy of the university system and its particular ethos and mission might be compromised. However, there is special provision throughout for what are described as “previously established universities”. These universities will continue to operate their own quality assurance processes subject, however, to obligations of consultation with the new authority and for providing it with information, as highlighted in section 28 of the Bill. The provisions of the Bill ensure that the needs of students will be prioritised, including those who have chosen to travel from abroad to study in Ireland.
Of course, it will be important to ascertain how the QQAI will work in practice. A very promising aspect is that its new chief executive will be Dr. Padraig Walsh, formerly of DCU and most recently the chief executive of the IUQB. His influence on the culture of this new body will ensure that it operates in a way that respects university autonomy and encourages a positive approach to quality assurance and enhancement.
As we continue on the road to economic recovery it is important for us to continue to promote the right skills needed for the 21st-century knowledge economy. We must be mindful that the system which brought us the graduates of the past and today will itself be brought up to a world class standard so that we are ready to meet the challenges of the future. This Bill is just another step forward in that process.
Deputy Tom Hayes: I appreciate the opportunity to speak on this Bill which concerns the establishment of the qualifications and quality assurance authority of Ireland. The new authority will assume the responsibilities of the National Qualifications Authority of Ireland, the Higher Education and Training Awards Council and the Further and Training Awards Council, all of which will be dissolved under this Bill. In other words, this is one of the first times this Government has taken real action to eliminate quangos. A year, two years or three years ago, people read about the cost of quangos and the duplication of their work in various areas. The introduction of this legislation is a solid performance as part of the effort to tackle that programme. Most importantly, the members of the new authority to be appointed in line with this Bill under the direction of the Minister will not be paid any allowance or remuneration other than travel and subsistence expenses. I commend the Minister, Deputy Quinn, on ensuring that will be the case. It is a good sign that the Government is facing up to doing what it said it wanted to do before last year’s general election. This legislation will give the Minister an opportunity to appoint top-class people to the new authority, which is essential.
I commend this Bill. When I saw that it had been published, I decided I would speak on it in this House and express my full support for it. The amalgamation of these bodies is a key part of the Government’s overall public sector reform agenda. It will result in significant cost savings to the State. It is important to acknowledge that in recent years, the three existing bodies have been extremely successful in reducing their costs. I note that their current allocation in 2011 amounted to almost €9 million, which represented a saving of approximately 30% on the 2008 allocation under a different regime. Further savings of approximately €1 million will be achieved through rationalisation, corporate structures and support through integrated services. This is what we are all about. The shortage of money is one of the real issues facing this country. The need to manage the public service in a different way is the biggest issue facing the Departments of Health, Education and Skills, Agriculture, Food and the Marine and every other Department. A certain amount of money is available to run the public service. In my opinion, this is one of the best possible ways of getting value for that money.
Cost savings should not be our only goal, however, particularly in an area like education. This amalgamation will result in a more efficient system of qualification and quality assurance in further and higher education and training. Ireland badly needs to enhance its reputation in this field, particularly given its low ranking in many international university tables. This amalgamation will bring about a more coherent approach to higher education and training in the future. Ireland, like other EU member states, has adopted a lifelong learning approach to education and training. A key feature of this comprehensive approach is the seamless transfer and progression of all learners with accreditation through the National Framework of Qualifications. The amalgamation of the two VECs in County Tipperary will affect my own constituency of Tipperary South. I was amazed by the reaction of people to that announcement. Nobody other than politicians and people on the boards approached me to question the decision. I believe the amalgamation of the VECs, like the amalgamation of the county councils, will prove worthwhile and will lead to many cost savings. As long as good leadership is shown in the council and in the VEC, the amalgamations will lead to increased efficiencies.
I cannot allow Deputy Mattie McGrath’s comment about the “attack” on rural schools to go unanswered. Despite all the talk, no schools in the constituency both of us represent have had to close. Clogheen national school and Newtown Upper national school, which is near Carrick-on-Suir, were given a reprieve. When they appealed the decisions that had been made, they did not lose any teachers. This issue relates to just one school in south Tipperary — Burncourt national school — and is being worked on. I believe it is nonsense that people are frightening others by suggesting that schools in rural Ireland will have to close under this Government. Nobody ever proposed that any schools would have to close. There may be a place for amalgamations and board of management changes, and what is wrong with that? We should be considering such measures. If anybody else suggests this Government is attacking rural schools, he or she should be taken to task.
Deputy Robert Dowds: I strongly welcome this Bill for a number of reasons. It makes absolute sense that the services being provided by the Higher Education and Training Awards Council, the Further and Training Awards Council, the National Qualifications Authority of Ireland and the Irish Universities Quality Board are to be combined and streamlined. The two previous speakers have mentioned that this measure will save money and help to remove a little of the excessive bureaucracy that exists in this country. That aspect of this legislation must be welcomed. It makes eminent sense that we should have a National Framework of Qualifications, particularly one that is internationally recognised. The more we move towards bringing qualifications in Ireland on a par with qualifications in other European countries like France, Britain or Germany, the better. Given that the people of this country are primarily English-speaking — ach amháin sna háiteanna ina gcónaíonn daoine mar an tAire Stáit atá i láthair — Ireland is in a particularly strong position to benefit from this development. We can build on the advantage we have by further developing our standing in the area of the teaching of English. By moving towards internationally recognisable qualifications, we will help to encourage more foreign students to come here to learn English. Given that English is in such demand as an international language, I hope our efforts in this regard can contribute in some way towards tackling the jobs crisis and putting Ireland more prominently on the map.
I would like to make an appeal to the Minister. I have a great deal of indirect experience of seeing people having to operate the FETAC system. It was an excellent system, in many respects, in the sense that it was independent and it insisted on decent standards. The operation of the system was extremely difficult for those who were providing courses, however. Many people submitted course proposals only for them to be returned with pretty unhelpful comments, for example about not enough detail or too much detail being included in them. I am aware of cases in which people had to submit their proposals on four or five occasions before they were given validation. I appeal to the Minister to ensure the new system is much friendlier towards users, given that bureaucracy is meant to serve the user and not the other way around. There has been a serious problem in that respect. I am aware of a person who took early retirement recently for the sole reason that he could no longer cope with having to get validation from FETAC. When I was teaching, the bureaucracy was so horrendous that I studiously avoided FETAC on all occasions with one exception. It was very bad in the early days, when it was insisted that everybody should do everything online even though the system was not working properly. On one occasion, a situation arose where tutors were brought to a venue in, I believe, Tullamore but the person showing them how to use the system could not get it up and running, which demonstrated to them the problems for the ordinary people trying to operate the system. While that has improved, at the same time, there has been a huge problem of people having their suggestions returned. The area in which I have known people to work this best is in regard to literacy. In some areas, it should be possible to provide the basic core of courses rather than people having to invent the wheel over and over again. It is important that it be possible to adapt courses according to the needs of individual students. However, in many areas it should be possible to provide core courses.
I regret that the Minister for Education and Skills has left the Chamber. It is very important that bureaucracy works for those whom it is meant to serve rather than just being a hindrance to them. I appeal strongly that it is ensured that whatever new system emerges works effectively and, if it is seen not to work effectively, that it be tweaked until it does. In spite of this appeal, I welcome the Bill as a very positive step towards integration of further and higher education which should make lifelong learning easier and should help to enable Ireland to become even more of an international provider of many areas of education, particularly English as a foreign language.
Deputy Stephen S. Donnelly: The Bill deals with the formation of the new body, the qualification and quality assurance authority of Ireland. I broadly welcome the initiative, which seems a useful tidying up and consolidation exercise.
Part of the new authority’s remit is to manage the national framework qualifications. This is important work domestically and internationally in terms of our educational system. The second remit of the authority, on which I would like to focus, is to oversee the quality assurance procedures of our universities, and how it oversees, implements, watches and approves those procedures will be very important. I would also like to focus on what else will have to happen as well as those quality assurance procedures in order to reverse the crisis in which our universities find themselves. It is fair to say the universities in Ireland today are in a very serious crisis. The Times higher education rankings for this year show that both UCD and Trinity College, Dublin fell out of the top 100 in the world, UCC and NUI Galway fell out of the top 300 and DCU and DIT fell out of the top 400.
I was speaking about the quality of graduates with the head of human resources for a US multinational which has multiple sites around the country. He told me that, ten years ago, Irish graduates around Europe and the US were seen as premium graduates who were actively sought after. However, he said that, year on year over the past decade, the Government, the universities and the Department of Education and Skills have essentially been failing our graduates because the quality of those graduates has been getting lower and lower, at least as it has been perceived by the people who have had to hire them in those ten years. He said that Irish graduates are in no way seen as premium graduates around Europe or in the US or other parts of the world; instead, they are viewed as absolutely average. This is a huge problem.
He further said that the quality of graduates he needs is becoming so low that “they are becoming unemployable” for what his multinational needs. That is very serious. We can debate whether it is true but that does not really matter. For the graduates, what matters is that the employers are saying that and are telling Members of Dáil Éireann this is how serious the crisis is. He said that at master’s and PhD level they do not even try to hire in Ireland any longer. There are positions in Ireland but, to fill them, they do not even advertise in Ireland any longer and only go abroad. He said that the quality of our postgraduates — our master’s and PhD students — has become so low compared to Europe and the US that they simply do not bother hiring here any longer.
We have to become very aware of the scale of the crisis we are facing and of the role this new authority can, I hope, play. Why is this happening? It is happening partly because the leaving certificate students the universities are getting are also falling in quality. The PISA report some 18 months ago showed that our secondary schools have had the greatest fall in educational standards in the developed world both in relative and absolute terms. It is not just that others are getting better quicker than we are. In a decade when we doubled the per capita investment in education, we had the single biggest fall in educational standards in the developed world. The universities are getting secondary school graduates who simply are not as well educated as they were five or ten years ago, and this is a big problem for them.
The second problem is what is going on in the universities themselves. There are three issues on which I would like to focus, the first of which is money. World class education costs money. Budget 2012 has a 6% cumulative drop in funding to universities between this year and 2015. If we factor in 2% inflation per year in each of those years, that is an extra 8%, so we get to a real cut in funding for our universities in the next four years of 14%. It gets much worse. At the same time, student numbers in the universities are projected to increase by 18%, so they are being asked to educate a lot more students with a lot less money. The per student funding will drop between now and 2015 by just under 30%.
Things are getting bad very quickly. If we are to take an extra 30% per student away from our universities, they will continue to get much, much worse. This is extraordinarily serious. Of course, this means class sizes increase, research posts disappear and teaching supports evaporate. What happens? Our universities do less and less well, international academic staff and international students are not interested in coming here any longer, we do not get the prestige, expertise and money from international students, the money dries up further and it becomes a vicious circle. We are in a very serious situation.
The second reason I put to the Minister is that the Government is refusing to set a bold, ambitious target for our universities. I raised the issue of falling standards with the Minister of State, Deputy Cannon, in October. He came back with a bunch of statistics which suggested that if we think about it another way, we are doing just fine. That is very worrying. He would not accept the scale of the crisis whatsoever. When I asked what ideas the Government was possibly taking from the likes of Oxford, Cambridge and the Ivy League universities in the US, the Minister of State, Deputy Cannon, said he considered those universities to be “incredibly elitist”. Therefore, not only are we not aspiring to have some of the best universities in the world, in Dáil Éireann one of the Ministers of State with responsibility for education is actively turning up his nose at the best universities in the world. Again, this is deeply worrying.
The third reason is that the universities here are not implementing management practices which we know some of the best universities in the world use at student level, graduate level and at the level of academic and professional staff. I believe this is because both academic and non-academic management within the universities have huge constraints in terms of what they are actually allowed do.
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