Wednesday, 12 June 2019
Qualifications and Quality Assurance (Education and Training) Amendment Bill 2018 [Seanad]: Second Stage (Resumed)
Níl éinne eile anseo. B'fhéidir go gcríochnóidh an díospóireacht níos luaithe ná mar a chríochnódh sé de ghnáth. Fianna Fáil is committed to maintaining and improving the highest standards in education. It is intended to increase the number of international students and the number of students entering higher education in this country is increasing all the time. It is vital, therefore, that these students are supported by a high quality education system. That is why we will support, in principle, the passing of this legislation. As the Minister of State outlined very helpfully, the Bill has a number of objectives. It will give Quality and Qualifications Ireland, QQI, the statutory power to list awarding bodies, include qualifications on the framework of qualifications, provide QQI with statutory powers to evaluate providers' bona fides, facilitate information sharing by QQI and State bodies, strengthen and improve QQI's approvals process for providers' quality assurance procedures and facilitate the international education mark introduction. It will also involve education and training providers more centrally in the application process for recognition of prior learning, which is really important, and it will strengthen learner protection measures, about which there has been much discussion. The Bill will provide QQI with statutory powers to prosecute essay mills, as they are known, and other forms of cheating, as well as giving award-making powers to all institutes of technology. There is also a general provision that is directed at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, RCSI, to enable it to begin the process of gaining full university status. Once the Bill has been passed, the RCSI will be able to comply with the requirements of the legislation to enable the Minister to make a determination as to whether it should be a university. I have no doubt it will be successful and the quick passage of the legislation will enable that to happen.
This legislation comes in the context of major controversies at English language schools in Dublin. Although we have a very good reputation for educational and academic excellence, these privately run institutions are dragging down the name of Irish education. There is no point in saying anything else about it as some of them have operated in a disgraceful manner. We need protections both for students and staff or, at the very least, we must investigate fully what protections already exist and new measures could be introduced. I accept the Minister has begun the process by appointing an expert to consider the matter but Fianna Fáil proposed, both in the Seanad and now in this debate, that there would be full stakeholder engagement at the Joint Committee on Education and Skills before completion of Committee Stage of the Bill. I spoke today to the Chair of the committee, Deputy Fiona O'Loughlin, as well as the clerk, and I have been assured that this will happen. There is no doubt that everybody connected to the matter will have the opportunity to make the case and the committee will consider those in advance of Committee Stage. This will happen very quickly, as I understand it, which is very good news. The process should be done carefully but it should not delay the passage of this very important legislation. This is a serious attempt to make things better for staff and students in the sector.
The learner protection fund is to be self-funded to some extent but we have some concerns in this regard. Perhaps the Minister of State, either later on Second Stage or on Committee Stage, will provide some comfort on this. There is a blank cheque written into the legislation that if there is any shortfall, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform can provide moneys in this respect. Perhaps the Minister of State can clarify that matter if I am not interpreting the legislation as intended. I certainly want some clarity on the matter. We all remember various colleges, including, famously, Grafton College, closing in 2014 and 2015, with staff given no notice and left with wages owed to them. Students were also affected. It was madness in this day and age. The existing system has let down students and teachers so it is welcome that there is now an effort to change it. Nevertheless, we have a little way to go. The legislation concentrates on learners but compelling cases have been and, I have no doubt, will be made by teachers. That will happen at the education committee meeting next week.
The question has been raised with me on a number of occasions in this debate as to where the State is in the provision of English language colleges. Where are the education and training boards and is this something in which they could be involved? Perhaps they could generate revenue by getting involved as people coming to our country would have to pay for any language education. Currently this is done on a completely private basis and the process is very unsatisfactory. The regulation is welcome but it might be an opportunity for education and training boards to get involved, particularly in Dublin and Cork if there is a capacity to do so, as a revenue generating measure.
We welcome the plans to address essay mills. I understand the provisions are modelled on New Zealand legislation, which makes it illegal to advertise or provide third-party assistance in order to cheat. This includes not just essay writing but the sitting of exams on behalf of students as well. We know that this happens occasionally and it will always happen. With the online and digital world we inhabit, cheating will be facilitated. We should be honest, however, and it has always happened. It will probably continue to happen and will, in general, be an internal disciplinary matter for universities and colleges. The provision is nonetheless welcome as it has been introduced in other jurisdictions. It is right that we are doing it here as well. According to The Irish Times, between 2010 and 2016, approximately 1,000 students in Ireland were basically caught cheating, and the real number is probably higher. I am sure many people did not get caught as there are various ingenious ways of cheating. To be completely serious, it is absolutely essential that this country maintains the highest academic and examination standards in our third level institutions to maintain our deserved reputation.
We support this legislation and we look forward to working within the education committee to strengthen the measures in the Bill. We are allowing this to pass through Second Stage on the basis that there will be full stakeholder engagement before Committee Stage. Although this is very welcome, the elephant in the room is third level funding. There is gross underfunding across public sector education. We have facilitated the passage of legislation such as this and the Technological Universities Act 2018, which certainly enhance our education system at third level. The truth, however, is that the third level system is creaking and is currently unable to maintain itself because of a lack of Government funding. That must change.
We need to get much more funding into the system and have more certainty on the funding that will be available because class sizes at third level are too high; they are way above international standards. That is having a reputational effect on the league tables and college rankings. On a practical level, that discourages students who only want to attend certain highly ranked universities, perhaps those in the top 50 or 100 worldwide, of which we should have two, three or four. It then results in a revenue issue for the universities because they depend on foreign students coming here. It is, therefore, a vicious circle. When public funding is reduced, our reputation in terms of the international rankings goes down. That discourages fee-paying students from outside the European Union from coming here and results in a decrease in the funds third level colleges have to fund what they want to fund. That has to change and it must be a major focus of legislation such as this. It will certainly be a major focus for us as usual in the run-up to the budget and the general election, whenever it will happen. If those on this side of the House have anything to do with it, it will not happen before the budget, but it will happen at some point after that.
We were disappointed - I have said this publicly in the media also - that some of the money raised from the increase in the employer contribution to the national training fund was deducted from general State funding for the third level sector and not fully replaced. The State is now putting less money into third level education because of the increase in the national training fund when the spirit of the Cassells report was that the national training levy would be increased. It did not state anything about reducing the level of State funding by a corresponding amount. Because of that, there is now less funding being put in by the State this year, which is a pity.
The Minister of State sits at the Cabinet table, but she is not the Minister for Education and Skills. The Minister for Education and Skills has a solemn duty to fight harder than the former Minister, Deputy Bruton, did last summer in ensuring adequate funding is given to the third level sector and that any further increase - I think there is another due in the national training fund - will not simply be an excuse to remove money the State has provided in previous years.
We welcome key aspects of the Bill which seeks to regulate the English language school sector which, as we all know, has been manipulated by rogue English language schools to exploit students and employees. The sudden closure last December of Grafton College in Portobello provided the most recent example of how much regulation is needed in this sector for workers. Twenty-three teachers were left abandoned by their employer, empty handed without their wages and with no chance of financial compensation.
The Bill provides an opportunity to address the lack of regulation of English language schools and the problems created by that absence. Teachers and students need certainty and protection while working or studying. While we welcome the principle behind the Bill, prior to it being amended there was a distinct lack of focus on regulating employment practices in the sector. We are happy this has been noted and that the relevant amendments have been accepted to strengthen the Bill.
We know that the sector is characterised by low pay, precarious employment and often a complete disregard for workers’ rights. We are also aware that fixed term contracts are frequently abused by employers. Teachers have been regularly released from their contract prior to Christmas and rehired in January in order that the payment of holiday pay can be avoided. Zero hour contracts are common place, as well as bogus self-employment. Even though all of this is a flagrant abuse of power, workers are reluctant to take a case to the Workplace Relations Commission, WRC, out the fear that once their contract expires it will not be renewed. That is the reason minimum employment standards for teachers must be a key pillar of any code of practice which employers should have to meet to be awarded an international employment mark, IEM. The introduction of the international education mark which should ensure high standards will be maintained in English language schools for both students and employees and that the schools will be compliant with employment law is a progressive step.
The requirement that providers that are seeking to adopt the IEM must adhere to a code of practice related to HR policies and procedures for the recruitment, training, employment and continuous professional development of teachers in the English language education sector is also very much to be welcomed. This type of regulation is necessary to deter bogus schools from setting up and closing in a matter of weeks or months with no consequences.
Since it was introduced, a lot of work has been done by Senators to strengthen it to ensure employment standards feature as a core component of the Bill. Its absence was one of our main concerns. Obviously, the onus is on employers to sign up to the proposed agreement in order to achieve the international education mark. The positive to be taken from this is that any employer who refuses to do so will be exposed. Any English language school that does not agree to adhere to these employment standards will be shown to be potentially unreliable or untrustworthy and, accordingly, students and teachers will be able to choose the schools in which they want to study or work. It should ensure rogue employers masquerading as legitimate schools will be shown for what they really are.
Ireland has always been a hub for English language teaching and historically has had an excellent record and reputation abroad. Unfortunately, school closures, including like that of Grafton College in Portobello, have damaged them. I hope this legislation will help us to regain the standards for which we were once known and eliminate the potential for abuse of the language sector by individuals driven by profit through the exploitation of staff and students. There should be a focus on marketing the sector in a renewed way once legislation is passed. This is a valuable sector that brings thousands of students to Ireland and contributes to the economy on a yearly basis. The international education mark could essentially act as a marketing tool when schools advertise their courses abroad and raise the reputation and standards of the whole sector.
In order to allow solid and serious regulation of the sector to take place and be consistent, consultation needs to continue with the appropriate stakeholders. Significant work has been carried out for years by the Unite trade union and in playing an important role in strengthening sections of the Bill in the interests of workers in the sector. It is vital that the Department continue to consult and discuss during the implementation and ongoing governance of the Bill to ensure workers’ rights are maintained to the best standards.
We welcome the provision in the Bill that will enable Quality and Qualifications Ireland, QQI, to address the issue of academic cheating. The Qualifications and Quality Assurance (Education and Training) (Amendment) Bill creates an offence of advertising or providing essay mills services and other forms of cheating such as sitting an examination for a candidate. This is absolutely necessary and we support that provision.
Following the Bill’s passage through the Seanad, it was amended to empower QQI to assess the compliance of providers with employment law, to withdraw authorisation for use of the IEM where such non-compliance is found and to establish a pathway for higher education institutions, the primary source of income of which is not funding from the Exchequer such as the RCSI to access and use the title of “university”. We understand the thinking and rationale behind the Bill in providing for a new mechanism for higher education institutions to apply for university designation. Higher education institutions that meet particular eligibility criteria such as having statutory degree awarding powers and which have established a reputation for excellence should be eligible to apply for university status, given their contributions to the education sector. However, we, in Sinn Féin, have serious concerns about a specific institution which has been tipped as a prime example for this consideration.
Sinn Féin recognises the important work of the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland which it applauds for the service it has provided in training surgeons who work in hospitals, as well as students spread all across the world. However, it is widely known that it has a campus in Bahrain where widespread human rights abuses have taken place in hospitals in which RCSI students receive training. Ceartas: Irish Lawyers for Human Rights has called on the Irish Medical Council not to approve the RCSI’s Bahrain campus for accreditation because of these widespread abuses carried out by the autocratic and sectarian regime that rules in Bahrain. Many former students of RCSI Bahrain have been arrested, tortured and imprisoned because they treated victims of the regime’s security services. They operated as medics under the hippocratic oath in attempting simply to save lives, but they were victimised for it by the regime and have suffered and continue to suffer brutal consequences. The RCSI has refused to condemn the regime for this or recognise what is happening. Ceartas has plainly stated RCSI Bahrain has "an education programme integrated with health systems connected to torture, discriminatory conduct in the provision of healthcare and employment of medical staff, and consistent violation of the rights to freedom of expression." We are deeply concerned about the RCSI’s connection to this brutal regime and that a proposed name change would grant legitimacy to the RCSI's campus in Bahrain. Given this stance, we could not support the proposed amendment tabled by the Labour Party and Fine Gael in the Seanad that would have ultimately led to recognising the RCSI as a university. I take the opportunity to call once again on the RCSI to make a public statement to distance itself from the Bahraini regime and condemn the actions of the Bahraini state. My colleague Senator Paul Gavan raised this concern on Committee Stage in the Seanad and we will be tabling an amendment to address the issue on Committee Stage in the Dáil.
The Minister of State, Deputy Mitchell-O'Connor, has said the purpose of the Bill is to further empower QQI as a regulator of quality and strengthen the agency's role in ensuring high standards across Ireland's education system. The Bill will also enable QQI to clarify, strengthen and make more efficient the operation of existing policies, which is welcome. However, the second key provision relates to the examination of the bona fides and financial capacity of providers.
As part of strengthening QQI's quality assurance procedures, the Bill seeks to provide a legal basis for it to examine the bona fides and financial capacity of the providers with which it engages. This will enable it to assess a provider's capacity to provide programmes of education and training consistent with the quality assurance processes and procedures required by the 2012 Act.
As we know, a substantial amount of this Bill was only brought forward after a 2015 High Court decision relating to the lack of protections for students attending English language schools here. It is necessary, as that case and others proved so damaging to our reputation. We pride ourselves on enticing students from across the world to learn English here. It is so sad when the trust of those students is abused, after they have paid considerable sums and are here on the basis that they will learn English on a quality course. It is clear to many of us, including the Minister of State and her officials, that some of these operations were doomed to failure and would be unable to continue. They were not based on proper foundations and were bound to fail. That is very damaging for the English-language students and gives them a bad taste of our country, which is a nation of hospitable people. We must condemn such providers who threw those people to the wolves and just left them. In many cases, the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection and voluntary groups had to try to support them while they were here without payments or accommodation, or access to what they came here for, which was to get a knowledge of the English language in the schools which they believed were reputable when they signed up for their courses.
I understand that this sector is worth €1.58 billion to the economy which is not small money. However, while protecting students is to be admired, I seek clarity on some issues. As ever, we cannot use a sledgehammer to crack a chestnut and we must think of all the different aspects, tentacles and far-reaching consequences of strong measures to protect and safeguard those students while we bring those schools under legislation. For example, I still have concerns which Senator Gallagher raised in the Seanad debate on the Bill. These remain to be fully clarified. There it was noted that the Bill makes several positive contributions, for example, by improving protections for English language students, providing greater powers to tackle cheating, introducing new powers to recognise private colleges and giving institutes of technology the power to confer degrees. That said, concerns were raised about whether the proposed supports under the learner protection fund, LPF, would see the State step in to act as an insurer for private language schools. Will the Minister of State clarify that this would not lead to a potential cost to the State? I share the concern raise by Senator Ruane who pointed out the possible impact on the new learner protection fund on smaller community education projects and organisations. It is here, for those smaller providers or smaller voluntary entities which need to be protected that my concerns lie.