Seanad debates

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Qualifications and Quality Assurance (Education and Training) Bill 2011: Second Stage

 

Question proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

3:00 pm

Photo of Ruairi QuinnRuairi Quinn (Minister, Department of Education and Skills; Dublin South East, Labour)
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I am pleased to bring the Qualifications and Quality Assurance (Education and Training) Bill 2011 before the House. The main purpose of the Bill is to amalgamate the National Qualifications Authority of Ireland, the Higher Education and Training Awards Council, known as HETAC, and the Further Education and Training Awards Council, known as FETAC. The new agency will also take on responsibility for the external quality assurance of universities, which is currently carried out by the Irish Universities Quality Board. Before outlining why I am proposing the reforms set out in the Bill, I want to give a short explanation of the nature and functions of the agencies that will be amalgamated. I will also touch on some of the important work they have undertaken, much of which has prepared the path for amalgamation.

NQAI, HETAC and FETAC were established in 2001 under the Qualifications (Education and Training) Act 1999. The core role of the NQAI is to establish and maintain a national framework of qualifications, which is a critical support for lifelong learning. The National Framework of Qualifications, the NFQ, was launched in 2003. It is a system of ten levels that incorporates awards made for all kinds of learning, wherever it is gained. Awards made in Ireland by national awarding bodies, from basic literacy awards up to doctoral degrees, have been included in the framework and it also provides the basis for recognising international qualifications. The NQAI promotes access, transfer and progression opportunities for learners across the education and training system, consistent with the overall aims of the framework. It facilitates the recognition of Irish qualifications internationally and the recognition of international qualifications in Ireland. The NQAI does this at a systematic level through European and broader international agreements, but also at an individual level through its qualifications recognition service. It agrees and reviews the quality assurance arrangements of the Dublin Institute of Technology and the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland. More recently, it took over responsibility for the Advisory Council for English Language Schools, which inspects and quality assures English language schools.

FETAC and HETAC make awards to more than 200,000 learners annually. Indeed, earlier today, I awarded 25 level five FETAC awards. Their awards are made in the further and non-university higher education and training sectors. They also agree and review providers' quality assurance arrangements and validate their programmes of education and training. They provide services to providers such as the VECs, FÁS, community training and education centres, Fáilte Ireland, Teagasc, the institutes of technology and private further and higher education and training institutions. HETAC and FETAC have developed standards for awards in a wide range of disciplines. A large number of individual programmes of education and training offered by a broad spectrum of public and private providers have been validated and quality assured. Through their systems of major, minor, supplemental and special purpose awards, the award councils and providers are at the forefront of efforts to offer flexible and responsive learning pathways.

The Irish Universities Quality Board was established in 2003 by the seven universities to externally review their quality assurance activities and to support quality enhancement. The IUQB has developed a detailed quality review process and has completed a full cycle of reviews. A second cycle is under way.

Before the agencies were established, there was little shared understanding of how the various awards in the State related to one another and approaches to quality were uneven and unsystematic. The relationship between university awards and those awarded elsewhere in higher education was sometimes unclear, while in further education and training, more than 50 awards bodies were operating. The four agencies have made major progress in bringing coherence and consistency to Irish qualifications, in developing awards standards, in providing quality assurance to educational providers and programmes and in facilitating progression opportunities for learners.

I will now outline the rationale for the amalgamation. Our economic recovery will be driven by how we develop and use the knowledge, skills and creativity of our people. We must ensure that we cater for the needs of all learners, including those coming into further and higher education straight from school, those undertaking research in our universities, those looking to retrain and reskill following a period of unemployment and those seeking to supplement the skills they have developed in the workplace. Senators will be aware of the structural reforms under way in the provision of higher and further education and training, in particular through the implementation of key recommendations of the Hunt report and the establishment of Solas. However, it is also vital that we have fair and responsive ways of enabling learners to access and move between programmes and institutions, that learners can be assured of a quality experience in those institutions and that the qualifications our learners receive enjoy wide recognition and respect.

All of the agencies being amalgamated have made major progress in these areas. The national framework of qualifications has matured and qualifications and quality assurance systems have been established in the various sectors. The linkages from the framework to progression and access policies and onwards to awarding and quality assurance are now such that four separate bodies operating in this area is no longer the best organisational response. Progress can now be most efficiently and effectively achieved through the establishment of a strong single organisation prioritising the needs of learners and delivering quality service to providers. The amalgamation of agencies is also a key part of the Government's overall public sector reform agenda and the establishment of the authority will result in cost savings.

NQAI, HETAC and FETAC have already delivered significant savings through implementation of the moratorium and through expenditure reduction across their range of activities. The bodies' collective Exchequer allocation for current expenditure in 2011 of almost €9 million is approximately 30% lower than outturn in 2008. Further savings will be achieved through rationalised corporate structures and supports and through integration of services. Overall, the establishment of the amalgamated agency will save money, deliver a more efficient and integrated service, uphold quality and standards in our qualifications and institutions and will bring a strong focus to creating flexible pathways for learners at all stages. The Bill sets out the overall structure of the amalgamated organisation and provides for its functions in the areas of quality assurance of education and training providers, maintaining the national framework of qualifications, approving programmes for education and training, making awards to learners and delegating authority to institutions to make awards, procedures for learners to access programmes of education and training and to transfer and progress between programmes, developing a code of practice for institutions, enrolling international learners and awarding an international education mark to qualifying institutions and protecting learners in the event of the closure of an institution.

The Bill repeals the Qualifications (Education and Training) Act 1999, under which HETAC, FETAC and NQAI were established. Provisions on board composition and corporate governance have been revised and updated from the 1999 Act and the functions of the existing agencies have been consolidated. The statutory basis for the relationship of the new agency with various classes of provider and other stakeholders has been clarified and updated and the opportunity has been taken to address issues arising from the implementation of the 1999 legislation since its enactment. New provisions on the regulation of providers offering education and training services to international students have been included.

The new amalgamated agency's official title will be the Qualifications and Quality Assurance Authority of Ireland, QQAAI. However, the Bill allows the Minister for Education and Skills to assign a different name to the authority for operational purposes. This is similar to the arrangement where the National Tourism Development Authority is known as Fáilte Ireland. It should be noted that administrative preparations for amalgamation are advancing under the co-ordination of an interim board of QQAAI, comprising the chairpersons of NQAI, HETAC, FETAC and IUQB. Work is being overseen by the CEO designate of QQAAI, who was appointed in October 2010. The CEO designate is now also CEO of all four existing bodies following the retirement on completion of contract or voluntary resignation of serving CEOs. Progressing this work will enable the early establishment of the amalgamated agency following enactment of this legislation.

I will now outline the main provisions of the Bill for the benefit of the House. The Bill is set out in ten Parts and contains 80 sections. Part 1of the Bill is entitled "Preliminary and General" and covers the first six sections. These sections include provisions on citation and commencement, on the making of regulations, on repeals and on expenses incurred in the administration of the Bill. Section 2 defines the key terms used in the Bill and sets out the different categories of education and training providers to whom it applies. A wide range of education and training providers are covered by the provisions of the Bill, including existing universities and their linked providers, including colleges of education; new universities established under section 9 of the Universities Act 1997, of which it should be noted there are currently none; the Dublin Institute of Technology and the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland who, like universities, have their own awarding powers; recognised colleges of the National University of Ireland; providers whose programmes are validated by the authority and lead to awards of the authority such as the VECs, FÁS and private providers; providers who have delegated authority to make awards - it should be noted that only institutes of technology currently have this authority - and providers who apply to be granted the International Education Mark for provision of education to international learners. It should be noted that structural changes in the provision of further and higher education and training, such as the establishment of technological universities and the foundation of Solas, will be implemented through separate legislation. The overall quality and awarding framework set out in this Bill can be readily applied to any new structures emerging.

Part 2 of the Bill is entitled "Qualifications and Quality Assurance Authority of Ireland" and covers sections 7 to 25. Schedule 1 of the Bill is also associated with this Part. This Part deals with the establishment and corporate structure of the amalgamated body and also sets out the body's overall functions. The board of the authority will have eight members, including the CEO, and will be directly appointed by the Minister for Education and Skills. Unlike its predecessor bodies, there is no provision for nominations from stakeholder organisations to the board of QQAAI. Given the relationships QQAAI will have with organisations throughout education and training, I believe the stakeholder nomination model would have resulted in a board too large to be fit for purpose. The body will consult widely in the performance of its functions and does not require all stakeholders to be represented in its governance structures. Board members must have expertise in, and experience of, matters related to the functions of the authority. At least one member will be representative of learners and one will have international experience. The Minister may from time to time review the operation of the authority.

Part 3 of the Bill is entitled "Quality Assurance" and covers sections 26 to 37. This Part sets out how providers must establish and implement quality assurance procedures to cover the provision of education and training and related services and have them approved by the authority, which will also periodically review their effectiveness. The core provisions, although much more detailed, are similar to those in the Qualifications (Education and Training) Act 1999 and the Universities Act 1997. There are, however, some significant changes.

The provisions of the Bill extend to a greater number of providers than previously. For the first time, there is provision for the establishment of quality assurance procedures by linked providers of universities, such as colleges of education, and by recognised colleges of the National University of Ireland. The Bill also makes statutory provision for the external review of the effectiveness of the quality assurance procedures of universities. This was being done by the Irish Universities Quality Board but under delegated power from the universities themselves. Acknowledging the greater autonomy that universities traditionally enjoy here in Ireland and internationally, the authority will not have a specific approval role for the quality assurance procedures of universities. However, universities must implement the authority's directions following a review.

The Bill explicitly provides that the authority can withdraw its approval of the quality assurance arrangements of providers and that, in those circumstances, validation of all programmes is automatically withdrawn and awarding arrangements terminated. It clearly places the overarching quality assurance agreement at the heart of the authority's relationship with providers. Furthermore, the Bill empowers the authority to undertake quality reviews at a cross-institutional level. This could include reviews of a particular subject or award type or reviews of provision on a regional basis.

Part 4of the Bill is entitled "Standards and Awards" and covers sections 38 to 53. This Part sets out the provisions regarding the national framework of qualifications and the making of awards by the authority. It enables the authority to determine the standards of knowledge, skill or competence to be acquired by a learner before an award is made. The Part sets out the procedures whereby providers may apply to the authority to have a programme of education and training validated. It also provides for the delegation of authority to make awards. Awarding power is currently only delegated to institutes of technology but the Bill enables delegation to a wider set of providers subject to certain conditions being met and a review being undertaken.

The Bill provides that procedures for access, transfer and progression must be developed by providers. These cover how learners can access programmes and move between them in flexible ways, while receiving recognition for their learning already achieved.

In a change from the provisions of the Qualifications (Education and Training) Act 1999, public providers who do not have their own awarding power will be permitted to enter into award-making arrangements with an awarding body other than the authority. This will give providers access to a wider and evolving range of awards. The awards made must be recognised through the national framework of qualifications which means that they are quality-assured and that progression opportunities are understood.

Part 5of the Bill is entitled "Code of Practice and International Education Mark" and covers sections 54 to 57. This Part sets out the arrangements for providers of programmes to international learners. The authority will develop a code of practice for providing education to international learners. Providers will be able to apply for an International Education Mark based on their compliance with the code of practice. This code will be based on strong requirements around academic quality and cover such issues as the treatment of fees and support services for international students. The code of practice and International Education Mark are core elements of Investing in Global Relationships, Ireland's international education strategy. They will be important supports in enhancing Ireland's international education offering, assuring international learners of a high quality educational experience in Ireland.

Part 6of the Bill is entitled "Protection of Enrolled Learners" and covers sections 58 to 61. This Part sets out the arrangements that providers which offer programmes leading to awards of the authority must have in place for the protection of learners in the event of the provider ceasing trading. The arrangements must be put in place where a programme is of at least three months duration and can be an agreement between the provider and two other providers to allow learners to transfer to a similar programme or, where this is not possible, arrangements for the refund of moneys paid. These arrangements are unchanged from the provision of the 1999 Act but extend to a wider set of providers. The arrangements do not apply to certain providers, generally those publicly funded, including universities, institutes of technology, FÁS, Fáilte Ireland, Teagasc, Bord lascaigh Mhara, VECs and recognised schools.

Part 7 is entitled "Appeals" and covers sections 62 to 64. This Part provides for a process to be put in place to enable appeals against a range of decisions of the authority. Appeals will be determined by an appeals panel under published procedures. The appeals panel will be appointed by the Minister for Education and Skills and will consist of at least ten people with a special interest or expertise in, or knowledge of, the functions of the authority.

Part 8is entitled "Dissolution of Bodies" and covers sections 65 to 71. This Part provides for the dissolution of National Qualifications Authority of Ireland, NQAI, the Further Education and Training Awards Council, FETAC, and the Higher Education and Training Awards Council, HETAC. Any reference to those bodies in a legal document will now be construed as a reference to the new authority. Any claim or legal proceedings by or against a dissolved body will lie with the new authority. All property, assets and records of each of the dissolved bodies will transfer to the new authority.

Part 9is entitled "Miscellaneous Provisions" and covers sections 72 to 77. This Part sets out miscellaneous provisions such as the maintenance of a register of providers and a database, fees that the authority may charge, provisions regarding institutes of technology and service of documents.

Part 10isentitled "Transitional and Savings Provisions for Act of 1999, Amendments of other Acts" and covers sections 78 to 80. This Part, together with Schedule 3, provides for transitional and savings provision for the Qualifications Act 1999 and for amendments of other Acts. This allows for the continuation of certain policies and criteria under the 1999 Act until such time as the authority adopts new procedures.

These provisions cover such matters as agreed quality assurance procedures, reviews, policies and criteria for validation of programme and applications for validation, awards by a dissolved body to be an award of the authority, policies and criteria standards for awards, policies and criteria for making of awards, delegation of authority and NQAI procedures for access, transfer and progression and charters.

There are 3 Schedules to the Bill. Schedule 1deals with the particulars of membership and meetings of the authority. Schedule 2lists Acts repealed and statutory instruments revoked. Section 35 of the Universities Act, which deals with quality assurance, is to be repealed, together with the entire Qualifications (Education and Training) Act 1999. Schedule 3 lists amendments to other Acts. There are 16 such amendments in total.

This Bill is an important step in maintaining and improving standards in education and training for all learners, including those who choose to come to Ireland from overseas. I hope that Senators will agree that at a time of increasing diversity of demand and in challenging economic conditions, this is important legislation. I look forward to listening to the views of Senators today and to further debate as the Bill progresses through the Houses of the Oireachtas. I commend the Bill to the House. Debate adjourned.