Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Tuesday, 18 June 2019
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Education and Skills
Qualifications and Quality Assurance (Education and Training) (Amendment) Bill 2018: Discussion
We now turn to engagement with stakeholders on the policy implications of the Qualifications and Quality Assurance (Education and Training) (Amendment) Bill 2018. We originally intended to undertake stakeholder engagement on this Bill in November 2018 and sought written submissions at that point. However, as formal consideration was then commenced by Seanad Éireann it was not possible to do it at that point. We therefore agreed to write back to those who had made written submissions asking for updated submissions. I thank our witnesses for those submissions.
Quality and Qualifications Ireland, QQI, is very important. It provides services to 582 providers including 441 further education and training providers, 52 higher education and training groups and 89 English language training providers. I do not underestimate the importance of the work we have to do. On behalf of the committee I welcome the witnesses. They are: Dr. Jim Murray, director of academic affairs and deputy CEO of the Technological Higher Education Association, THEA; Mr. Lewis Purser, director of learning at the Irish Universities Association, IUA; Dr. Attracta Halpin, registrar of the National University of Ireland; Ms Tara Farrell, chairperson of AONTAS; Mr. Chris Anako, manager of Study and Protect; Mr. David Russell, chairman of the Progressive College Network; Ms Colette Godkin, secretary of Unite the Union; Mr. John Connaughton, training services manager for Bord Iascaigh Mhara, BIM; Dr. Bryan Maguire from QQI; Mr. William Beausang, head of higher and further education and training policy at the Department of Education and Skills; and Mr. Patrick King, who is the mediator to the English language sector with the Department of Education and Skills. They are all very welcome.
The format of this part of the meeting will be as follows. I will invite witnesses to make a brief opening statement lasting a maximum of three minutes. I ask the witnesses to respect that limit because nine groups are represented here. This will be followed by engagement with the members of the committee. Members should bear in mind that to facilitate the progress of this legislation Committee Stage debates will take place a fortnight from today.
I draw the attention of witnesses to the fact that by virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the committee. However, if they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and they continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and they are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.
Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the House or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.
I also advise the witnesses that any opening statements they have submitted to the committee will be published on the committee website after this meeting.
Dr. Jim Murray:
On behalf of the Technological Higher Education Association and its members I would like to thank the Chair and committee members for the invitation to this meeting to discuss the Qualifications and Quality Assurance (Education and Training) (Amendment) Bill 2018. As indicated in its submissions of 5 October 2018 and 31 May 2019, THEA is supportive of the broad thrust of the legislation in two key respects. First, it holds out the prospect of strengthening the national quality assurance and qualifications systems in education and training by addressing a number of issues that have been identified as impeding QQI in fulfilling its intended statutory role. This is important to guaranteeing a quality experience for all learners across further education and training and higher education and training; clarifying and strengthening aspects of the operation of the National Framework of Qualifications; and ensuring that Ireland’s reputation as a favoured destination for international students is protected and enhanced.
Second, the Bill provides for the granting of award-making powers, excepting doctoral awards, to all of the institutes of technology.
In so doing, together with the recently enacted legislation on the establishment of technological universities, it will put all of the institutes on a more equal footing with the designated awarding bodies and create a more coherent quality assurance and qualifications space among all public higher education institutions.
On the strengthening of the national quality assurance and qualifications systems, they are largely provided for in section 23 of the Bill which amends section 55 of the principal Act by the insertion of nine new sections, sections 55A to 55I, inclusive. The new sections represent the most complex changes to the principal Act and set out the processes whereby awards acquire the status of being included in the national framework of qualifications, NFQ. Since THEA’s initial submission to the joint committee last October, a number of changes have been made to the nine new sections, one effect of which is that the public higher education institutions, whether they are designated as awarding bodies or providers to which QQI has awarded delegated authority, will not now undergo the same process for the inclusion of their awards as the new category of awarding bodies provided for in the Bill, the so-called listed awarding bodies. THEA welcomes this change, as it recognises and acknowledges the fact that the awards of the public higher education providers have been in the national framework of qualifications since its establishment in 2003-04. THEA also notes that the Bill provides for a new, formal procedure whereby designated awarding bodies will make more transparent how they determine the levels at which their awards are included in the national framework of qualifications and how this information is communicated to and ratified by QQI, the custodian of the framework. In principle, THEA does not object to the introduction of this transparency mechanism, but it argues that it should be integrated as far as possible into the existing quality assurance infrastructure overseen by QQI and that it should not lead to the introduction of a new and onerous bureaucratic process. In that regard, THEA is committed to working with QQI and our fellow public providers in order that the new statutory provision will be given appropriate effect in the implementation phase.
Apart from the changes mentioned, THEA notes the introduction of a new section, section 37, which provides the authorisation for an education provider to use the description "university". As predicted in our submission of 31 May, the provision has attracted some debate, given that the context is drawn precisely and that, overall, the provision appears to have been conceived within a defined focus. THEA notes that any such authorisation will be underpinned by a review process which will use the criteria employed to evaluate a technological university ahead of designation. In general, this is a sensible approach, although it is not clear to the technological higher education sector why the critical initial criterion required to be met by institutes of technology that seek technological university designation, namely, merger, is absent in this instance.
THEA makes these points as general observations and wishes the committee well in its deliberations on what is complex legislation. We also thank it for its continuing support for the growth of the technological higher education sector.
Mr. Lewis Purser:
I thank the Chairman and members of the joint committee for inviting us to appear before it.
As per our previous correspondence, dated 4 June 2019, the Irish Universities Association welcomes the Bill insofar as it proposes to address issues that have impeded Quality and Qualifications Ireland, QQI, in fulfilling its intended role in the quality assurance of the further and higher education sectors. We particularly welcome the proposed provisions that will facilitate the introduction of the international education mark, the establishment of a learner protection fund and the establishment of procedures to prevent the provision or advertising of cheating services. These are all welcome in order to ensure the highest standards in Irish education and uphold our strong international reputation.
There are, however, a number of issues with the Bill which we have raised, section by section, in previous correspondence. For the purposes of this meeting, we will concentrate on the most serious of them which are contained in the amended section 55B(3) and (4) which will introduce additional and unwarranted layers of duplication and cost for QQI, the universities and other designated awarding bodies. The amendments mean that the universities and other designated awarding bodies will be required to notify QQI in writing of each of the awards made by them. QQI will then express its agreement or otherwise and notify the university in writing of each of the awards to be included within the national framework of qualifications. QQI will charge a fee to the university for including each of the awards within the framework. While on the surface the amendments appear to be eminently reasonable, to ensure there is a verifiable and reliable method for the placement of university awards in the national framework of qualifications, there is, in fact, already a process which ensures this and has operated successfully since the inception of the framework in 2003. It is managed through the statutory quality assurance process according to QQI’s statutory quality assurance guidelines and is explicitly referenced in QQI’s current and ongoing CINNTE external quality reviews of all universities and other designated awarding bodies through the European standards and guidelines for quality assurance in the European higher education area. The details of the explicit referencing can be found in the endnote to this opening statement, a copy of which members have before them. So far the QQI external quality reviews have not found any evidence of university awards not being correctly placed in the national framework of qualifications. Likewise, senior QQI staff, when explicitly asked by me and other representatives of designated awarding bodies, have not raised specific concerns about the current process for the inclusion of university awards within the national framework of qualifications. We have also agreed with QQI that, if such concerns were to be raised at some stage in the future, it would be a simple task to adjust the QQI terms of reference for the external quality review process and other more frequent QQI quality assurance processes to take any such possible future concern into account.
The universities and other designated awarding bodies pay an annual relationship fee to QQI to cover the cyclical external reviews of quality and other more regular services. In recent years the annual relationship fee has ranged between €450,000 and €616,000 for the designated awarding bodies alone. The fee covers all aspects related to the maintenance of the national framework of qualifications, including ongoing work to create a register of qualifications in the national framework of qualifications, on which the universities are actively working with QQI to ensure the register will be complete, up to date and fit for purpose. From the universities’ perspective, we have a system that has been designed and is overseen by QQI which functions well. No specific concerns have been raised, either by QQI or the external experts appointed by it to examine this issue as part of the reviews of universities. We also pay a substantial fee every year to cover the cost of the existing arrangements. What the Bill, as amended, is proposing is that an additional double layer of administration be added which will bring no added value to the current well functioning processes. It will, however, introduce an additional workload for both QQI and the universities which are all publicly funded bodies and for which QQI will charge an additional fee to the universities.
The introduction of this inefficient and additional cost is being proposed in the context of a looming crisis in third level funding. Members of the committee have publicly voiced their significant concerns about the underfunding of Irish universities. Immediate additional public investment is needed to ensure the quality of higher education to meet the demographic bulge - an additional 40,000 students, according to the Department of Education and Skills' latest figures - which the higher education system will be expected to absorb in the coming decade. We would prefer any such investment to be spent to address the needs of these future students, rather than pay for the introduction of inefficient and unnecessary processes which will bring no additional discernible benefits.
I note that tomorrow in Brussels the Irish ambassador to the European Union will host the launch of a significant report which looks at inefficiencies in European universities in recent years and in which the efforts of the Irish university system, universities and the HEA, together, are being highlighted as examples of best practice at EU level. What is surprising is that I am trying to convince the committee that in a system from which we have been stripping inefficiencies and unnecessary costs for the past ten years, we are planning to introduce an unnecessary, duplicate layer of quality validation, as proposed in section 55B(3) and (4), with the associated doubling of costs. We appeal to members to remove the associated doubling of costs and unnecessary inefficiencies that it is planned to introduce in the sector.
Dr. Attracta Halpin:
On behalf of the National University of Ireland, I thank the Chairman and members of the joint committee for the invitation to appear and speak at this meeting to the Qualifications and Quality Assurance (Education and Training) (Amendment) Bill 2018. The NUI is at the centre of a federation of four constituent universities, two recognised colleges and a number of other associated institutions.
We have followed the progress of the Bill with keen interest. We welcome the proposed legislation. We believe that it will contribute to the maintenance of high standards in the Irish higher education sector, particularly with regard to Ireland's international reputation.
NUI is pleased to note that the Institute of Public Administration, a recognised college of NUI, is now included in the list of bodies exempted from payment into the proposed learner protection fund. Its absence from the list in the initial Bill was a cause of concern for us and we made representations on it but a Government amendment on Report Stage in the Seanad rectified the omission.
NUI wholeheartedly supports the provision in the amended Bill for a pathway for higher education institutions to use the title of university. The title is significant and we appreciate why a careful approval process is necessary. Although section 37 is couched in general language, we understand that the immediate beneficiary will be the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland. RCSI has been a recognised college of NUI for over four decades and is a world leader in medical education and research, fully deserving of the description of university, which it can use internationally. We look forward to a continued close working relationship with the RCSI when it proceeds through the steps set out in the amended Bill. We hope that the swift passage of the legislation will allow this process to begin soon.
NUI would welcome clarification on how the international education mark will apply to NUI linked provider institutions, which are also under NUI's statute recognised colleges of the university. In compliance with relevant legislation, NUI approves and monitors the quality assurance systems of recognised colleges that are linked providers. We would like clarification on the following. Will these linked providers have to apply directly to Quality and Qualifications Ireland for the international education mark or will an application have to be made through NUI as the designated awarding body?
Finally, NUI shares the concerns expressed a moment ago by Mr. Lewis Purser from the Irish Universities Association on the amendments to section 23 of the amended Bill where it is proposed that designated awarding bodies, including NUI, its constituent universities and the RCSI will be required to obtain written agreement from QQI for an award to be placed on the National Framework of Qualifications. Given its federal structure, NUI appreciates the importance of maintaining the standard of awards through rigorous approval processes. However, we are fully confident that the arrangements and processes in place for the maintenance of academic standards and governance in its member institutions are very rigorous. We believe that the proposals will introduce unnecessary administrative burden, new layers of regulatory duplication and new costs that will be most unwelcome. We are grateful for the opportunity to express our view on these issues and wish the committee well in its deliberations.
Ms Tara Farrell:
I thank the Chair and the committee for the opportunity to speak here today.
Aontas is a non-governmental membership organisation that was established in 1969 and has more than 400 members from across the lifelong learning spectrum. Our mission is to advocate for the right of all adults in Ireland to access quality learning throughout their lives and promote the value and benefits of lifelong learning. The purpose of our written submission was to highlight what we see as the undesirable and harmful impacts of proposed legislative changes on community education providers.
In terms of context, community education is adult learning that takes place in local community settings across Ireland and is delivered by professionally run organisations. The Aontas community education network has 110 members in 24 counties. Community education has a phenomenal scope and does the following: addresses policy priorities; supports participation in accredited and non-accredited programmes; is socially inclusive; and supports the equality of access to education for under-represented groups, particularly disadvantaged women and women who are economically inactive.
Based on this contextual information, it is extremely difficult for Aontas and its membership to accept the ongoing funding and resource challenges that community education is placed under. These challenges are made worse by the proposals for a required payment into the learner protection fund for community education providers that is proposed in this Bill, which we fully discussed in our written submission. I refer to section 29 and specifically the amendment of section 65 of the principal Act. We are requesting that not-for-profit community education providers be added to the list of providers who are exempt from the learner protection fund. The current list includes many entities to which many of my esteemed colleagues belong. I refer to technological universities, SOLAS, Teagasc and the Royal College of Surgeons of Ireland to name but a few. It is a shocking oversight that community education providers have not been included in the list. Also the new charities governance code requires all charities to be compliant by 2020 so this could be a means of establishing criteria. Some colleges have already imposed a 2% levy on student fees that is called the learner protection charge so the burden will fall on students, which is not feasible for community education.
As a community education provider in Longford I can categorically state that additional fees will have a detrimental effect on the provision of community education to those who are furthest from the education system. Why should it be even more difficult for those learners to access education? The community education sector has suffered significant and disproportionate funding cuts in recent years. I work with Longford Women's Link, which provides over 15,000 hours of education provision annually, reaches learners who are most distant from the system and provides meaningful opportunities for them. Longford is the fourth most disadvantaged local authority area nationally. Both counties Longford and Wexford have the lowest percentage of persons with a third level qualification at 32.5% and 18% of the Longford population have no formal education or only primary education.
A critical issue for us is the fact that all providers of accredited learning are treated in the same way, despite major structural differences and despite the fact that the Act allows for flexibility, for example, the re-engagement fees under section 80.
In terms of re-engagement with QQI, there are six Aontas members, including ourselves and An Cosán, that have formed a community of practice and are setting the quality assurance or QA standards for our sector and we all re-engaged in 2009. However, the re-engagement fees involved will impact our provision. The total intake of fees for the six of us will be between €12,000 and €24,000. Therefore, a fee waiver would be a small investment in the scheme of things given the impact of continued provision of accredited learning in our communities. A sum of €5,000 would allow us to deliver a QQI Level 5 award to 20 women in a disadvantaged area in County Longford. The majority of our learners are women so the impact of additional financial burdens on providers will have serious implications for women and their families.
I ask joint committee members to engage with Aontas and its membership to understand that approval of these new learner protection fund fees and any additional fees will seriously impact the access that learners have to education across the country. We are wholeheartedly committed to learner protection and it is at the centre of our provision but our issue is with the exclusion of community education from the list.
In May, the joint committee published its report on education inequality and disadvantage. Conclusion 3 specifically mentions that funding is sparse for adult and community education and recommends that community education is supported to achieve parity of esteem, which is at odds with some of the proposals in the Bill.
I thank the members for their time and wish the committee well in its deliberations.
Mr. Chris Anako:
On behalf of Study and Protect I thank the members for their time and for the invite. We are the leading provider of learner protection insurance in Ireland. Our policy is underwritten by Hiscox, which is one of the largest insurance companies in the world and has a AA financial rating. To date, since we introduced our policy, we have insured 50,000 students and in excess of €100 million in course fees.
I wish to make three points on the submission that we have submitted but all concern the learner protection fund. First, I refer to the set-up. There is a bonding arrangement between the private colleges and the language schools that is underpinned by a sinking fund. This is the only means for colleges to provide learner protection insurance. They would be unable to source a solution from the private sector. Of course this scheme would be administered by QQI. While QQI is, without doubt, fully qualified to administer quality assurance we do not believe that it is capable of administering a sinking fund because that would require a full restructure of QQI. Experience and resources would be required such as underwriters, actuaries, loss assessors, etc. QQI would have to restructure and become a regulated insurer. We have done our homework on the Australian model and it provides extensive reinsurance.
Essentially, it is very expensive to put together, not to mention the administration costs associated with it.
Last year when a small English language school in Limerick closed, 150 students were affected. It cost us €250,000 to settle. We had the insurance policies in place to cover the matter. We consider our policy to be fit for purpose in that regard and did exactly what we said we would do. In addition, there is always negative media attention when it comes to school closures and in that case there was. However, the shining light was the clean-up, what we managed to do in getting the students into a new school within four days, something which had never been done previously.
The next aspect is the annual charge, which would be a lump sum. It is proposed that an annual charge be paid into the learner protection fund by all members. The feedback we are getting from our clients is that they do not know how much they would be expected to pay into the fund considering that they would not be allowed to source a private solution. They are quite happy with our policy as it is. On the timing and method of payment, the payment would be required at the beginning of the year. It would be an upfront lump sum payment. That would affect cash flow. The majority of businesses close owing to a lack of cash flow. Our policy is competitively priced. It remains the most competitive price in the higher education sector.
On the layout and how it would work, it is creating a system that incentivises fraud. That means I could set up a school today and pay the amount into the fund at the start of the year. I could then recruit all of the students and, knowing quite well what I was doing, mismanage the way we were working. We could essentially close the school.
I thank members for their time and look forward to their questions.
Mr. David Russell:
I thank the members of the Joint Committee on Education and Skills for the invitation to attend.
As a long-standing stakeholder in the EFL sector in Ireland and chairman of the Progressive College Network, PCN, I stand for the sector as a whole in Ireland and want what is best for both students and staff. The international education mark, IEM, must entail the implementation of rules and regulations that are objective and impartial. The Irish EFL sector expects the Bill to be fair and provide clear and transparent information on the IEM.
In the EFL sector in Ireland protection of enrolled learners is an integral part of quality assurance in 2019. Protecting students must be mandatory. Currently, in Ireland only those offering learner protection insurance can be said to comprehensively protect students. The exchange of letters option should be scrapped forthwith; it should never have been accepted in the first place. The sector has two major insurance providers that are offering learner protection, LP, insurance, with more set to follow. The proposed LP fund is essentially a veiled tax on the industry. Questionably and remarkably, it makes the taxpayer directly liable. The protection and welfare of students and staff are at the core of everything the PCN does. To that end, we negotiated with our insurer to secure an upgrade to our existing LP insurance which not only indemnifies students but also protects all teachers within PCN institutions. This means that in the case of school closures, not only would students be assured completion of their tuition but teachers would also be looked after. This is the first time in the private sector that staff have been indemnified in this manner. The Qualifications and Quality Assurance (Education and Training) (Amendment) Bill, legislation to follow, QQI and the Minister should not ask us to reduce the level of protection we offer to students and staff. Forcing PCN members to contribute to the proposed fund would do just that, as it would remove protection for teachers and reduce the protection offered to students.
From its inception, the PCN has been and will continue to endeavour to be a stabilising and driving force in improving working conditions within the EFL sector in Ireland. Job security and a pleasant working environment are key aspects of all PCN institutions. We have engaged fully with Mr. Patrick King who was appointed by the Minister of State with responsibility for higher education to look at improving employment conditions for teachers. We await publication of his findings but remain resolute in our endeavour to continually improve. I request to be included in any process or procedure that may follow from his findings.
The focus has to be on allowing Irish businesses to flourish and thrive. The ELT sector in Ireland is in a great position to reap the rewards of offering top quality English language tuition in our beautiful country. Ireland is in a prime location on the edge of Europe and, unlike our closest neighbours, within the European Union. It is time to bring the ELT sector in Ireland to the next level.
Ms Colette Godkin:
I thank the Chairman and members of the joint committee for giving me the opportunity to address them. I am the secretary of the English language teachers branch of Unite. I also work as an English language teacher and a teacher trainer in Dublin.
Unite's submission on the Qualifications and Quality Assurance (Education and Training) (Amendment) Bill raised a number of concerns about labour issues. English language teaching is generally precarious employment, with teachers being paid by the hour and for hours which vary from week to week. Within the sector there are vast disparities in pay levels. Most importantly, teachers are only paid for their time in the classroom, which means that time spent in preparing classes, dealing with paperwork and correcting students' work is unpaid. As a result, teachers sometimes earn less than the living wage. That said, teaching English can be an immensely rewarding profession where we have the opportunity to make a real difference to our students' work and study opportunities. Many of our students go on to study in the higher education sector in Ireland.
Many teachers would like English language teaching to be their lifelong career. Unfortunately, the English language teaching industry in Ireland has been characterised by employment abuses such as the overuse of fixed-term and low-hour contracts and, in some schools, a lack of contracts; no entitlement to sick pay; discrimination against teachers who are not native speakers of English; and the targeting and harassing of union members. Some union members have seen their hours cut and, in some cases, have been fired for having union membership. While, as we know, this is completely illegal, these teachers, as precarious workers, may fail to stand up for their rights when it can cost them their livelihood. That is why we welcome the quality assurance standards in the Qualifications and Quality Assurance (Education and Training) (Amendment) Bill and the amendments regarding the international education mark that will ensure any school that wishes to operate in Ireland will be obliged to abide by Irish employment law. However, the IEM needs to be underpinned by further supporting legislation to address the culture of disregard of the rights of workers which, sadly, pervades what could be a world-class industry.
Unite has been happy to engage with the mediator, Mr. Patrick King, and in the mediation process. We look forward to sitting down with the employers, with the aim of reaching a comprehensive agreement on matters such as stable hours, secure contracts, sick pay, pay scales, union recognition and other issues, including sudden school closures which have left teachers out of work and with unpaid wages. We seek a sectoral employment order, but we are prepared to explore in good faith whatever statutory instrument is best for our members and all teachers.
Through the Qualifications and Quality Assurance (Education and Training) (Amendment) Bill and potentially other legislation, teachers are requesting a strengthening of their rights as workers in order that they can continue to do the work they love in a stable and ethical industry which respects and allows them to make a living to keep a roof over their heads and provide for their families.
The committee is dealing with the policy implications of the Bill only. Employment law is incredibly important, but another committee will be looking at it. It is not strictly a matter for this committee, even though we are very conscious of its implications.
I now call Mr. John Connaughton, training services manager with BIM.
Mr. John Connaughton:
I thank the Chairman, Deputies and Senators. BIM welcomes the opportunity to meet the joint committee this afternoon to assure members that BIM is actively re-engaged with QQI on a new quality assurance system that will cater for the provision of seafood industry training. BIM's skills strategy for 2018 to 2020 will deliver a structured career path through the provision of lifelong, accredited learning to create a professional, educated talent pool for the sector. The investment in training, with support from the European Maritime Fisheries Fund, EMFF, will create an increasingly skilled and more professional workforce that creates value. BIM promotes best practice regarding safety and working conditions and protects the Irish seafood sector's reputation through training, to deliver high standards of seafood safety management. BIM provides targeted training, access and funding where needed to drive skills development at all levels in the sector. The agency provides business mentoring and leadership to the sector where needed to drive skills development at all levels in the sector. Skills training for the industry will equip fishers, fish farmers and seafood processors to take advantage of market opportunities and create value.
BIM has developed and delivered seafood industry training programmes for more than 40 years and is a QQI recognised provider, initially agreeing its quality assurance with FETAC in 2006. The training programmes are aimed specifically at those working in the seafood industry, with specialised training offered to the sea-fishing, aquaculture and seafood processing sectors. Training is available from ab initioQQI level 3 on the framework to higher diploma at QQI level 8. Modern facilities in the National Fisheries College of Ireland, in Greencastle and Castletownbere, are supported by mobile coastal training units around the coast. Work practice and supervised experience on training vessels, fish farms and fish factories are augmented through innovation in seafood business development at the BIM seafood innovation hub in Clonakilty, County Cork. All BIM training is monitored through the administrative hub and quality oversight function based in BIM headquarters in Dún Laoghaire.
I thank the members of the joint committee for updating us on the passage of the Qualifications and Quality Assurance (Education and Training) (Amendment) Bill currently before the Dáil. I also thank the Chair and members for inviting BIM to consider updating, amending or withdrawing its submission made in October 2018 based on the latest text of the Bill. Having examined the latest version of the Bill as passed by Seanad Éireann, there is no substantive reason we would alter our submission, which we restricted to three specific sections of the Bill. We are happy to leave it stand. We will not, therefore, be making an updated or amended submission. I thank members for their time.
Dr. Bryan Maguire:
I thank the Chair and members. When QQI was established in 2012, we launched a comprehensive policy development programme to implement all the functions laid out in the Qualifications and Quality Assurance (Education and Training) Act 2012. It became evident, however, that there were gaps in the Act which impeded QQI from fulfilling its intended role in relation to the quality assurance of the further and higher education sector and the English language sector. We engaged with the Department at an early date to discuss the changes necessary to make QQI fully operational. The amendments proposed in the 2018 Bill are intended to enable QQI to discharge all its functions and respond to newly emerging threats. Many of the amendments proposed were informed by consultation with QQI stakeholders.
Education and training in Ireland operate within an international environment. Students come from overseas for English language and higher education programmes; Irish graduates take their qualifications abroad; Irish providers seek to offer qualifications of overseas awarding bodies; and persons from outside the State own and operate schools in this country. Those are all good things. Unfortunately, it is also the case that international networks of crooks facilitate cheating in our institutions through Internet-based essay mills. This international context provides one of the common threads motivating these amendments. Like its peer agencies in other jurisdictions, with which we are in frequent contact, QQI needs additional powers to secure the quality of Irish education and the standards of qualifications.
Since its launch over 15 years ago, the national framework of qualifications has become recognised at home and abroad as signifying worthwhile qualifications offered by quality assured providers. Inclusion in the national framework gives reassurance to learners, funders and other regulators that an award can be trusted. This legislation gives QQI powers to extend that recognition to additional awarding bodies and their associated providers. It also strengthens QQI's hand to test the good intentions of private providers and awarding bodies, making sure that they are fit and proper persons with appropriate resources to carry out education and training, whether for Irish students or international students, and that they have demonstrated compliance with relevant laws, including those relating to the employment of staff. QQI welcomes the provisions that give legal clarity to the arrangements whereby any awarding body's qualifications, whether new or existing, are to be included in the framework.
Many providers of education and training are in the private sector. In the past, students have been left stranded when providers have suddenly gone out of business. In some cases, these closures may have been due to the actions of unscrupulous providers, but any business venture carries the risk of failure due to fluctuations in trading conditions. Even with closer scrutiny of the providers by QQI, as enabled by this Bill, private schools may fail in the future. The learner protection fund to be operated by QQI will ensure that it is the private sector educational industry as a whole, rather than the individual learners in the schools affected or the Exchequer, that bears the cost of any such failure.
We welcome this Bill and look forward to playing our part in implementing it when it is passed.
Mr. William Beausang:
Good afternoon. I am grateful to the Chair and the joint committee for the invitation to discuss the QQI Bill. As has been mentioned, the main purpose of the Bill is to further empower QQI as the regulator of the framework of qualifications and to strengthen the agency's role in ensuring high standards across Ireland's education system as a whole. It is important legislation for the Department and the Minister because it will enable QQI to realise the full potential of the 2012 Act and facilitate the introduction of important policies envisaged in that Act relating to the quality of higher education in the State. It will clarify and strengthen existing quality assurance policies and make their operation more efficient.
The main amendments to the primary Act can be summarised as follows, and have already been mentioned by previous witnesses. The Bill gives QQI the explicit authority to list awarding bodies and include their qualifications in the framework. It provides a legal basis for QQI to examine the bona fides and financial capacity of providers, a very important issue when listing those bodies and their qualifications in the framework. It will facilitate information sharing by QQI with other State bodies, strengthen and improve the approval process for quality assurance and, importantly, facilitate the introduction of the international education mark, an important innovation in the internationalisation strategy of education in Ireland. It will provide a national scheme for the protection of enrolled learners, which will play an important role in protecting their interests. As Dr. Maguire already mentioned, it provides the power to prosecute essay mills and other forms of academic cheating.
During the passage of the Bill through the Seanad, several Senators raised concerns about employment practices in the English language education sector and the scope for reputational damage to the education sector from the closure of English language schools, as has happened in a number of instances.
The Bill contains measures that will strengthen QQI's role as the regulator in this sector, in particular through the introduction of the international education mark, IEM. To obtain the IEM, providers must first undergo corporate fitness assessments, which will examine their financial resources, corporate viability and so on. Providers must then demonstrate compliance with robust quality standards that will be established by QQI under the code of practice. In addition, during the passage of the Bill through the Seanad the Minister introduced amendments to ensure that providers that hold the mark are in compliance with employment law and that the mark will be withdrawn where non-compliance is found.
In response to the Seanad debate, the Minister appointed Patrick King as a mediator to work with employer and employee representatives to seek to arrive at an agreement on employment standards in the sector. The Minister is seeking to promote a quality English language training sector, and it is important that that is underpinned by appropriate employment standards.
The Minister is anxious to ensure continuing engagement in the mediation process, with the aim of reaching an agreement that will benefit the sector in the short and longer term.
I thank the delegates for outlining various issues relevant to the legislation which we will be considering next week on Committee Stage. There are a couple of issues on which I wish to hone in. I will ask my questions and the delegates may then respond. I will not revert to each of them.
Ms Godkin stated that at one point the union was looking for a teacher protection fund similar to the learner protection fund provided for in the Bill. Are the trade union staff still seeking that fund? It is probably beyond the scope of the Bill.
On the learner protection fund in general, I have serious concerns that it is a major insurance operation that has been slipped into the legislation. I wonder whether it has been fully thought through. I invite Dr. Maguire and Mr. Beausang to explain it to me. There is private insurance in that respect. Does Mr. Beausang know whether there has been a problem with the private insurance sector in that regard which leads him to believe a different system needs to be put in place? Has the private insurance market failed on this issue, leading us to require a learner protection fund operated by QQI?
Dr. Maguire has stated he does not wish this to be funded by the Exchequer, but a subsection of the Bill gives a blank cheque to QQI from the Exchequer. Section 31 proposes the insertion of a new section 66A into the original legislation. Section 31(4) provides: "The Minister, with the consent of the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, may pay into the Learner Protection Fund, out of moneys provided by the Oireachtas, such sums as the Minister thinks appropriate". That amounts to a blank cheque. Why is it necessary if it will pay for itself? In particular, why is it necessary while there is insurance in place? Mr. Beausang may wish to outline problems with that insurance.
There is another issue which the delegates may wish to explain to me. When a protected programme default event occurs, the provider of the programme is required under the legislation to notify QQI about it within two working days. As I understand it, a default event includes an institution going bust or a person running away from his or her obligations and leaving everybody in the lurch, as we have seen happen often recently. I have joined staff and students at protests against such situations. It seems that the legislation requires such individuals to notify QQI about default events in order to get the learner protection fund up and running. Am I misreading it? Perhaps the delegates can give me some comfort in that regard as I am very worried about this issue. I know that this is the system used in Australia.
Does Dr. Maguire consider QQI to be ready for this? Does it have expertise in operating an insurance fund? If it does not, what steps is it taking to ensure it will be able to carry out this work? This is a brand new operation. I have never seen a situation where the State has taken over the role of formally providing insurance. For example, some countries operate a state mutual no-fault car insurance model whereby everybody pays into a system and the state pays out. Why is it proposed to institute a regime such as that in this area but not in the area of car insurance? There may be a very simple answer to my question and I am willing to listen to the views of the delegates, but this issue has gone under the radar. I accept that we need to do everything possible to protect the reputation of Irish education, but I am worried about this proposal. It would be very useful for Mr. King who did not make an opening statement to update the committee on his general progress and the very important work he is doing in response to these issues.
I welcome the delegates and thank them for their submissions. We should also thank those who provided written submissions but were not invited to appear because they generally had not updated those submissions.
That brings me to the point of why this engagement is taking place. Ideally, the committee would have held this discussion far earlier in the process, but because the Bill was very quickly referred to the Seanad, we did not have the opportunity to so do. It is important to ay that because we are very late in the passage of the Bill at this stage. Second Stage in the Dáil has been completed and the Bill has passed all Stages in the Seanad. All that remains are Committee and Report Stages in the Dáil. Nevertheless, I welcome some of the strengthening of the Bill by the Seanad and wish to ask some questions about what we might be able to do on some of the issues of concern to the delegates.
I will address first the Aontas presentation because community education should not have to pay what are relatively substantial amounts of money for the sector. The issues surrounding re-engagement fees, etc. have already put a lot of pressure on it. I do not know if it is possible to address that issue at this stage. Obviously, we cannot submit amendments. Perhaps the delgates might elaborate on the effect on the sector of being included in the learner fund.
I take the point made by the Chairman that we are not strictly responsible for employment law. However, in her contribution in the Dáil last week the Minister of State, Deputy Mitchell O'Connor, specifically referred to it and Mr. King's appointment, which I welcome. Like Deputy Thomas Byrne, I am interested in hearing from Mr. King on the progress that is being made. It seems that there must be agreement on employment law rights from the various parties involved. I understood from the Minister of State that if there was agreement, it would be subject to employment law. I seek clarity on exactly how that will work. I take the point that the employment law aspect is not within the remit of the committee, but as it is in the Bill, we need to get answers on it.
I refer to the issue raised by Deputy Thomas Byrne that, essentially, the good operators within the system will end up paying the costs of the bad operators. There is a lot of tightening up in the system in how English language schools, in particular, can operate. Obviously, they cannot do the things that were done in the past. I should acknowledge that I was involved in the early stages of this process. I presume standards are already high as a result of the international education mark. What size of fund will be needed if we already have strict procedures to be registered for the mark? That is something we need to know. Will the sector have to pay a substantial amount of money or are relatively small amounts of money envisaged in comparison with what is in the sector? Mr. Anako made a fair point about whether these measures will act as encouragement for people that things will be okay, even if they do something wrong because somebody else will bear the cost. Is there an issue as to why the State is taking this burden on itself? How will those with private insurance be affected by the new regulations?
A point was raised by the university sector, by Mr. Purser in particular, about duplication in registering with QQI. Dr. Murray spoke about the transparency mechanism. Do the representatives of QQI or the Department consider it necessary to place this extra requirement on the sector?
I thank the delegates for their presentations. I wish to pick up on two points which have been addressed.
On community education, I fully support the call by Aontas for an exemption and I am not sure if that is something we can do as a committee. We can use the opportunity now to say directly to the Department, since it is represented here, that definitely community education providers should be included in the list of providers that are exempt from the learner protection fund. I thought Ms Farrell's presentation was excellent, particularly how she spoke about women. We have a great history in this country of negatively impacting women and children whenever cuts are made. It is always women and children who suffer the most. Community education is key to getting people either progressing in a career or getting into the workforce in the first place. We cannot put a value on that.
I came across the Longford Women's Link through different work I was doing with the early years sector and childcare workers. The work it does is invaluable. I definitely think that, if others are entitled to an exemption, as a committee, we should be supporting that call for community education exemptions. I thought I was reading it wrong because I thought it could not be the case that exemptions do not apply. I would be surprised if everybody here did not support the Aontas call for an exemption. Many things are said at this committee, as Ms Farrell said, about supporting community education. Now is our chance to do something proactive about that.
I wanted to touch on a point about the unions. We often come across stories about people who are taken on in September, let go in December and taken on again in January. One cannot have any quality of life if that is one's work environment and one is not seen as a permanent worker. We have dealt with the unions in the past and I welcome the fact that a mediator is now present who will look at this and resolve many of those issues.
I apologise for stepping out; I had to attend another meeting. Some of the questions I was going to raise have already been asked by other members. I will follow up on a point which Mr. Purser made before I left and I am interested on the view of the Department on it. He seemed to make the reasonable point that there is unnecessary duplication and I wonder what are the Department's thoughts about that at a time when, as Mr. Purser said, resources are finite. What is the Department's view on that and can it be avoided?
I also apologise because I had a previous engagement and was a little late coming in. I have been closely following this topic. My concerns revolve around worker's rights. I have come across first-hand horror stories of what has happened in this sector. I am interested in what Mr. King has to say about this. It occurs to me that, without a commitment to union recognition, we are not going to move in the way we need in order to ensure a safety net for everyone, staff and students. I want to understand if that is likely to happen because, if not, a massive hole will remain in this sector. It is a sector that, warranted or not, has a really poor reputation when it comes to how staff are handled and precarious work is the predominant theme. I am interested to hear the update from Mr. King and the view of anyone else because I would like to think that everybody here would agree that union recognition should be a cornerstone of respectful relations between staff and the organisations with which they work.
I will add a few comments and questions. I share Deputy Thomas Byrne's thoughts on insurance matters. Is there an element of anti-competitiveness if insurance is to be taken out of, shall we say, the wishes of the operators? Will companies have the option to go with private insurance or will they have to go with the State insurance? I would like feedback on that.
Mr. Anako was talking about protecting students and the fact that, within four days, he was able to get them into other schools. That is great but protecting the teachers is every bit as important. This committee has a strong record and has engaged on supporting teachers and non-teaching staff. Those things are to the forefront of our minds.
I appreciate that Mr. King is going to give us an update. It was agreed in the Seanad debate that the international education mark would not be given unless the employers signed up to support the employees and employment law. I know Mr. King will go back to negotiate with employers about that. I would appreciate feedback about that. I thank Mr. King because I know he has been doing sterling work. We have all heard that and know it is an important role he has.
My final comment is to Ms Farrell about community education. It is the heartbeat of many rural communities. The Longford ladies group made a presentation in Buswell's Hotel last year as part of the Irish Rural Link network. It is a strong organisation. The members of this committee will give their full support to that.
Deputies will have the opportunity to submit amendments to the Bill before Committee Stage next week. We normally ask witnesses at a stakeholder engagement if they would like to send us any further material but, because of the time element, that will not happen in this case. We will have an opportunity and, as Deputy Funchion said, there is no doubt that we all support the inclusion of community employment organisations among the exemptions.
I am going to go back to the stakeholders for feedback now, starting with Mr. Maguire, who might address some of the issues that have been raised.
Dr. Bryan Maguire:
Deputy Thomas Byrne raised questions about how the learner protection fund might operate. This is being introduced on a statutory basis for the first time. There have been arrangements under the 2012 Act, the preceding legislation, to provide for mutual support and letters of exchange as referred to by one of the previous witnesses. This simply does not give sufficient robustness, particularly in cases of dramatic closure, as Deputy Byrne mentioned.
The reason the two days' notice is there is that not all closures are dramatic. Some businesses wind down in an orderly fashion. Businesses fail and schools have to close. The fund could be drawn on in such cases when a provider gives notice of that in good faith.
How was the fund set up and does Quality and Qualifications Ireland, QQI, have the capacity to administer such a fund? Our proposal is that, while QQI will have a monopoly on establishing a national fund, the procedures whereby we administer that will be subject to procurement so we will be procuring the necessary professional services in specialised areas that are outside our standard area of operation. Nevertheless, providers are being compelled to have insurance and QQI has a range of other engagements with those providers on things like the capacity to check, on a statutory basis, their corporate bona fides and compliance with the various laws, including employment laws, and those kinds of powers which do not exist for an ordinary insurance company. We also have ongoing monitoring functions in respect of the education and training being provided by those providers, whether in the English language or higher or further education. We have additional information which can be used to judge the ongoing risks to which the fund is being exposed and that would not be available to private sector insurers.
Can I follow up on that? I do not want to delay the meeting. Dr. Maguire is proposing to have an insurance policy in place but QQI, through public procurement, decides who provides it. Instead of being like motor insurance, where there is a legal requirement to have a policy of insurance, QQI is going to say there is a legal requirement to have the policy of insurance that it provides. Would it not be simpler to have a legal requirement that insurance be in place and let the market dictate it? Would that not take all the administrative hassle out of it? I am not here to represent insurance companies and I do not think I have met them about this, although they have certainly communicated with me about it, but everyone to whom I have mentioned this cannot understand why the State is taking on this responsibility.
Dr. Bryan Maguire:
The State is taking on this responsibility because it is taking on the responsibility of regulating these entities and getting the information around how the entities are performing and operating in a situation, particularly on the international side, where the national reputation is exposed rather than just the individual students or colleges.
There is a public interest in ensuring that there is a fund available. As mentioned, this is the arrangement that has been introduced in our competitor jurisdictions in the Anglosphere, such as Australia and New Zealand.
Dr. Bryan Maguire:
At this stage, we do not have an estimate. As we do not know how many of the schools will come into the scheme at any one point in time, we do not know how quickly we will have to roll out the scheme. As part of the procurement of such a service, we will have to get actuarial advice on the level at which the fund would need to be established.
Mr. William Beausang:
I am happy to respond to that question. The Deputy can take it as given that these provisions were not included in the Bill lightly. There is a significant reputational issue in safeguarding the interests of students issue that arises. There were arrangements put in place under the previous legislation, which were referred to earlier by Dr. Maguire. They are complex. Whether they would meet the needs of a significant failure or a set of failures in the sector is open to question. They provide for a refund of fees but we are interested in students being able to continue their studies. There have been situations where QQI has had to assist small providers which had to withdraw from programme validation because they were not able to meet the cost of insurance. What I am saying in a roundabout way is that the assessment we have to come - one cannot be definitive about this - is that there is a market failure here and the State in this situation has a responsibility to intervene, particularly in a scenario where the State is taking a much more active role in regulating the sector and the quality of it. It is relevant to Deputy Jan O'Sullivan's question on the moral hazard issue. We will have to see how it plays out. As the INM is a quality standard, one would expect that into the future, if regulation works, there would be fewer failures than there were in the past. I do not have to hand the number of schools that have folded over the last extended period. Dr. Maguire may have the number. A very significant number of schools have closed. Having looked at this closely with QQI, the Department is satisfied that the financial arrangements would deliver in the event of a significant number of programmes ceasing. They have not been tested. I know there are some good practises that the insurance industry representative referred to but I am speaking about a sector that is very important in terms of the reputation of the education system more generally in this country. We are not prepared to take that risk.
Mr. William Beausang:
The State is taking on the risk because it values the reputation of the sector. Over the last couple of years, a large number of schools folded, students were left stranded and we were scrambling around looking for responses. The State takes risks. In the case of deposit insurance, the State risks. The Deputy can be assured that this is not something the Department or the Minister agreed lightly or without adequate consideration. It is a step that is being taken because of the risks that exist and the importance of maintaining the reputation of the sector. The Irish Universities Association, IUA, representative spoke about the funding of the higher education system. As the committee will be aware, a large measure of the recovery in the income of the higher education system has been international fees. It is an open question whether that would be maintained in circumstances where the reputation of Ireland Inc. in education was damaged by large numbers of closures in the English language training sector.
Dr. Bryan Maguire:
We envisage it would be time limited. We do not yet have guidance in place in that regard but it would be sufficiently lengthy to enable the company to be able to justify the cost of investing in the actuarial predictions and so on and sufficiently limited so that there would not be an incumbent effect that would make it impossible to repeat procurement after a specified period. For services such as this, it strikes me a period of four or five years would be likely but we have not tested the market yet.
Based on the responses I received to earlier questions, I assume then that it is mandatory that the institutions would secure insurance from the successful company and would not have the option to go to the private market.
Dr. Bryan Maguire:
That is one of the differences with the current system. Under the current system, there are a number of different options, as outlined by Mr. Beausang. We have options from mutual cover to paying into funds or putting up a bond. The whole idea of a fund like this is the pooling of the risk. In having a single national fund there is a bigger pool and so that should reduce the cost overall.
Mr. Chris Anako:
This is about the information the insurance company obtains from the client. We conduct an extensive auditing process, which is basically an underwriting process whereby we obtain the accounts of the company, the lease agreements, tax clearance certificates, CVs, business plans and we then sit down with our in-house actuaries in Hiscox - the underwriters - to determine the risk we are opening ourselves to. We then put a rate to that risk and give that to the client. Our current rate, at in and around 2% of course fee per student, in the higher education space in particular, is the most competitive out there at the moment. The cover is purchased on a gradual basis throughout the course. As a student enrols, the cover is purchased. There is no lump-sum payment at the start of the year, which would cripple the institution cashflow-wise.
On top of that, in regard to reputation, off the back of the praise we received in the press last year we are now engaging with a number of accrediting bodies throughout Europe to solve their issues in regard to solvency funds and the like. It is something that they are viewing as a solution. However, we are getting knocked back here for the good that we believe we have done.
In regard to the failures, we have not seen any failures. In 2017, we were approached by an English language school seeking insurance. We did not refuse it cover but we asked it to make a personal commitment to the school. Those involved had come to this country to set up a language school. They had no proof of funds. Is that a risk that should be automatically underwritten by the State under the QQI fund? We asked for a commitment but they were not willing to give it. I do know that that school no longer exists. This is what we are dealing with.
There are many insurance models out there: we are not the only one. As a broker we are constantly being contacted by a number of underwriters who are looking to get into this space. The only deterrent is what is going on in regard to this looming national fund. In regard to the holes in the sector, there is a bunch of providers that would not have something like this in place. However, the providers-clients that we deal with in the English language space and the higher education space are completely secure. The concept of insurance is transferring risk. Hiscox has hundreds of millions of reserves readily available at any one time. That is its job. Even if there was a school messing around, Hiscox has put its name to that school such that if anything happens all students are covered. This could involve the transfer of the course to a different provider for the remainder of the course or a full refund of all fees paid.
That is the difference. Again, it is a transfer of risk. It is not as though a course fee will be put into a fund; rather, a fraction of a course fee will be put into an insurance policy. All students receive a policy certificate and, in case there is a closure, there is a number people can call to contact us. Sedgwick, with 350 staff, has a disaster model in place, while there are 65 staff in O'Driscoll O'Neil's Study & Protect to assist in all closures. We believe that is a suitable number-----
Mr. Chris Anako:
We introduced the policy in 2016, just after all the closures, the largest of which in the area of English language teaching was Eden College. There was also a handful of closures in higher education. The policy was designed for students only but we want to get teachers involved and create some sort of solution for them. The only problem is whether we are treading on redundancy and that we are not sure what we are insuring, although we are completely open to insuring teachers. The history of O'Driscoll O'Neil and Study & Protect is releasing niche products. We are the first provider of learner protection in Ireland and we created a medicover policy, which is medical insurance for international students. It is now a statutory requirement and all the universities take it up, although in that regard we are appearing before the High Court for another matter. It is all about creating a niche product, which we can do.
I thank Mr. Anako. I do not think redundancies are a matter for teachers. Rather, it is about income continuance. There were cases where teachers were owed money but did not receive it, which obviously had a significant impact on their livelihood.
Mr. William Beausang:
SOLAS is strongly committed to supporting community education. The development of the next further education and training strategy will provide an opportunity for further engagement, which I am sure has been ongoing on SOLAS's part in examining this important aspect of the further education and training sector. There is no obligation on providers to engage with QQI and it is only when they want to have their programme validated that they must contribute to the learner protection fund. The community and voluntary sector, as the committee will know, is homogeneous. Approximately 130 providers are self-declared as community and voluntary, and there is a diverse cohort of learners. QQI has advised us that some self-declared community and voluntary providers operate on a for-profit commercial basis and charge fees to students for programmes. Protection for enrolled learners is necessary to ensure that payments made by students are safeguarded.
Some community and voluntary providers will be exempt from the fund. QQI estimates that 25% of providers in the category deliver programmes up to level 3 on the national framework of qualifications, which are largely in community education. They are programmes of less than three months' duration. Similarly, any programmes where moneys are not paid by learners will be exempt from the fund. That includes programmes funded by the Exchequer, back-to-work schemes and upskilling programmes offered by ETBs. The learner protection charge will only apply when a provider accepts moneys from or on behalf of a learner in respect of a programme with a minimum duration of three months. There will be further engagement by QQI with stakeholders on the development of criteria for the learner protection fund and QQI will be required to undertake periodic reviews of it. I hope that information is of benefit to the committee.
Mr. Patrick King:
Last January, I was appointed as mediator by the Minister of State, Deputy Mitchell O'Connor. My terms of reference were to explore the scope for agreement on minimum employment standards leading to some form of registered, statutory employment agreement. I wrote to all the stakeholders, that is, the providers, employers and trade unions involved. A difficulty at the beginning was that there is no single management representative body. One organisation, Marketing English Ireland, MEI, represents approximately 66 schools but it is a marketing organisation and does not consider itself an employer body. Its initial reaction was not to get involved in the process but it subsequently did so and I have met its representatives on several occasions. A second group, Progressive College Network, which is represented here, was involved from the beginning and was positively disposed towards the process. It has been supportive of a positive outcome and remains so. A third, informal group of employers is engaged with me, although it is not affiliated with any organisation.
I convened public meetings of providers in Dublin, Galway and Cork that were attended by more than 90 people representing schools. A wide variety of opinions was expressed of the meetings, some of which I will give the committee a taste of in a moment. On the other side, I met the trade unions that are active in English language schools. The main one is Unite the Union, which is represented here and whose senior officials and sector branch I met. I also met SIPTU, which is involved, to a lesser extent, in some of the university colleges that provide English language courses, and the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, ICTU. The committee will not be surprised that ICTU is supportive of reaching a destination that will provide statutory protections for employees in English language schools. I think the individual employers, on the other hand, are reluctant. This week, the MEI will ballot its membership on whether to continue engagement leading to some kind of statutory agreement.
To give a taste of what the employers said to us at public meetings, some of them saw the mediation as an unhelpful intervention or a knee-jerk reaction to the closure of Grafton College, some said the State was generally unhelpful to English language schools, while others believed that their should be State subsidy for English language schools. All sides, that is, that of workers, trade unions and management, wanted strict accreditation.
They all wanted the IEM rigorously applied, along with financial backing and an inspection regime.
Some of the schools referred to others in fairly derogatory terms, mentioning schools opening, undercutting, cherry-picking, profiting and then leaving the country. They said some schools were reputable but others were behaving recklessly. That comes from employers. On the standards of employment, schools were saying that some have best practice while others do not. They said an agreement on minimum conditions will not work and many schools already have above-average conditions and teachers are not complaining. This was said to me by employers. I was told that if legislation is changed to apply minimum standards, it will lead to more closures and threaten jobs. It was said that teachers like the flexibility in schools, including the uncertainty about hours, etc., that have already been mentioned.
On the employee side, I met representatives of unions and I met and received communication from well over 100 teachers. I am grateful to them as many said they found it very difficult to speak up and join trade unions. They did not want to be recorded as having met me and they did not want to be identified. They wanted standards of inspection and complained about pay. They stated that most teachers were on short contracts and that nobody in their schools was permanent. Many stated that they were on zero-hour contracts, although the legislation has changed in the meantime but some say that it has still not been implemented. They stated that their hours change without warning and they face uncertain conditions. One teacher told me she had nine contracts in two years, conditions are getting worse and she is not permitted to work in another school in order to augment her salary. She said the pay was measly and that it is not a living wage so she cannot afford to have children. I was also told that teachers live on the poverty line and so on. This is a reflection of what they said to me.
These are two very different perspectives. The teachers speak of low morale and a toxic environment in schools, with teachers feeling helpless and afraid to speak up. They say that if they get actively involved in a union, they will not be rehired. That kind of comment was also made. The teachers stated that they had no leave entitlement and cannot get sick because there is no employment security. I was informed that teachers go to school on Mondays wondering if the school will be open. One teacher told me of a plan to leave the country because there is no future in English language teaching here. The teachers I met are very proud of their profession and I was very impressed with them. There are very passionate about the job and I was told that although they love the job, it is not a viable career and the industry is losing quality teachers.
It is possible that by next week I will know exactly where the employers stand in moving to the next stage, which is agreement to proceed to a position of statutory engagement, with involvement from the Labour Court and a possible sectoral employment order dictating minimum standards, leave entitlements, pay and so forth. There could be a joint labour committee that would also set minimum standards and which would ultimately have the force of law. I am advised that if there was a sectoral employment order, it would apply to all schools, regardless of whether they engaged in the process. It would help to prevent the business of one school undercutting others.
Mr. Patrick King:
The ideal position would be for employer bodies and unions all agreeing to move to the next stage. We could end up with one side saying we should move to the next stage and parts of the other side saying we should or maybe we should not. The option is there for the Minister, under legislation, to ask the Labour Court to set up a joint labour committee and move ahead even without the agreement I am seeking. The ideal position would be one of agreement. One of the management groups has been supportive all the way along but it is the smaller of the groups. The larger group represents 66 of the well over 100 schools and I will know next week where it stands.
I thank Mr. King for that powerful testimony. I saw a couple of people nodding when listening to it. There are real concerns about the sector. What type of employer would oppose statutory protection for employees? Surely every good employer could agree to that. This poses real questions about people that would vote against further engagements in the process. I compliment Mr. King on shining a light on both sides of the equation. Fair play to the Progressive College Network for taking a positive stand and it would be a very poor reflection on the other organisations if they fail to join the Progressive College Network and do what needs to be done for the sector.
I said earlier that we would not be taking any further submissions because of our short timeframe. Mr. King has said he may by this time next week have a clearer vision of the way forward in the engagement so it would be very useful for the committee to have a written statement from Mr. King prior to our committee taking this legislation in two weeks. Would that be okay?
I certainly do not want to put Mr. King in an awkward position. I will ask the clerk to write to the Minister indicating that it would be helpful, in the context of our engagement, to have an up-to-date position at that point.
Mr. David Russell:
I want to clarify an issue relating to the protection of teachers. Mr. Anako was our insurer but he is not any more. Our teachers and students are insured. The larger group that Mr. King referred to currently has no learner protection whatever. It is exchanging letters, as it has been for the past number of years. Learner protection must be mandatory and the insurance method is the superior process.
Ms Tara Farrell:
I thank the Chair and Deputies Jan O'Sullivan and Funchion for their specific comments on community education and their support. I appreciate Mr. Beausang's comments but I still believe it is important that such education be listed as an exemption. Many of us, particularly the six Community Education Network members who are re-engaging at the moment, are delivering programmes from level 3 to level 6. In Longford Women's Link, for example, we do not deliver anything at level 1 or level 2 as there is not enough demand for it in the Longford area. I will reinforce the point that there are structural differences between our services and universities or higher education institutions, yet we are being treated in the same way. The one-size-fits-all approach just does not work. We are not in a position to charge large fees. We are not-for-profit organisations. On revalidation fees, I accept that one is not obliged to pay fees until one revalidates one's programmes but we are obliged to revalidate our programmes. We are obliged to re-engage if we want to be a QQI provider. We simply do not have a secret pot of money to pay those fees. They will have a massive impact on our provision, which will ultimately impact on the learners. I thank the Deputies for their supportive comments.
Mr. Patrick King:
It is fair to say that the teachers who communicate with me are distressed by the position they are in. The great majority had negative comments to make. Some made positive comments, praised their school and praised their employers for being good, supportive and communicative. It is not all schools.
Mr. William Beausang:
I will very quickly make a point of clarification. The Minister who can apply for the establishment of a joint labour committee is the Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation. It would be a matter for the Minister for Education and Skills to make a request of that Minister. The IUA representative raised the question of who is the custodian of the national framework of qualifications. To be fair, that area has evolved over the years since the framework was first established. The framework of qualifications is a really important part of our infrastructure in education generally. We have come to a point in the decision-making process that has been the subject of discussion this afternoon at which there must be a final decision-maker as to who goes on the framework. That is what has guided the approach of the Department and the Minister in this regard. We understand the perspective of the university sector. Fortunately we were able to satisfy the concerns of the technological sector. It might be a very extreme situation but legislation has to cater for any eventuality and we cannot have a situation in which a higher education institution could override the regulator established under statute and put a qualification on the framework the regulator did not believe should be on it. As I said, this is an extreme scenario and it is not possible to conceive of it happening in today's university sector, but legislation has to cater for such an eventuality.
Ms Colette Godkin:
To return to Deputy Thomas Byrne's question about the teacher protection fund, in our original submission Unite did ask for such a fund to be put in place. The question of how many schools had closed was raised. As far as I know, 24 schools have closed in the past five years. Even during the week in which this legislation was before the Seanad, another school closed. Although we hope no more schools will ever close, the existence of the learner protection fund acknowledges that possibility and we therefore think a fund should be in place to protect teachers and other staff in such an event.
Mr. Lewis Purser:
I thank the Chair. With regard to Mr. Beausang's last point, we have no intention of overriding the concerns of the regulator, far from it. We work very closely with the regulator and it has a number of other statutory mechanisms to meet all of its concerns. We are trying to prevent the unnecessary duplication of the administrative, regulatory, and financial burden for the benefit of both the regulator and ourselves. We have engaged extensively with the regulator and it has never raised any concerns in this area but if it does have concerns, there is a mechanism in its statutory quality assurance processes to deal with this specific scenario. It could do so now without any new legislation. There are internal mechanisms in place which we believe we currently meet to all our mutual satisfaction. There is no question of trying to override the regulator. We respect its authority but there is no point in introducing unnecessary duplication and cost at a time when we are all trying to do more with less.
Dr. Bryan Maguire:
That is exactly what I was going to say. Far from duplicating the bureaucracy, the intention is that the administrative arrangements for obtaining information from the universities and other designated awarding bodies about the qualifications they have on the framework will be put on a statutory basis to eliminate any uncertainty about the legal standing of those awards under the framework, because the framework has acquired additional regulatory responsibility, for example, in respect of the international education mark. It is not a duplication. It is a replacement of what has emerged and been agreed to with statutory certainty.
I remain to be convinced about the way the learner protection fund has been proceeded with. I will certainly be discussing it with my party colleagues, although I cannot speak for them. If one were to table an amendment to this legislation necessitating that a private insurance policy be obtained by students on accredited courses, with the insurable risks being those outlined in the legislation, what would be the problem with introducing that provision in place of the fund that has been set up? I presume QQI has looked at both. What would be the problem with obliging colleges to arrange private insurance for their students to cover such default events?
The risk is closure. Whichever way we do it, each individual should be insured. The difference is whether it is done through a private insurer or the State-backed arrangement provided for in the legislation. What would the difference be from the point of view of QQI?
Dr. Bryan Maguire:
One difference is that there would be a single insurance pool that works across the State. Another difference relates to the other regulatory functions of the QQI and the information that arises from our quality assurance and monitoring of providers, which informs our understanding of the risk profile, both current and emerging over time, associated with the area. We have a number of statutory engagements with each of these providers in addition to that specifically related to learner protection. We find out how many students they are registering, how they graduate, and so on. We have an additional flow of information around student practices in the industry.
There is lots of room for thought. I thank all of our witnesses for their time and for their valuable contributions. It was a really good opportunity to have this meeting.
As I said, we wanted to have this meeting last November, but we did not get the opportunity to do so. However, it was still important to have it. It will certainly assist the committee in its formal consideration of the Bill which is scheduled to be taken on 2 July.