Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Thursday, 26 February 2015
Committee on Education and Social Protection: Select Sub-Committee on Education and Skills
Education (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2014: Committee Stage
I must apologise. Unfortunately, owing to a family problem, the Chairman is unable to attend.
In accordance with standard procedure agreed to by the Committee on Procedure and Privileges for paperless committees, all documentation for the meeting has been circulated to members on the documents database.
The meeting has been convened for the purpose of consideration by the select sub-committee of the Education (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2014 which was referred to the select sub-committee by order of the Dáil on 11 February. I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Education and Skills, Deputy Damien English, and his officials. My intention is for the committee to conclude its consideration of Committee Stage during this meeting. Is that agreed? Agreed.
I refer members to the grouping of amendments for the purposes of debate. Amendments Nos. 1 to 4, inclusive, and Nos. 5 and 6 will be grouped. All amendments that have not been grouped will be discussed individually. Is that agreed? Agreed.
I move amendment No. 1:
In page 4, line 20, to delete "granting the university authorisation" and substitute "subject to subsection (6), granting the university authorisation".
As Deputies will be aware, the purpose of sections 2 to 5, inclusive, is to provide for the authorisation by the Minister of the use of the description of "university" by a high quality education provider for specified purposes outside the State only. The use of the description is restricted in its geographical application and the purpose for which it can be used. Use of the description is restricted to outside the State and for the following purposes: to market programmes of education and training provided by the authorised provider or research services of the authorised provider; and to enter into an arrangement with any person outside the State for the purpose of participating in a collaborative project relating to the provision of programmes of education, training or research services.
Section 3 provides for the review of the authorisation for use of the description by the Higher Education Authority, HEA, while section 4 provides for the withdrawal of the authorisation by the Minister on the grounds that it is not being used for its specified purposes or that the provider no longer fulfils the qualifying criteria for the application. Section 5 provides for an appeals board to hear appeals relating to the Minister's decision to refuse a grant of authorisation or to withdraw an authorisation.
Following on from the discussion in the Seanad, amendments Nos. 1 to 4, inclusive, are being introduced to allow the Minister, when granting a university authorisation, to impose such additional conditions on the provider concerned as the Minister believes appropriate. The provider will be required to comply with these conditions, although amendment No. 3 provides that the provider can appeal against the imposition of these conditions to the appeals board provided for under section 5. Amendment No. 4 provides that a review carried out by an tÚdarás under section 3 of the Bill will include a review of the provider's compliance with any condition imposed by the Minister and provides that the Minister can direct a provider to comply with the conditions imposed by him or her. Therefore, the amendments will allow the Minister to put in place additional safeguards to ensure any provider that receives university authorisation is operating to the highest standards. We are honouring the commitment we gave during the debate in the Seanad to do this.
We tabled our amendments before we saw the Government's amendments; therefore, we will not oppose section 3, 4 or 5. We will study the Government's amendments, but I give notice that we may table amendments to sections 2 to 5, inclusive, on Report Stage.
I move amendment No. 2:
In page 4, between lines 24 and 25, to insert the following:"(6) The Minister may, at the time of granting a university authorisation to an education provider, by notice in writing to that provider, impose such conditions (if any) as he or she considers appropriate in relation to the use by that provider of that university authorisation.
(7) An education provider shall comply with conditions imposed under subsection (6).".
I move amendment No. 3:
In page 4, to delete lines 37 to 39 and substitute the following:"(8) An education provider may appeal against--(a) the imposition of one or more conditions imposed under subsection (6), orwithin 30 days of the service of the notice under subsection (6) or subsection (7) as the case may be.".
(b) a refusal to grant university authorisation to the provider under subsection (5)(b),
I move amendment No. 4:
In page 5, to delete lines 23 to 37 and substitute the following:"(3) An tÚdarás may at any time review an authorised provider to ensure that the provider is--(a) not describing itself, or causing itself to be described, as a university in the State or for a purpose other than a specified purpose, and(4) Where, upon consideration of information received under subsection (2) or following a review under subsection (3), an tÚdarás considers that an authorised provider is--
(b) complying with any conditions imposed under section 2(6).(a) describing itself, or causing itself to be described, as a university in the State or for a purpose other than a specified purpose, orit shall inform the Minister by notice in writing of its opinion and the reasons for its opinion.
(b) not complying with a condition imposed under section 2(6),
(5) Where in relation to an authorised provider--(a) the Minister receives a notice from an tÚdarás under subsection (4), orthe Minister may give a direction in writing to the provider concerned to cease such use or to comply with such condition as the case may be.".
(b) it otherwise comes to the notice of the Minister that the provider is, or may be--(i) describing itself, or causing itself to be described, as a university in the State or for a purpose other than a specified purpose, or
(ii) failing to comply with a condition imposed under section 2(6),
I move amendment No. 5:
In page 9, between lines 16 and 17, to insert the following:"8. The Minister shall report to the Houses of the Oireachtas on an annual basis on the use and extent of voluntary contributions by schools with a view to phasing them out.".
This matter has nothing to do with the Bill, but that it is a miscellaneous provisions Bill has given us the opportunity to table an amendment on the issue. We drafted legislation on voluntary contributions. Due to the rule on incurring costs to the Exchequer, we were, unfortunately, unable to publish it. We have taken this opportunity to try to get the issue on the agenda.
I am sure that the Minister of State is well aware that the issue of voluntary contributions is financially off-putting for many parents. They find it difficult to match voluntary contributions. By their nature, the contributions are meant to be voluntary, but the reality is that the impression given by schools is that there is an onus on parents to pay them. There are no accounting procedures for schools that take voluntary contributions. Some schools in my constituency have 500 pupils, all of whose parents pay in excess of €100, but no one knows whether the money is being used to pay bills, buy equipment or so on. My amendments are meant to give some structure to the situation. I know that the Minister of State will not accept them, but the Government must examine the issue. If schools are taking voluntary contributions, it is important that the parents paying them have some idea what the money is being used for.
I agree with the Deputy in that schools need to be accountable to parents and we need greater levels of communication, engagement and transparency in how schools serve their communities. I understand what the Deputy is trying to achieve with his amendments, but we have concerns about how they would operate administratively as drafted. With 4,000 schools in the system, a centralised analysis of the accounts of each school could become a large administrative burden for everyone involved.
While I do not propose to accept amendments Nos. 5 and 6, I assure the Deputies that information for parents, including on the collection and use of voluntary contributions, is an issue that the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, will examine in the context of the Department's work on developing plans for a parents and students charter. The way the amendments are worded means that they would not be workable. The aim in developing the charter is to strengthen the position of parents generally within our school system. The charter is the appropriate place for such issues to be addressed rather than seeking to amend the Education Acts through this Bill.
In addition, the Deputies may be aware that the Government gave approval last March to the drafting of the education (admission to school) Bill. The Bill is at an advanced stage of drafting and will be before the House shortly. The aim in introducing proposals on school admissions is to improve admission policies and to ensure that the way schools decide on applications is structured, fair and transparent. It is a concern that fees might be a factor in this regard. The proposed legislation would prohibit the charging of any fee or contribution as part of a school's admissions process, which should go some way towards alleviating the Deputy's concerns. Other issues will be dealt with in the charter.
I appreciate that this Bill is not the place to do that, but it is an opportunity for us to put the matter on the agenda again. When drafting legislation to give some structure to the situation, having it ruled out of order because it would be a cost to the Exchequer is frustrating. By their nature, voluntary contributions are essential for many schools if they are to keep operating, given the cuts in capitation grants and elsewhere. Many schools are struggling to meet their targets and balance the books. However, there is significant pressure on parents to try to match those voluntary contributions. In some schools I know, one has no access to a locker if a voluntary contribution is not paid. I am sure this is replicated in many other schools outside my constituency. While the contributions may be voluntary in theory, in practice many schools give the impression that they must be paid if a student is to receive the same level of service that others receive. It is frustrating that we do not know how much schools are taking in in voluntary contributions or how that money is being spent. There is no record-keeping in that regard. I am sure that the money is somewhere in the overall financial records, but if parents are being asked to pay voluntary contributions towards the running of a school, safeguards need to be put in place in order that they can be assured that their contributions are being used for what they were intended.
The Minister has spoken on this matter a few times and is aware of it. She has also discussed it with the Deputy. She wants to work on it and to bring more communication, engagement and transparency to it in order that everyone is treated fairly. There will be opportunities to deal with this important issue in the charter and the upcoming Bill, and the Minister wants to stress that she is prepared to work with the Deputy on it.
Regarding the overall issue of funding for schools, most people will understand that budgets across the board have come through difficult times. As people return to work and more taxes are collected, I hope that we will have an opportunity to address the budgetary concerns in education. Given the demographics, just standing still has been a major task. This alone was an achievement in light of the mess the public finances were in. Those finances are improving bit by bit, giving us an opportunity to address these issues. The pressures on parents at all levels of education is well recognised by the Minister and me. We will try to address those as the country recovers.
I move amendment No. 7:
In page 9, between lines 19 and 20, to insert the following:"9. The Student Support Act 2011 is amended, in section 16(3), by the substitution of the following paragraph for paragraph (d)--"(d) whether he or she has been or is self-supporting having regard to information provided by bodies including but not limited to GPs, student support organisations, student unions, welfare officers, non-HSE employed social workers or non-HSE employed family support workers, LGBT advocacy workers, and youth advocacy workers, as well as information provided by other government departments and statutory bodies that demonstrates evidence of self-support, or affidavits provided by the student;".".
I will probably not withdraw this amendment because I feel strongly about the matter. It relates to the evidence of estrangement needed to access Student Universal Support Ireland, SUSI, grants. SUSI has done a great deal of work since its first year when it took over the processing of grants. To be honest, that was a disaster. Our committee discussed the Accenture report yesterday. Many improvements have been made, but estrangement is probably the most common issue in respect of which people visit our offices. It is difficult for students to prove that they are estranged from their parents. The level of documentation required by SUSI goes above and beyond what many students are able to provide adequately. We know of cases in which students who have proof from the Department of Social Protection that they are in receipt of payments at addresses that are not their parents' are still being asked for further information. It seems that there is only a limited number of documents that SUSI will accept. The amendment tries to expand the options available to students to prove that they are estranged by including information that is provided by advocacy workers, student unions, general practitioners and welfare officers.
I appreciate the concerns informing the Deputy's amendment. We have discussed this issue in the Dáil a couple of times during Question Time and so on. The amendment relates mainly to cases in which students may need to be assessed independently of their parents' income. The Minister has spoken on this issue once or twice and I have taken a debate on it on her behalf. She has stated that she is taking a strong interest in examining this matter.
The Deputy stated that he has encountered quite a number of genuine cases of estrangement, but they are relatively rare. Although they have a significant impact on individual students, each student has unique circumstances. In that context and having carefully considered the amendment, I do not propose to accept it for a number of reasons.
Subsections 16(3)(a) to (g), inclusive, of the Student Support Act 2011 provide for the Minister to specify a class of applicant or criterion that may be considered in determining whether an applicant is a student of a particular class. For example, the student grant scheme under SI 201 of 2014 provides in Article 21(3) for a dependent student to be exempted from having parents' income taken into account where it is established to the satisfaction of the relevant awarding authority that he or she is irreconcilably estranged from both parents and neither parent furnishes financial support to him or her.
I accept that the Deputy is concerned about satisfying the grant awarding authority in terms of the documents needed, but we do not need amending legislation to address that issue. It can be addressed by the Minister, who has said previously that she will look at it to see if further clarification is needed. We do not need to do it by way of the amendment proposed.
This provision allows the awarding authority to assess dependent students in genuine estrangement cases without reference to income or the address of their parents or guardians. The provisions, as they stand, in the Student Support Act 2011 are sufficient to allow latitude in specifying additional classes of applicant and the criteria to be applied for such applicants, having regard to the resources available and subject to the consent of the Minister for Finance.
The Minister for Education and Skills has said previously that she will look at this issue again and will work with the Deputy on it, but she does not believe an amendment is needed. In effect, the proposed amendment would replicate a provision in section 16(3) of the Student Support Act 2011. The option is already provided for in legislation. It is up to the Deputy to decide what to do with his amendment, but we can address the issue without it.
I disagree with the Minister of State. With all due respect, while the Minister may have discretion to specify the criteria to be applied, she has failed to do so to date. The criteria are very strict. I do not accept the Minister of State's view that the amendment is unnecessary. It would specify the criteria and list the groups or bodies which could provide independent verification of estrangement. We consider the Minister has no intention of listing such bodies or expanding the criteria. SUSI looks for evidence from a social worker employed by the HSE, but many students will not have access to a social worker and have no need for such. If we have a situation where evidence from the Department of Social Protection does not satisfy SUSI on the issue of estrangement, we have a problem. The Minister has failed to address this issue, which is why I will press the amendment.
I understand what the Deputy is saying and know that his concerns are genuine. The view of the Department, however, is that there is enough scope in the legislation, as it stands, to deal with the issue. The Minister has the authority to work on it and already indicated in the Dáil that she is prepared to do so.
With respect, she has only been in office for a couple of months. There is no problem in that regard. Our main concern with the amendment is that it is very broad. We are dealing with taxpayers' money and must make sure it is spent correctly on those who genuinely need it. Our concern with the amendment is that might have unintended consequences. It could lead to situations where students not in the position described would be awarded a grant. That is our main concern.
I cannot commit to bringing forward an amendment to the Bill, but I can commit to the Minister explaining to the Deputy what she intends to do. She has given a commitment that she will deal with this issue. She is prepared to look at it and work with Deputy on it. I suggest the Deputy wait until Report Stage to press the amendment and have further discussions with the Department in the meantime. I cannot give a commitment that an amendment will be brought forward on Report Stage because we do not think one is needed. There is enough scope within the legislation, as it stands, to address the Deputy's concerns. While I cannot commit to bringing forward an amendment, I can commit to engaging in further discussions.
Before we finish, we will be proofing the Bill, as amended, and the necessary amendments will be introduced on Report Stage. As I said in regard to the Deputy's amendment, we do not believe that primary legislation is required but there is an opportunity to review the regulations.