Thursday, 13 June 2019
Qualifications and Quality Assurance (Education and Training) (Amendment) Bill 2018 [Seanad]: Second Stage (Resumed)
I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Bill relating to Quality and Qualifications Ireland, QQI. It is important to note one of the contexts in which this is relevant. There are only five or six countries in the world that are English speaking and the English language education market is a significant market in that regard. With the pending withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union in some shape or form, Ireland is the principal English language speaking destination and therefore English language education destination in the European Union.
I know from some research that countries such as New Zealand and the United Kingdom have been pre-eminent in English language education, and in the education of international students, for many years and have garnered a significant reputation in this regard. Countries like New Zealand and Australia are significant draws for students who wish either to learn English or to study through English at third level and beyond. The last time I read about it that market was worth in excess of €11 billion internationally. I am sure it is far more significant than that at this stage. It is an important business market for Ireland. It is an important education market for Ireland also and one we should be chasing and growing. Either enabling students in Ireland to study various degrees through English or to come here to learn English is a business we ought to be growing because aside from their education fees they bring a lot of spending power with them. They also add to our economy from the perspective of the part-time employment they take up while they are here in some cases. They offer and contribute significantly to the cosmopolitan feel of the city. It is principally Dublin to which the vast majority of these students come. There is a value economically also at local level. There is not a Deputy in this Dáil from the Dublin constituencies who does not have constituents who either accommodate or provide accommodation for English language learners who come to Ireland to study.
Even before I was elected to the Dáil I would have seen the growth in this area as a significant opportunity for the State. It is clear, however, that the track record in previous years regarding the management of some of the colleges, and some of the so-called colleges, left a lot to be desired. At some stages it involved raids by various units of the Garda to check whether they were gold plate or silver plate businesses. There seems to be a significant degree of evidence now to suggest that many of those colleges have upped their game significantly. There were a number of colleges that operated for a long period of time, since the start of English language education in Ireland, to a very high standard and continue to offer that standard.
This is an area where I believe the State, too, should be getting involved because in a competitive world, and a competitive market for English language education and training, Ireland ought to be pre-eminent and aim to be at the top. To be at the top requires standards and I understand that is what is at the heart of the Bill.
My party is committed to maintaining and improving the highest standards in education. In line with that commitment we broadly welcome the Bill. The majority of these measures, as the Minister of State outlined, arise from a High Court case which took place in 2015 and are largely technical in nature. These include measures around the listing of awarding bodies, statutory powers to evaluate providers, and the international education mark, thus bringing a broad, acceptable, general universal standard that covers the entire English language education market.
The Bill also makes a number of positive contributions including improving protection for English language students. We do not need to elaborate too much on that. It was referred to in the debates on the two previous nights. However, when we look at it from the student point of view, students coming from different parts of the world, whether it is Brazil or China, invest a good deal of money in coming here. For a college to collapse when they here and for them to be left with no cover whatsoever is a black mark against Ireland.
I refer to some of the media reports around the requirements now for health insurance. Students coming here cannot operate on a travel insurance scheme as they are not considered to be just travellers because they are here for a period of time. The suggestion that they need to have full health insurance and therefore have a proper health insurance policy could make such a venture into studies unaffordable for some visitors to this country. I urge the Minister, and I am aware she is doing this, to ensure there will be a full stakeholder engagement around that. It is an area where the State needs to work with the best in the private sector, both the best education providers and the best in the financial services area who have the products that are required rather than putting the State at risk. The Fianna Fáil position would be that the taxpayer should not be footing either the cost of the collapse of colleges, the bill to pay for alternative places for students or to pay for their travel home in instances of ill-health, which I am told are very few, in terms of claims. Nor should the taxpayer be asked to foot the bill if a college collapses and teachers are put out of work.
I understand from briefing notes supplied to us that insurance policies are in place for both learner and teacher protection since one of the most recent cases of a school collapsing, in Portobello. That related to teacher protection.
Fianna Fáil has some outstanding concerns regarding supports proposed under the learner protection fund. These would see the State step in as an insurer for private language schools. Will the Minister clarify whether the State steps in as a private insurer for any third level institution or university in the country? To what extent is the taxpayer put at risk as a result of the State stepping in as an insurer? There is also the matter of the State stepping in as an insurer for private language schools on behalf of students but not for teachers. What happened to those in Grafton College in recent months was unacceptable.
Fianna Fáil is actively engaged, as I am sure are departmental officials, with representatives in the development of proposals and we welcome the Minister of State's commitment to allow these questions to be discussed at the Joint Committee on Education and Skills following Second Stage. Will she confirm that there will be full stakeholder engagement in advance of Committee Stage? Who will be invited to contribute?
We welcome that QQI will have statutory authority to list awarding bodies and include their qualifications in the National Framework of Qualifications, NFQ. We also welcome that this Bill introduces amendments to allow the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, RCSI, to be officially recognised as a university. We support this and welcome the Minister of State's Seanad amendment. RCSI has a broad international reach and is similar to universities in England such as Oxford and Cambridge, which have set the standard for international education. We have been slow to move into that space and capitalise on the fact that Ireland will be the only English-language speaking country in the EU following the UK's exit. There is a market of between 400 million and 500 million people in the EU. Some months ago, I asked about this when Deputy Bruton was Minister for Education and Skills. When one considers the amount invested in research and development of the international education sector in Ireland, given its potential, we have been tardy, for instance, in marketing Ireland as a destination. This has only begun in a significant way in the past year, with the sums invested relatively modest. We speak of ourselves as being a small, open economy susceptible to global shifts, and economic upturns and downturns. We have gone through a consistent upturn and there is evidence throughout the economy that growth is softening. However, one of the most resilient products we had during the recession was tourism - in which we invested very little. Tourism is connected with international education, not only in the spend that an individual student brings. They will pay their college fees, and will be here for one or two years but they have to pay for accommodation, food, travel and so on. They make an exceptionally significant contribution to the economy through invisible exports. I do not know if there is way of calculating how much they bring to the country economically but I suspect it is very much underestimated.
The Bill strengthens and improves QQI's approval processes for the quality assurance procedures of providers, which is also welcome. We approve of the range of powers the Minister of State seeks to give QQI, from the perspective of assessment and guaranteeing the efficacy of any institution offering a product. By and large it is a commercial product in the international education sector by virtue of its make-up. It should be borne in mind that the private sector initiated English language education decades before the State became interested in it. The powers give to QQI will ensure all teachers and lecturers have the correct qualifications, all courses are properly underwritten and statutorily guaranteed and carry a mark that international students who come here will know that the college is legitimate, and the courses meet the highest standards and are approved by the State.
Our reservations relate to learner and teacher protection, but the Minister of State's commitment to provide for a round-table discussion for all stakeholders prior to Committee Stage is welcome, where it can be thrashed out line by line. All things being equal, she can be assured of support from this side of the House if those issues are addressed adequately.