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.
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.
The Bill is a timely and important tranche of legislation to protect the reputation of all aspects of higher education in this country. It also protects the students whose families often make extensive efforts to provide English language and other third level education, including students from outside the European Economic Area.
As colleagues have mentioned, the protection of teachers or workers in the sector is vital. From looking at the Bill it seems the Minister of State has not included any additional sections in that regard. People will recall the collapse of Grafton College Dublin and the way people were left without wages and so on. That only happened a few months ago.
Last Saturday, TheGuardianpublished its annual rating of approximately 80 British universities. The University of St Andrews in Scotland beat the University Oxford to second place. The University of Cambridge was first. I looked out for the position of my alma mater, the University of London. The analysis for TheGuardianfocused keenly on the experiences of students and the quality of teaching. I am not aware of a similar annual study of Irish third level institutions. Given this legislation that is perhaps an area where we need to look not only in terms of rating institutions but the overall quality of the work they do.
The British and Irish colleges all depend on large numbers of international students for significant income. They provide international students as well as our native students with a quality education that must be the hallmark of third and fourth level training.
The acute need for the Bill emerged following a decision by the High Court in 2015. The High Court held that QQI, established under the 2012 Act, did not have statutory powers to operate the accreditation and co-ordination of English language services scheme. The background to the High Court case was the well-publicised closure of several schools that offered diploma-type awards to international students. In the period from the spring of 2014 to early 2015 approximately 16 schools closed. We saw students marching in different parts of the city and throughout the country to highlight the amount of money that they and their families had spent on trying to get an education. In her judgment in 2015 Ms Justice Baker noted that students from outside the EEA could obtain a stamp 2 visa permitting them to remain in the State for 12 months. This involved studying part-time for six months and a further six-month period for full-time work. The judgment mentions and details poor standards and attendance records from some schools and a perception that some students were in fact economic migrants mainly interested in seeking work. Some went on to seek stamp 4 and full residency status in Ireland. All of us in the Chamber have experience of representing these students over the years, some of whom have acquired Irish citizenship. Ms Justice Baker pointed out the particular role that these schools have played in this area.
Under section 61 of the 2012 Act, Quality and Qualifications Ireland has powers to award the international education mark, a mark that can be displayed by an education provider to show that the college or school complies with standards, procedures and practices mandated by QQI. Section 25 of this Bill rightly expands and clarifies the powers of QQI to introduce and award the IEM. QQI has published the code of practice for provision of programmes of education and training to international learners. Section 25 will now put this code of practice for education providers on a full statutory footing. This is to be welcomed. Under section 25, QQI may also establish and publish different codes of practice for different relevant or linked providers or for groups of providers as well as for different classes of programmes. This is also welcome.
Just as in the UK, Irish higher education has derived considerable income from the teaching of international students, as my colleagues who spoke earlier have mentioned. An excellent Bills digest for this Bill was prepared by the Oireachtas Library and Research Service. It references the Central Statistics Office data on how the direct output of English language training in private and HEA-funded institutes was worth approximately €800 million in 2014-15. Further output effects of the sector produce an additional €800 million. This brings the figure in total to approximately €1.6 billion. It is Government policy to try to develop value in this sector to approximately €2 billion worth of net benefit to the economy by the coming academic year.
A core principle underlying the development is the protection of enrolled learners - the students themselves.
Section 65 of the 2012 Act made arrangements for QQI to protect these students where an education provider is unable to deliver a programme. Hopefully, this provision will be greatly strengthened by section 25 and the other sections of the Bill before us, including sections 27 and 28, and by the creation of the learner protection fund in particular. Section 29 replaces section 66 of the 2012 Act, and provides that in the event of a college programme default, the learner protection fund may be used by QQI to defray costs of completion of the enrolled learner programme, defray payment of fees for transfer onto another similar programme with a different provider or pay a refund to the enrolled learner. That section, and the creation of this fund, are very welcome.
Over the past decade or so, there has been an explosion of online services providing essays and reports for third-level student assignments, which Deputy Jan O'Sullivan referred to as well. Section 15, or the new section 43A of the 2012 Act, will attempt to address this development of what is effectively online cheating through crimes of impersonation and other attempts to cheat and unfairly manipulate exams. The new section 43A of the principal Act makes it an offence to provide or advertise cheating services, including undertaking assignments for an enrolled learner, sitting an examination in the enrolled learner’s place or providing answers for an exam without authorisation from an examiner. A number of studies have been carried out into contract cheating at third level, as the Bills digest tells us. Many show that jurisdictions like the UK, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the US have criminal legislation in place, but the laws have not been very effective so far. Some of the problems with implementing these types of laws are the international nature of contract cheating due to the Internet, and the fact that plagiarism may be difficult to prove or is sometimes regarded as a moral transgression, rather than fraud or a criminal act. The new section 43A provided for in section 15 of this Bill seems well justified and hopefully will be a basis for preventing some of this behaviour.
Section 36 of the Bill, which gives institutes of technology their own award-making powers, is also very welcome. However, doctoral awards are excluded from that provision. I did not hear the Minister of State's introductory speech but I wonder on what is that exclusion based. My own belief, and that of many others, is that all citizens are entitled to third level education and that all of our key universities, technological universities and institutes should have full degree awarding powers.
The reforms encompassed by this Bill are timely. The events of four or five years ago, which led to the closure of colleges and the mistreatment of at least 3,000 mostly non-EEA students were totally unacceptable. Between 2010 and 2015, the number of those students in Ireland increased by almost 60% to around 33,000, with about 106,000 students in English language training institutions specifically. Deputy Lahart mentioned that if Brexit were to go ahead, which seems more likely now, we would be the only English-speaking country in the European Union. That is excluding the Netherlands, where English is more or less a second language, but we would be the only native English speakers. Hopefully, the measures before us will give QQI all the necessary powers to police and invigilate this sector, and any remaining problems with the Bill will be addressed by further presentations or on Committee Stage.
I thank the Deputies for their interesting and in-depth contributions, and I welcome the support that has been expressed. Several different issues have been raised and I will try to deal with some of them. Deputies Thomas Byrne and Mattie McGrath raised a point last night about the protection of enrolled learners, PEL, fund and the resourcing of the learner protection fund, which was raised again today as well. The fund, as proposed in this Bill, is designed to address shortfalls which have been identified in the current arrangements for the protection of enrolled learners. The practical implementation and operation of the provision relating to PEL under the existing 2012 Act have proved problematic. The learner protection fund provides a comprehensive solution to these challenges in a cost-effective manner. While the Bill contains an enabling provision allowing the Exchequer to contribute to the PEL fund if required, the intention is that the fund will be fully resourced from provider contributions, and that the potential for risk transfer to the State will be avoided. The approach being taken to the learner protection fund in the Bill is based on models that have been adopted and successfully implemented in other jurisdictions, such as Australia and New Zealand.
Community and voluntary sector fees were also mentioned and were also debated when this Bill went through the Seanad. There is a proposal to exempt some sections of this sector from the annual charge and providers are under no obligation to engage with QQI. Providers only have to contribute to the learner protection fund in cases where they wish to have their programmes validated by QQI. The community and voluntary sector is not a homogenous group. QQI has approximately 130 providers that have self-declared as community and voluntary. This is a very diverse group of providers, with an equally diverse cohort of learners. Some of the self-declared community and voluntary providers operate on a for-profit commercial basis and charge students fees for programmes. Protection for enrolled learner measures are necessary to ensure the payments made by these students are safeguarded in these cases. Some of the community and voluntary providers will be automatically exempt from paying into the fund, as QQI has advised that about 25% of the providers in this category are only delivering programmes up to level 5 on the national framework of qualifications. These tend to be very short-term programmes of less than three months' duration. Similarly, any programmes where money is not paid on behalf of or by a learner will be exempt from the fund. This would include programmes that are publicly funded by the Exchequer through back-to-work schemes or upskilling programmes offered by education and training boards, ETBs, for example. The intention is that the PEL charge will only apply when a provider accepts moneys from or on behalf of a learner in respect of programmes with a minimum duration of three months. The annual charge for the learner protection fund will be developed by QQI in consultation with all relevant stakeholders against a set of criteria which will include the number of learners enrolled on the programme, the level of the fees being charged by providers, and the risk weighting. QQI will be asked specifically to consult with providers before the level of payments into the fund is agreed. It should be noted that following its passage through the Seanad, QQI will now be required to undertake periodic reviews of the fund. As part of this review process, QQI must consult with providers on the operation of the fund and the levels of the annual charge.
Employment rights have been raised by many Members.
I assure the House that I am probably the Member who most wants to ensure that teachers are properly paid and their conditions of work are proper and appropriate. This matter was also raised in the Seanad.
We have strengthened the QQI's role as a regulator in this regard. For example, we have addressed these concerns and strengthened the provisions of the international education mark, IEM, to ensure that the providers who hold that mark are in compliance with employment law. This includes an additional power for QQI to withdraw the IEM from those providers that it finds to be in breach of employment law.
I wish to highlight the role and work of Mr. Patrick King, whom I appointed as a mediator to work with the employer and employee representatives in this sector. He is engaging with those stakeholders in a bid to secure an agreement on a set of appropriate employment standards. As I have informed the Seanad, I want all sides to continue their engagement in the mediation process with the aim of reaching a comprehensive agreement that will benefit the sector in the short and long term. As Deputy Jan O'Sullivan requested, I will keep her informed as this issue develops and passes through Dáil Éireann.
Deputy Thomas Byrne has been helpful regarding the Bill. Numerous times, he referred to stakeholder consultation process on the Bill. I understand that the Joint Committee on Education and Skills, which is chaired by Deputy O'Loughlin, is organising a stakeholder engagement meeting on Tuesday, 18 June, which is next week.
My Department is happy to engage with the process and answer questions on the Bill. Someone asked who the stakeholders invited to the meeting would be. That will be up to the committee's Chair.
If the Deputies believe there is someone else who should attend the meeting, I would be glad to get their names.
I have addressed most of the points raised. We will engage in the stakeholder consultation process next week and, the week after that, we will continue taking the Bill through the House. I thank Members.