Thursday, 13 June 2019
Qualifications and Quality Assurance (Education and Training) (Amendment) Bill 2018 [Seanad]: Second Stage (Resumed)
I welcome the Bill. The Labour Party also has some issues with it but I acknowledge that it was strengthened as it went through the Seanad, particularly in respect of the rights of people working in the sector. In her opening contribution, the Minister of State said that the international education mark, IEM, would be a further incentive for providers to comply with their obligations under employment law and that she had appointed a mediator, Mr. Patrick King, to work with stakeholders in the English-language sector to secure agreement on a set of minimum employment standards that could be agreed by the sector. That is welcome. This significant issue came to our attention when Grafton College closed last December. I ask that the Minister of State keep us informed about progress in the ongoing work on this issue. While we very much welcome the protection for learners in the legislation, there is also an issue for teachers. Some of us met those teachers who came to the Leinster House at the time. They were very worried about not getting paid for work they had done and so on. It is important that we protect the workers in the sector as well as the learners.
Like Deputy Thomas Byrne, I am a member of the Joint Committee on Education and Skills. We have agreed to hold hearings from stakeholders on the legislation. In his contribution last night, Deputy Byrne outlined what happened whereby the Bill was referred to the Seanad before we had an opportunity to bring the stakeholders before the committee. The only way we could bring them in was to wait until it had finished in the Seanad and Second Stage in this House. We will hold those hearings next week and several organisations will present to the committee. We have received some submissions, and several issues have been raised. However, there is an acknowledgement that improvement was made to the Bill in the Seanad.
Overall, I welcome that we are dealing with this issue. As Deputy Lahart noted, the English-language sector is important in Ireland. Our reputation as a provider of excellent English language teaching is important. There were cases in the past whereby some schools were not operating in accordance with best practice by any means; in many cases they did not have much by the way of classes and were bringing people in without giving them a proper opportunity. Many of those closed subsequently. I was Minister for Education and Skills at that time and worked with the then Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, in putting forward some interim measures to ensure the bad practices were stopped. There were excellent colleges as well, but it was important to root out those that were abusing the system.
By and large, much of that has been achieved but certainly this legislation will strengthen confidence in the sector. The Bill is obviously broader than that but it will provide for QQI to examine the bona fides and the financial capacity of providers. Financial capacity was one of the issues previously when some providers disappeared without leaving any provision whatsoever for people who had enrolled in courses and paid money. There was a similar problem for teachers who had done work but had not got paid for it.
There are several other quality assurance elements to the Bill as well as provisions that will lead to the introduction of the international education mark. This is an international standard to assure people that all of those who provide international education in this way will be up to the approved standard. There is also a scheme to protect enrolled learners. I welcome the fact that so-called essay mills and other forms of cheating will be covered in the legislation.
Generally speaking, I welcome the legislation. We will hold hearings and listening to those who come before the committee next week. Some areas have been brought to my attention already. I have spoken about one issue already, that is to say, the issue of the people working and teaching in the sector and the importance of protecting their rights. This has been addressed to some extent but there may well be other issues we wish to address when we hear about them in the committee.
The community education sector has had concerns with QQI for some time over cost of signing up and the number of different bodies that provide community education. The sector is really important. It provides second-chance opportunities to people who did not have much opportunity when they went to school originally. Those in the sector have concerns. One of their recommendations was that the Bill should include not-for-profit community education providers in the list of providers to which the exemption for payment to the new learner protection fund extends. This is because the sector operates largely on a shoestring. Yet, it is really important to those people who take the big step of going back to education as adults. I know the Minister of State is highly supportive of this sector as well. Whatever can be done to protect these organisations from any costs under the regulations is one important consideration. There is also concern from some of the schools that operate currently with insurance. Those involved are concerned that there should be a level playing field in terms of the operation of the legislation. Again, this will come to our attention next week.
I have no wish to delay the Bill. Generally speaking, it is an important step forward. It will give security and provide confidence that the sector operates well.
I did not mention the fact that the Bill offers the opportunity for a process in terms of becoming a university or being designated as a university. This is something the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland in particular has been looking for. This is not simply a blank cheque: it is very much a process. This is evident from the amendments that the Minister of State has brought in. The process will be onerous and will ensure that no body will become a university unless it has reached the appropriate standard. That is provided for in the Bill as well. Generally speaking the purpose of these provisions is to ensure that we have proper standards and governance, fair play and a system in which everyone can have confidence, whether learners planning to come to Ireland from some other part of the world, teachers in the sector or those operating the schools. Obviously there are two sectors. One comprises private schools and there is the state sector as well. We welcome the Bill. We may have amendments to it, but that will unfold in due course.