Thursday, 7 February 2019
Qualifications and Quality Assurance (Education and Training) (Amendment) Bill 2018: Committee Stage (Resumed)
I thank all Senators who have spoken. I also thank the ten Senators who put their names to the proposed amendment. To single out one, Senator James Reilly has me haunted on this issue, but I thank them all for the work they have done.
Members will know from the discussion of these issues on Second Stage, the proposed use of the title "University" in the State by RCSI has arisen on several occasions over a number of years. From having visited the RCSI in Ireland on many occasions, my engagement with staff and students and my knowledge of its international activities, I am very conscious of its unique contribution to the higher education system, the Irish health system and, indeed, Irish society more generally. It is a statutory body and a statutory degree-awarding institution. It has established an outstanding reputation internationally and in Ireland, as mentioned by Senator McFadden, for the quality of the education and training it provides, as well as excellence in research and service to society. I share the sentiments expressed by the ten Senators and the speakers in the House today in regard to the high status and reputation of RCSI, and its performance in terms of certain key characteristics of a university, including, for example, the levels of degrees awarded and its research capability, external accreditation and internal governance.
In terms of the specific amendment proposed, I should state I share the objective the Senators are seeking to achieve. As was the case with the issue which arose previously in the context of the Technological Universities Bill 2015, a key issue is ensuring that we put in place a legally sound mechanism for responding to and resolving this issue. In summary, the advice of the Office of the Attorney General to date is that providing access to the title "University" in the manner proposed is not legally robust. There are already legislative frameworks in place for the recognition of certain higher education institutions as universities. If we are going to extend the categories of institution which can be recognised as a university, there must be a clear and objective basis for this in legislation, namely, to ensure the maintenance of proper standards, to ensure we treat everyone fairly and to safeguard against the risk of a legal challenge which places a burden on the taxpayer.
The Universities Act 1997 and the Technological Universities Act 2018 provide the current legislative frameworks. Suitable amendments would be needed to ensure that any new pathway for recognition as a university is legally sound and that all necessary principles and policies are set out in the legislation to guide the decision maker. As the RCSI is not a publicly-funded higher education institution in the sense of being dependent on public funding, it would not be appropriate for it to be subject to the detailed governance rules in place under the two aforementioned Acts. In this context, my Department has been working closely in consultation with the Office of the Attorney General to explore whether an alternative legislative approach can be found to enable university recognition other than as currently provided for in the 1997 and 2018 Acts. The Department has had significant and constructive engagement with the RCSI on this matter. I am confident it will be possible on Report Stage for me to come to this House to present an amendment that meets the relevant legal and policy objectives.
In summary, I intend if at all possible to bring in an amendment on Report Stage in this House with the objective of putting in place a process to address the issue of university status for RCSI. On Report Stage, I hope we will provide a mechanism whereby a higher education institution with statutory degree-awarding powers and an established reputation for excellence and achievement in higher education provision, research and service to society can apply for authorisation from the Minister of the day to describe itself as a university. The amendment I have in mind would require the institution to make an application to the Minister. It would provide for an independent evaluation process to inform the Minister in evaluating the application and, of course, for the grant or refusal of authorisation by the Minister. In these circumstances, I do not believe it is necessary for Senators to press the amendment. As I have said, I will in any event be proposing a detailed, comprehensive and equitable substitute amendment, which I expect to happen on Report Stage in this House.