Thursday, 7 February 2019
Qualifications and Quality Assurance (Education and Training) (Amendment) Bill 2018: Committee Stage (Resumed)
I wish to address the matter of stakeholder engagement, which has been of great concern to Senators. I also want to remedy and remediate the indiscretion in that regard. I wanted to ensure that it would be procedurally possible for the Joint Committee on Education and Skills to continue with its proposed stakeholder engagement once the Bill had been introduced in this House. The joint committee has decided that such an engagement will commence once the Bill completes its progress through the Seanad. I understand that it will be procedurally possible to do this before the debate on the in the Dáil commences. This is priority legislation that will strengthen the regulatory framework for further and higher education, as well as for the English language sector. Therefore, I hope Members from all parties will co-operate to ensure that the stakeholder engagement does not result in any delay to the progress of the Bill.
I am very pleased to be back here having had the debate during the previous session. When this Bill was last before the House, it was just days after the closure of Grafton College. This closure highlighted issues surrounding employment practices in the English language education sector. I wish to provide the House with a brief update on developments relating to this provider since last December. I can report that those learners who were enrolled in Grafton College at the time of its closure have now been transferred to other schools in order to complete their courses. This was achieved under learner protection arrangements put in place by Marketing English Ireland, MEI. I thank MEI and its members alongside the staff of Quality and Qualifications Ireland, QQI, and the Department of Justice and Equality for their efforts in supporting these students. I have been informed that a liquidator has been appointed in respect of Grafton College and that this case now has the status of a formal insolvency arrangement. In such cases, it is the responsibility of the liquidator to make applications on behalf of employees for payments from the redundancy payments scheme in respect of statutory redundancy and from the insolvency payments scheme in respect of wage-related entitlements. Employees of Grafton College should direct queries in this regard to the appointed liquidator, which is happening.
One of the key objectives in bringing forward this legislation was to ensure that Ireland has an English language sector in which we can all have confidence and which provides a quality education to international students coming here to learn English. There is no doubt that teachers and staff in this sector are a central element in ensuring the quality of that educational provision. I made a commitment in December to appoint an experienced mediator to meet the bodies representing employers and employees in the English language education sector to explore the potential for a set of minimum employment standards that could be agreed for the English language sector. Last month, I formally appointed Mr. Patrick King, the former general secretary of the Association of Secondary Teachers in Ireland, ASTI, to this role and issued invitations to the various stakeholders from the sector to engage in this process. Mr. King has met with a number of these stakeholders, including trade union representatives, to discuss and identify the key issues impacting the sector. I encourage all relevant stakeholders, particularly providers, to engage meaningfully in this process. It is in all our interests to strengthen the quality of English language provision in Ireland. This is something I am committed to achieving. When we last debated the issue of employment practices in the English language sector I accepted the principle behind what Senators were aiming to achieve with their amendments in this area. We are all in agreement that situations such as that with respect to Grafton College should not occur and that English language teachers should not go without pay or be prevented from accessing the full suite of employment rights supported by the State. My primary concern is that any proposals to involve QQI in employment right issues would be consistent with the existing legal framework and consistent with QQI's regulatory remit. Otherwise, such proposals will be unworkable and open to challenge.
I accept the principle of the Labour Party amendment that has been accepted by this House. It provides that the codes of practice that providers will need to comply with to become eligible for the international education mark, IEM, will include criteria relating to compliance with quality standards for the recruitment, employment and necessitation of employment of employees, and with employment law generally. It further provides that in establishing requirements in these areas QQI shall consult with trade unions or staff associations that represent the employees of these providers. As I mentioned, I fully accept the principle behind the Labour Party amendment. However, I have asked my officials to obtain the advice of the Attorney General to ensure that the wording of the amendment is consistent with the existing legal framework of employment rights. I will not be seeking to remove the amendment on Report Stage or subsequently. I am willing to work with Senator Ó Ríordáin to ensure that the wording of the amendment is consistent with the legal advice from the Attorney General's office when it is received.
Given the additional measures I have undertaken in response to issues highlighted by Senators, namely, the mediation process and the acceptance of the principle of Senator Ó Ríordáin's amendment, I hope we can concentrate our efforts on these measures and that the Senators will not press other amendments in this area.
I wish to inform the House that I will bring forward a further amendment to section 60 of the Act of 2012 on Report Stage. This will be a technical amendment only to align the text of this section with the new requirements being introduced for the protection of enrolled learners.