Seanad debates

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

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

 

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

4:00 pm

Photo of Averil PowerAveril Power (Fianna Fail)
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Fianna Fáil supports this Bill. In fact, it is delivering on a commitment we set out in Government to amalgamate the various qualifications and quality assurance bodies. It has the potential to be a hugely positive development for many of the reasons the Minister set out in his opening address and it will make it possible to pool the experiences and expertise the various bodies have built up. Generally, they have done a very good job and have developed and become much more successful in recent years. It will enable them to deliver plans more effectively across the whole sector, which is crucial, from further education up to higher education.

It will be easier for providers to have to deal with only one body. We have had experience of the complications that can arise when institutions have to deal with more than one body. Also, establishment of the authority should simplify procedures and make them more effective in terms of enabling progression across the system.

Continuous improvement of our education system and of the quality of education is of huge economic and social importance. This legislation has the potential to assist in that regard. Rather than repeat all of the excellent points made by the Minister in his address, I will focus on a number of areas which it is hoped will be a priority for the Minister and authority. Ultimately, quality assurance is about the student experience and ensuring students have the best possible experience of education. The procedures in place for quality assurance should reflect this. It is important that students' voices and feedback are heard at all levels. In every institution and on every course where quality is being considered, there should be student representatives. I am a former student representative having served while in Trinity as education officer and president on the academic council and board. It is important to ensure there is more than one student representative. Often, a student representative can find himself or herself the only student in the room, which is a difficult position to be in. It is important to ensure the right procedures are followed in choosing students for such panels. Students should not be selected because they might be helpful and so on. Those chosen should be vocal and confident and not intimidated by the fact they might be sitting on a course review with lecturers.

It is important also to ensure student representatives have the training and supports they need. There has been a gap in this respect in the past. I know that the Union of Students in Ireland has made a proposal to the Minister in regard to the Scottish system. I would like to hear the Minister's views on that or whether there are other effective arrangements that could be put in place to ensure training and basic supports such as briefing material and so on is provided so that the students know what their role is, what they are empowered to do, where they can get advice and so on, all of which is important.

I welcome that there will be a student representative on the authority and that the student will be representative of students rather than from a stakeholder body. That is important. I ask that the Minister ensure that students are empowered at all levels. While some institutions have been good at this it is remarkable that while some universities have a number of students on their boards others have only one and that while some universities recognise student unions others do not. Also, some institutions have good procedures for involving students on quality assurance and view it as a positive, which is how it should be viewed. Partnership with learners is the best way to improve. It is in every institution's interest to improve. We learned from the recent university ranking that the quality of the student experience is valued internationally. It is important that the new authority also focus on that issue.

It is important the right balance between internal and external review is achieved. I know that the authority's main role will be external quality assurance. As the Minister correctly stated, the universities have good internal procedures. The main role of the authority will be to support self-evaluation, of which we do not have enough at all levels of our education system. Self-evaluation is crucial. Empowering leadership in institutions at course, departmental and faculty levels and giving people the tools they require to do the job rather than leave them constantly worrying what an external body might say about them is also important.

The Minister referred in his speech to the fact that access, transfer and progression will be key part of the remit of the new authority. Merging the agencies should help in this regard. There is no doubt but that the new framework of qualifications promoted by the previous Government has helped and progression has opened up somewhat. However, we still have a long way to go. I welcome that the new authority will publish procedures for setting out progression pathways. I ask that that be prioritised. That should be one of the first matters to which the authority attends. It is important people, in particular those who did not have a first chance opportunity to go through the whole education system, have a clear path to progression, be it from their local further education college to Trinity. The procedures for doing so should be obvious.

The Minister also spoke about the international reputation of our education system. I welcome that the authority will encourage providers to provide for an international education mark based on their compliance with the code of conduct. Our colleges are not alone ambassadors for the education system but for the country as a whole and when things go wrong or problems arise our reputation as a whole can be damaged. Perhaps the Minister will say if he has had discussions with the Minister for Justice and Equality and other Ministers in regard to link-in in terms of the education mark and student visas.

Fianna Fáil supports the legislation, which pretty much does what it states. I am concerned in the main about the strategies the authority will put in place. I must emphasise that the student experience is a crucial part of this and as such thinking in respect of the new authority should start with the learner at the centre and work out from there. Fianna Fáil will be tabling a number of technical amendments on Committee Stage. The Minister may have received the communication also received by other Members from City & Guilds in regard to a number of definitional issues, which appear reasonable to me. It is in respect of those issues that we propose to table amendments on Committee Stage.

Photo of Jim D'ArcyJim D'Arcy (Fine Gael)
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Ba mhaith liom fáilte a chur roimh an Aire ar ais chuig an Seanad. Tá sé iontach maith le teacht anseo agus molaim é as sin. Ba mhaith liom freisin, mar aon leis an Seanadóir Power, fáilte a chur roimh an Bille seo, not least because for the first time it brings the universities into the same orbit as other third level and further education institutions. It is also cost effective in that it amalgamates a number of quality assurance authorities. However, the most important feature of this Bill is that it will ensure that our qualifications and quality assurance system is in line with best practice internationally in that it allows for external peer review and will thus give a high recognition and value internationally to our awards. This is important for a number of reasons, two of which I will outline.

I believe this will improve our local students' chances in the international jobs market. As a member of the board of governors of DKIT for the past eight years, I am keenly aware of the need for strong international value and recognition of our awards. I believe this legislation will assist in that regard. There are a large number of overseas students studying in our third level institutions. There were 96,000 foreign students - not all at third level - studying in Ireland last year, which is a phenomenal number of people. I do not believe people are aware of that. Also, students who come here for summer, autumn or winter courses often return as full-time university or institute students. As well as being prestigious it is very lucrative to the State that we have international recognition of our awards and a strong authority to determine the quality of those awards. It appears to be difficult for prospective students from India and Nepal to gain entry into our third level institutions compared to Chines students. We have a success rate of more than 90% from India and Nepal but even where they have bank statements and have lodged money into the third level institution, the entry level is very low at 29%. I will not judge why the embassy does not grant the visa. I ask the Minister to look at this particularly in the context that an Indian firm, for example, HLC Technologies has announced plans today to create 80 jobs in Dublin during the next three years. We must develop and improve those links with India and Nepal.

The Minister said he would welcome the views of Senators. It is not usual for the awarding authority to be the quality assurance authority in other countries. It is highly unusual where we have delegated authority to the institutions. Could that issue be looked at again? Some colleges might suggest that they make the award like the universities and that the quality assurance authority oversee the quality rigorously. I am not making any further suggestion other than to say that because it is the practice in other countries that the two authorities are separate.

The new authority will also be responsible for the quality of teaching and learning to a certain extent in the colleges and institutions. Senator Bacik referred earlier to the fact that Trinity College has gone down 22 places in the world rankings while I observe that the Technological Institute in Singapore is now in the top ranking. As a former teaching primary school principal I recall remarking 15 years ago on the teaching, curriculum, and implementation of mathematics at primary level in Singapore which was outstanding. Last week we talked about Project Maths last week but the quality of the maths programme in the Singapore primary schools is outstanding. I am sure that has a bearing on what happens further up the line.

As the parent of third level students I suggest that in first year, eight hours lecture time per week is not enough and more should be provided. On a more light-hearted note-----

Photo of Ruairi QuinnRuairi Quinn (Minister, Department of Education and Skills; Dublin South East, Labour)
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Has Senator D'Arcy retired from the teaching profession?

Photo of Jim D'ArcyJim D'Arcy (Fine Gael)
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I have resigned. Why?

Photo of Ruairi QuinnRuairi Quinn (Minister, Department of Education and Skills; Dublin South East, Labour)
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I was admiring the Senator's bravery.

A Senator:

He has confidence in the coalition.

Photo of Ivana BacikIvana Bacik (Independent)
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He is speaking from the parapet.

Photo of Trevor Ó ClochartaighTrevor Ó Clochartaigh (Sinn Fein)
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He is teaching us a few things.

Photo of Jim D'ArcyJim D'Arcy (Fine Gael)
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One has to confront these issues. In one university, Senator Averil Power referred to students getting power, that is, having a say and I agree with that. They had what is called "a black Monday" where everyone went to the bar. The days of Brideshead Revisited third level education is gone. The name of the authority is unwieldy as the Minister said, although it is too short. Qualifications Ireland, IQ backwards might suit.

Photo of Ivana BacikIvana Bacik (Independent)
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Stephen Fry might have an issue with it.

Photo of Jim D'ArcyJim D'Arcy (Fine Gael)
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It does not sound good. It should have an operational name.

Photo of Katherine ZapponeKatherine Zappone (Independent)
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I am pleased to welcome the Bill which is a significant development in the landscape of further, higher and university education throughout Ireland. With the Bill's full implementation it holds the potential, as the Minister and others have said, to provide more efficiency and coherence across the landscape. Equally significant, the establishment of a single body provides opportunities for strategic development of a few key dimensions within further, higher and university education that are still significantly underdeveloped throughout Ireland. I will come to those after I raise some of my concerns.

In light of my own background in education and a number of years in community and further education in geographic regions of severe disadvantage I welcome the Bill as learner centred, as Senator Power said. With the establishment of the authority, its governance, executive and staff responsibilities will be consistently challenged to create strategic opportunities of an equivalent nature for all learners, regardless of whether they are learning in the further, higher or university sector. There is more potential for an equality of outcome for all learners with the establishment of a single body than there has been in the past. I hope this will be a key principle in guiding the development of its first strategic plan which, as the Bill notes, will happen within the first six months of its establishment.

I have some questions and concerns and I will identify a couple of opportunities. With the new body there will be an opportunity to ensure a consistency across the whole sector whereas in the past, for example, with regard to the operations of HETAC, there has been oversight of the process of quality assurance. The new quality authority could implement ways to ensure quality in the actual product of the course or programme, while respecting the freedom and the autonomy of the providers. It is important, therefore, to devolve responsibility of quality to providers but could the new authority also hold the power to, perhaps, spot check the quality of the product? Is this what is meant by giving the authority the power to review programmes that it has already validated?

An issue raised by the recent Hyland report may have some bearing on the potential opportunity of the new quality authority. As Professor Hyland has pointed out there exists currently a replication of courses across the third level system, approximately 880 separate level 8 courses, 1,300 level 6 and 7 courses. The question is whether the new authority, in light of its streamlined nature, will provide an opportunity to encourage a reduction in the number of specialised courses towards more generic courses.

One of the functions of the new authority is to determine policies and criteria, as the Minister has outlined, for access, transfer and progression for learners and to monitor the implementation of those policies and procedures. Senator Averil Power referred to the importance of this. The arena of access is critical for those adults who lost out first time around in their education. In light of the current economic crisis and high numbers unemployed, higher education needs to put a spotlight on policies and procedures and supports for access of the adult learner.

The accreditation of prior experience in learning, APEL, needs to be a priority in the authority's work in this arena. This has already been called for. This requires an understanding of flexible learning and structures need to be put in place quickly to provide greater access by greater numbers of adults.

Progression issues need to be thoroughly re-examined as a priority. It is a strategic opportunity. It should not be more difficult for all adult learners to receive a third level degree than it is for the traditional learner, namely, a young person just out of second level education. Strategic work by the new authority in the arena of progression must recognise the needs of adults in terms of learning and the fact that their learning does not always progress in a linear way up the accreditation ladder. A system of progression needs to be developed and easy to use. Previously, too much red tape meant a significantly longer period of time for non-traditional learners to move from unemployment to employment.

According to other educators, access and progression issues highlight an opportunity to have a parity of esteem between the further and higher education sectors. Given the high number of learners involved, the level of development and the professionalisation of the further education sector, it should be viewed on an equal footing. In 2010, it is estimated that approximately 40,000 learners availed of full-time further education opportunities, while 125,000 learners availed of part-time further education programmes such as adult literacy, the back to education initiative, BTEI, and community education.

In addition, there is a concern about how the Bill recognises the role of the community and voluntary education sector, that is, community education organisations operating alongside the VEC and statutory sectors. For example, Part 4, section 39(7) formally names the providers in the context of the validation process. Community education providers are not included in the list unless they are intended to be included within subsection (7)(g). Approximately 22% of FETAC providers are from the community and voluntary sector, which is a significant proportion compared with the VECs, FÁS and private providers, 35%, 25% and 18%, respectively. Will the Minister clarify whether in the implementation of the Bill the process of validating programmes will continue as it was for these community education organisations, namely, that they will have their programmes validated directly by the new qualifications authority? Could community education providers be named in the list?

The Minister clarified some of the issues around my sixth concern. The Bill proposes an eight-member board for the new authority. I accept the Minister's decision that a stakeholder model is not appropriate, but how will he proceed with the appointment process? For example, will he seek some form of equivalence of representation from the further and higher education sectors?

My final issue relates to the Bill's commitment to protecting learners in the case of a provider ceasing to operate. As outlined in Part 6, section 60, there is an obligation on the proposed new authority to make all reasonable efforts to assist enrolled learners affected by the cessation of a programme of training or education. Will this obligation place a strain on the resources of the new authority? Would a system of risk assessment for commercial providers prior to rather than following validation provide better protection? For example, if a provider must fulfil more stringent requirements at the initial stage, it may provide a more cost-effective protection for learners in the long term. Could a bonding system similar to the travel agency system be more effective in saving costs and protecting learners?

Photo of Mary MoranMary Moran (Labour)
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May I share time equally with Senator Bacik?

Photo of Terry LeydenTerry Leyden (Fianna Fail)
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Is that agreed? Agreed.

Photo of Mary MoranMary Moran (Labour)
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I welcome the Minister, Deputy Quinn, back to the House and I wish him well in the new term. I also welcome the Bill and am delighted to hear that it is learner focused. The Minister must be commended on his achievements to date in his role. The learner should always be the focus.

I welcome the amalgamation of the National Qualifications Authority of Ireland, NQAI, HETAC, FETAC and the Irish Universities Quality Board, IUQB, into a single agency known as the qualifications and quality assurance authority of Ireland. When I first read the Bill, I hoped the name would be changed. I am delighted to hear the Minister say he has that power. It is a mouthful.

The bodies' amalgamation is a key part of the Government's overall public sector reform agenda and the authority's establishment will result in cost savings. Considerable savings have already been made by the NQAI, HETAC and FETAC through the implementation of the moratorium and expenditure reduction across their range of activities. The bodies' 2011 Exchequer allocation for current expenditure of almost €9 million is 30% lower than their 2008 outturn. Savings in the order of €1 million will also be achieved through rationalised corporate structures and supports through the integration of services.

The authority's establishment will prioritise learners' needs and deliver a quality, joined-up and more effective service to providers. The amalgamation will also lead to a more comprehensive approach in further and higher education and training. In line with other EU member states, Ireland has adopted a lifelong learning approach to education and training. It is vital to have a seamless transfer and progression for all learners with accreditation through the National Framework of Qualifications, NFQ. It is impossible for learners to reach their full potential if they do not experience quality at all levels in our institutions. This quality underpins the value of our qualifications, supports the economy's skill requirements and protects the value of our investment in public institutions. It is critical that our institutions take ownership of the quality agenda and ensure that it informs areas such as governance, organisation, programme design and delivery, assessment and research.

Quality must continue to be a core part of the institutions' mission and culture. However, it is also important that there be an external dimension to quality assurance. This will ensure that the institutions are reviewed and monitored so that best practice can be shared. I welcome the fact that a seven-person board will oversee this process.

The vocational education and training and higher education sectors have built up considerable practice and expertise in quality assurance. The processes put in place by the NQAI, HETAC and FETAC are consistent with the three-tier process adopted in the standards and guidelines for quality assurance in the European higher education area and the European quality assurance standards for vocational training and education.

It is vital that we maintain the NFQ and further deepen its implementation. We must also review the policies and criteria on which the NFQ is based. It is important that the authority be able to advise the Department of Education and Skills on lifelong learning.

I agree with Senator Zappone's remarks on the transition of adult learners to third level education. After more years than I care to remember, I returned to third level to do a masters. I completed my BA 20 years prior. Going to university in the 2000s was different from how it was in the 1980s. I welcome that adult learning is being taken into consideration. I commend the Bill to the House.

Photo of Ivana BacikIvana Bacik (Independent)
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I join others in welcoming the Minister to the House for the new term. I thank Senator Moran for sharing her time with me.

Like other Senators, I believe this Bill, which I welcome, has cross-party support. It is the culmination of a long process of reviewing the framework for ensuring quality in education and training. It is good to see it before the House. I am glad the Minister has initiated it in the Seanad. It is very worthwhile given how many of us in this House have long had an interest in higher education at third level. I refer not only to the university Senators but also to those with a broad range of experience and expertise, which expertise will be evident from the debate.

I am glad we are debating this Bill just after the inaugural address in Trinity College of the new Provost, Professor Prendergast. The Minister was in attendance and heard the speech. Other colleagues were also present. I referred to the speech earlier and on the Order of Business. The Provost mounted a very robust defence of the universities in general and Trinity College in particular, pointing out that the latter is unique in having achieved a top-50 place amount institutions worldwide. He pointed out that, at its peak, it was 43rd in the world. This fact should be compared with the fact that only one Irish company has achieved a rank by Fortune 500 in its list of top companies. It was approximately 490th. Trinity's achievement is remarkable for an Irish institution. That we have slipped back to 65th place is, as the Provost said, a testament to the economic difficulties we face and the challenges that exist for all, including the university sector. The Provost made a very strong case for preserving the autonomy of universities, particularly with regard to hiring practices.

I do not agree with the Provost's analysis of the return of third level fees but agree with him there is a need to ensure adequate resourcing of the university sector to ensure we maintain a culture of innovation and creativity therein. The Minister has said on many occasions that he agrees with that. A HEA report, issued today, shows the direct benefit to the economy or return on investment from investment by the State in research centres in universities, institutes of technology and colleges. That is very important and provides a very good context for debate.

Quality in education is central to international rankings and our attraction of international students. It is important that we see an amalgamation of the agencies currently providing for quality assurance at third level and in further education. We all welcome that. The new body with the unpronounceable name, as others have called it, does represent a streamlining of existing quality assurance mechanisms.

I have reflected on the name QQAI, as others have. An acronym such as "QI" could preset a difficulty because of the Stephen Fry programme of the same name. There is potential for using "CI", which could stand for "Cáilíochtaí Ireland". It would be like the Fáilte Ireland example given by the Minister. It is certainly a lot more pronounceable than QQAI. A more facetious example would be "QUACK", which could stand for "Quality Assurance for Colleges and Kids", but that would not be very suitable. In any case, a title that is easier to say would be an advantage. Furthermore, it would consolidate the status of the authority for individuals, service providers and, much more important, service users, including students at all levels. It is very important that people be aware of this. Until I read the briefing notes on this Bill, I was not fully aware of the wide range of agencies and bodies providing for quality assurance. That itself shows the need for this Bill.

That the authority will have eight members chosen on the basis of expertise rather than representation is important. I am glad to see, however, that the Minister will be requesting the USI to provide an individual to be appointed to the authority. Thus, the authority will have a representative nature to some extent. As with Senator Power, I was the only student in the room at many meetings when I was president of Trinity Students Union. It is important to have student representation and also that members of the authority be chosen on the basis of expertise.

I am interested specifically in the issue of quality assurance in universities, having participated in reviews within Trinity and having worked as an external reviewer for colleges in Ireland and other jurisdictions. The universities already have a quite established quality review process under way. I am interested in knowing, however, how section 37 will affect that because it seems quite open-ended in terms of empowering the new authority to conduct quality reviews. I am wondering how it will work in practice alongside the reviews already being conducted within the universities.

The provisions on internationalising education in sections 54 to 57 are very important. Universities are already signed up to Ireland's international strategy and to attracting more international students. The Bill will really facilitate that and it is very important.

Will the Minister clarify how the Bill deals with the difficulty with so-called bogus colleges? There was some reference to this in briefings. The Bill will make it easier to tackle the difficulty. It is a very small issue but there has been some media reportage on colleges being set up to attract students from abroad rather than to offer quality education, particularly in the English language sector.

I have two other points to raise. Schedule 3 to the Bill provides for an amendment to the Universities Act 1997. It relates to section 9 of the Act and the universities established thereunder, of which there is none. The Minister pointed that out in his speech. Why preserve the provision? Is it a reference to the new university for the south east, on which we have had some debate already today on the Order of Business and on which there is considerable debate in general?

My final point relates to a point raised by Senator Power, on which I have done a great deal of work in Trinity College. I refer to access to university for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. It is a particular problem within the university sector. The ITs have a better record on this. Programmes such as the Trinity Access Programmes and the BITE programme in DIT have tried to ensure more developed routes for access to third level for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. What are the implications for those programmes of this Bill? Is there a specific route of progress? Will the certificates offered for participating in the programmes be subject to review under the Bill? I have an open mind as to whether they should. Most of the courses in question are post-leaving certificate courses but I wonder whether they fall within the remit of the Bill.

I welcome the Bill as one of the many reforms in the education sector that the Minister is in the process of carrying out.

Photo of Sean BarrettSean Barrett (Independent)
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I welcome the Minister. I do not welcome the Bill because I believe the Minister is better than this Bill would have him appear. It has the look of a Bill that has been hanging around Marlborough Street for a long time. There is a recent tradition of hostility to university autonomy from Marlborough Street and I regret that.

On 17 September last year, the Comptroller and Auditor General reported that international comparisons suggest Ireland's universities are relatively efficient and highly regarded. A massive level abuse was found on the administrator side, as Members will know. I refer to bonus payments, for example. The proportion of pay received by academics in universities has dropped to 42% in recent years. It used to be more than double that. Layers of bureaucracy have been created and there are vice presidents, assistant registrars and staff with the word "strategic" in their titles. They escape scot free because, as is perceived in the universities, they are part of the Marlborough Street tentacles getting into universities.

The part to which the 42% statistic pertains has the highest international ratings. That would have become apparent had there been consultation on the Bill. I am a member of governing body and noted there was no consultation therewith. We would have been able to tell the Minister that our graduates are up to the standard in Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard and Yale. The US and UK authorities are not imposing a system such as ours on our competitors.

It is very much to be regretted that the Minister stated the universities must implement the authority's directions following a review. We have always been in favour of autonomous universities. We accept and respect diversity and different views. Universities are not a branch of the Civil Service. The latter's attempts to take them over in recent years, by rapidly increasing the amount of bureaucracy and devoting increasingly fewer funds to what goes on in the lecture hall, are a pity. I regret to see this continuing.

The Hunt report was mentioned. There was not a single lecturer or teacher on the Hunt committee. The same applied to the innovation committee and the knowledge economy report. Those of us who do the work in universities would very much like to make the case that we provide degrees at much less cost of parity with Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard and Yale. Our graduates go straight to these places to do graduate work. They do not need this type of certification as they have it already at a much higher level. Employers tell us the same thing; Irish graduates are employable here and abroad.

I do not know what problem the Bill addresses except the political one of amalgamating bodies. One will see in the Bill that nobody will lose a post, so I do not know from where the savings are to come. A section in the Bill states all staff of the existing quangos will join the new one. How does the Bill address Ireland's problems? When the country was falling apart because of, as members of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform have seen, appalling banks which did not know what they were doing and probably did not care much either and an appalling Central Bank regulating what was going on, the universities were still performing.

Part of the Chopra and IMF arrangements must be to reduce bureaucracy and increase front line activity. We need to increase the 42% statistic and stop unnecessary quangos and bureaucracies. This is an unnecessary quango and unnecessary bureaucracy with regard to what it intends to do in the universities. We must get away from not asking the people in the classrooms. Surveys can be taken on who is a good lecturer and who is not. If somebody does not turn up, 400 people will be in the front square. It must be the most transparent part of the system. This is unlike how the rest of a university's affairs is organised as it is extremely difficult to find out what is going on and, I would venture to say, also unlike the Department of Education and Skills.

I do not know what problem the Minister is addressing. I do not know what legal minefields we are entering because some of the institutions have charters. It took a private Act of the Legislature to remove seven senior people from the TCD board. This has been a disaster because it removed from the board seven experienced people and tilted the balance in favour of managerialism. Universities are collegiate institutions, not managerial ones. The Bill is managerialism from beginning to end.

I do not know why section 28 exists. I do not like to read on page 15 that the Minister will appoint a chief executive and on page 62 that the Minister will appoint all the members of the authority. Representational bodies might have something to contribute outside the ever-decreasing circle which Marlborough Street chooses to consult when it wants to know what is going on in Irish education. On page 17 it is stated the chief executive will not be required to account for court cases. Bizarre court cases have been taken in Irish education and when the taxpayer loses a bundle of money in the Supreme Court, which happens, I would like to ask the chief executives what they thought they were doing by running the court cases. It seems to be a very strange section.

Also on page 17, it is stated the chief executive will not be allowed to comment on the merits or objectives of any policy of the Government or Minister. This is what higher education is. Owen Skeffington came to the Seanad when it was policy to wallop children and for years and years he argued against it. Eventually, the Government changed its mind. If this is destroyed, Irish universities will be turned into the type of eastern European ones which collapsed and contributed nothing. This has totalitarian elements.

With regard to section 9 on the functions of the authority, the Bill reinvents what is already being done to the highest international level. Examples have occurred of misguided interference such as restructuring, which cost €6 million through the strategic innovation fund and which has never been properly appraised. A survey was conducted after it was done in which one lecturer stated it freed up more time for research and 180 stated it did not. However, restructuring continued because somebody in an office somewhere, who had not been near a lecture hall for many years, decided it was a good idea.

As the Comptroller and Auditor Chairman stated, we should examine the administration side of universities. We should also examine the administration of the HEA, other quangos and the higher education sector of the Department, because an bord snip nua found a large amount of money there. If we have only seven universities and are really interested in getting the public finances under control, why not have one person writing seven cheques in five minutes and then getting on with other work? An immense amount of bureaucracy is diverting badly needed money away from front line activities in education.

With regard to international accreditation, under the Bologna process the Trinity final year was reduced from five to four courses. We were better than the international standard, which is why we are up there with Harvard and Yale. When it came to what courses had to go, it was either one's dissertation or the general paper. The purpose of the general paper is that one should not know only about course A, B and C; one should know economics or genetics in general. Mindless internationalisation and standardisation reduce what we have to offer international markets.

I mentioned that under the Bill one will not be able to criticise the Government or Minister or the objectives of policy. This is extremely strange. The compulsion on a working sector which has an international reputation to engage in this at a time when we are cutting so many vital public expenditures such as special needs assistants seems strange. We should be cutting out unnecessary layers of bureaucracy and not introducing more.

I shall certainly table amendments but I regret the tone of the Bill, its content and its failure to recognise that developing education in Ireland would be a way out of the current difficulties. Unless we are to have massive tax increases, we have to remove the administrative layers inside and outside universities. This is a strange Bill which contradicts many of the very interesting and innovative statements the Minister has made since bringing such energy to the portfolio.

Photo of Caít KeaneCaít Keane (Fine Gael)
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I apologise for not being present for the Minister's contribution. I was at a committee meeting which always seems to clash with Seanad debates. However, this is not the fault of the Minister.

I welcome the Bill and I will begin where Senator Barrett finished by stating we should remove layers of bureaucracy, and this is what the Bill will do by amalgamating the various bodies which exist. The McCarthy report, which Senator Barrett mentioned, recommended that bureaucracy be reduced.

I read some of the Minister's statement in the time available to me and he stated the Bill will establish a new body, the qualifications and quality assurance authority of Ireland, which will amalgamate the Higher Education and Training Awards Council, the Further Education and Training Awards Council, the National Qualifications Authority of Ireland and the Irish Universities Quality Board. Even if only the offices and furniture of these boards were amalgamated, one will make savings because pushing paper from one organisation to another trying to achieve the same end is not recommended by anybody. An efficiency review conducted in 2008, the OECD report, "Towards an Integrated Public Service", and the recommendations made in the McCarthy report all stressed a need to consolidate the quality assurance bodies, and I am glad the Minister has taken these recommendations on board with the publication of the Bill.

The remit of the qualifications and quality assurance authority of Ireland will be wide ranging and will include maintenance of the national framework of qualifications established under the Qualifications (Education and Training) Act 1999; the review of policies and criteria on which the national framework of qualifications is based; and advising relevant departments on the national policy on the transfer of credits and the recognition of prior learning. Standardisation of recognition of prior learning and accreditation of prior learning has fallen back. Will the Minister speak about this? Various ways exist to introduce the recommendations on the accreditation of prior learning in various colleges.

The reasoning behind the Bill is clear. It is logical to have one organisation taking responsibility for ensuring quality in higher and further education, as opposed to the present system that is in place. I mentioned several bodies that overlap. Such a progressive move must be welcomed and I commend the Minister on taking it. The Minister outlined some of the savings that would be made. Perhaps at a later date we could evaluate those. Senator Barrett made a similar point.

The Department of Education and Skills has already established the inter-agency implementation amalgamation group to support the amalgamation process. Considerations for this process have been set out in the consultation paper since 2009. Senator Barrett indicated that there has been very little consultation. However, consultation did take place. Written submissions were received during the consultation process from various organisations and individuals. The consultation paper that was published in 2009 by the Department found that an amalgamated body would be better placed to progress plans for development across further and higher education and training.

The consultation paper was in favour of the amalgamation of the remit of the quality assurance bodies because having one authoritative body would simplify the process of communication for providers and would make it easier to share information and expertise, facilitate consultation and simplify decision making. Moreover, a single agency, as proposed in the Bill, would be better placed to enable and contribute to international best practice and quality assurance and distribute it to the further and higher education and training sectors.

The National Qualifications Authority of Ireland, NQAI, has welcomed the publication of the Bill, noting that it would provide a more cohesive and integrated set of services to learners in higher and further education to the highest international standards. We want to serve students. That is an unequivocal vindication of the provisions contained in the Bill. It is based on best international practice as well.

The Netherlands and Spain have already established one organisation for the provision of quality assurance and accreditation in third level education. The bodies in both of those countries were reviewed in 2007 and were both found to be in compliance with the membership regulations of the European Association for Quality Assurance in Higher Education which established a common framework of reference for quality assurance as far back as 2005. We will be able to compare with the agency in the future.

Recent quality assurance 2011 statistics have shown an overall decline in Irish universities. Senator Barrett mentioned that we have good universities and a good output but the figures indicate that a review of quality assurance procedures is needed in our universities. The new agency will take over the quality assurance review function from the Irish Universities Quality Board, IUQB. In the light of the latest university world ranking it is a welcome and positive move for Irish third level education.

5:00 pm

Photo of Brian Ó DomhnaillBrian Ó Domhnaill (Fianna Fail)
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I am pleased to see the Minister in the Chamber this evening to bring forward the legislation which will standardise qualifications in the third level sector. We must be mindful that it will also save the taxpayer money. The anecdotal figure is that savings in the region of €1 million will be made through the amalgamations. I very much welcome the Bill. The previous Government supported such a move and we on this side of the House will support the legislation. As previous speakers indicated, the legislation arises from the efficiency review which was carried out by the Department in 2008. It follows on from the publication of the OECD report, Towards an Integrated Public Service, in 2008 and the McCarthy report, which recommended the amalgamation of various authorities including HETAC and FETAC, the National Qualifications Authority of Ireland and the Irish Universities Quality Board.

The Minister is not proceeding with the recommendation of the previous Government on the abolition of the National University of Ireland. I agree with him in that regard. I lobbied my own Ministers at the time not to abolish the National University of Ireland because it was fulfilling a useful and important purpose both nationally and internationally to the universities it served and in terms of the status of the qualifications obtained by the students who attended the constituent colleges.

As previous speakers outlined, the establishment of the qualification and quality assurance association of Ireland is being welcomed by each of the organisations which is being amalgamated. That is something we should acknowledge. The designated chief executive of the National Qualifications Association of Ireland, Dr. Padraig Walsh, has welcomed the Bill before the House. FETAC and HETAC, the NQAI and the IUQB have placed a united statement on the FETAC website welcoming the legislation.

FETAC, HETAC and NQAI and IUQB are agreed that this move strengthens a focus on high quality learning experiences across all education and training provision nationally. The strength of current quality assurance systems will grow, opening up new opportunities for people to engage and succeed in learning.

It is all about providing opportunities for older citizens and young people to further themselves within a learning experience following the qualification they achieve be it a certificate, diploma, degree or fourth level qualification. It is about giving people an opportunity to better themselves within society, whether in terms of attending further education and opening up doors in that regard or to obtain employment. That is important in the current economic environment where approximately 100,000 people who were employed in the construction sector nationally lost their jobs and are seeking retraining. It is important that there would be a standardised approach but also that there would be opportunity of access available to people as well. If the proposed legislation does all of that plus save the taxpayer money then we must acknowledge and welcome it.

The Minister referred to the establishment of the board in his opening remarks. I welcome the fact that he is considering having a representative from USI on the board. That is particularly important given the viewpoint represented by USI at student level. He also mentioned that learners and the international experience would be represented, which is important. When the Minister was a member of the Joint Committee on Education and Science, as I was, the heads of the universities were before us. We spoke about the benefit to Irish universities of looking to attract international students into the system. That is something we must look towards. The funding of third level education is a debate for another day. One avenue to increase funding available to the sector is to have international students coming into the system. The new structure will provide a standardised approach. Reference was made to the Netherlands and Spain where, according to the reports we have read, the new system is working effectively. A single authority would be of benefit if it can open the door to encouraging universities to consider bringing in international students. We will see benefits if the new standardised authority is able to provide a better international template of the qualifications that are being obtained.

I have a query which may not be related to the authority which is being established but it is linked to third level education and the opportunities therein. I refer to access to education. A teacher came to a clinic in my constituency last night who had spent 25 years teaching.

He is earning a gross salary of €68,000. His wife has multiple sclerosis, which is a debilitating medical condition. She is obtaining a small benefit for that. They have three children going into third-level education and the registration fees being charged by each college - in Dublin, Limerick and Galway - are approximately €2,200. The cost of sending those three children to college is €37,500. The net pay of that public servant is about €37,000, while his wife is in receipt of about €12,000, and they are unable to meet those costs.

We all talk about the most vulnerable in society, but these now include middle-income earners who are being penalised by all the additional charges. They cannot obtain third-level grants that are available to those on social welfare or lower income earners, so they and their children are being squeezed. The Minister should examine this matter to see what can be done to facilitate equal access and opportunities for such students entering third-level education. They should not be penalised because of the way the system operates.

The McCarthy report recommended that the National University of Ireland should be abolished with a net saving of about €3 million to the Exchequer. The figures presented by the NUI, however, show the cost was approximately €1.36 million. In addition, tax receipts to the Exchequer were valued at €500,000 so the overall cost of running the NUI was about €800,000. The McCarthy report got its figures wrong in that case.

I welcome the fact that the NUI will remain in its current format. I also welcome the legislation which shows that there is a joined-up approach to amalgamating agencies in order to cut down on the number of perceived quangos, streamline the system and make it more effective. The amount of taxpayers' money being spent will thus be reduced and this should be replicated across other Departments also.

Photo of Trevor Ó ClochartaighTrevor Ó Clochartaigh (Sinn Fein)
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Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire. Tacaíonn Sinn Féin leis an reachtaíocht seo, i bprionsabal, agus fáiltímid roimhe. Ar an céad dul síos, ba mhaith liom iarratas beag a dhéanamh maidir leis an ainm. Molaim go gcoinneofaí ainm breá Gaelach. Tá sé sin déanta go rialta, mar shampla i gcás Solas. Tá mé cinnte go bhfuil tuairimí ag an Rialtas faoi sin. Cad faoi focail ar nós "céim", "gradam", "foghlaim" nó "bronnadh"? Tá mé cinnte gur féidir teacht ar ainm breá Gaelach ar an eagraíocht seo. Tá sé sin tábhachtach sa chomhthéacs náisiúnta. In renaming the organisation, the Irish language might be brought into play to give it a nice Irish language name as well, as has been done previously with other organisations.

Sinn Féin naturally supports the improvement and increased efficiency of public services and reform directed to advance this aim. The Bill seeks to consolidate the services as outlined. The stated rationale is that it is more efficient to have a single organisation ensuring quality in further and higher education and training rather than, as exists currently, several bodies with some overlapping responsibilities. While this is laudable, it can only be achieved if the new authority is properly resourced and staffed with qualified and experienced personnel who are capable of delivering a more streamlined and efficient service.

Sinn Féin supports the aim of the Bill to make qualifications more understandable across different countries and systems in Europe. It is also important that, wherever possible, education bodies ensure that their awards are recognised within the NFQ. The legislation should provide a more integrated, efficient and coherent range of services to learners that meets the highest international standards. Any new body overseeing quality must strive to create transparency in the Irish education system, as well as ensuring independent quality assessment. It must also enable international comparison between degree programmes and continue to improve the quality of Irish degree courses. I agree with previous Senators who spoke of the necessity of having student representatives on the board.

We share the NUI's concerns that amalgamating a higher education awards body with a further education awards body has the potential to damage the reputation of higher education awards. The NUI also argues that most member agencies in the European Association of Higher Education Quality Assurance are solely concerned with higher education. We would be interested to hear how the Minister intends to address these concerns.

We note that one of the objectives of the Qualifications, Education and Training Act 1999 was to promote and maintain procedures, access, transfer and progression. It should be noted that access is a process by which learners through education and learning receive recognition for confidence, skill and competence. Access should apply to all learners but especially those who are disadvantaged or marginalised. On that note, I agree with Senators Zappone and Keane on the accreditation of prior learning. Disadvantaged or marginalised socio-economic groups usually have prior learning experience which should be recognised and brought to bear when they are being considered for diploma or degree courses.

The QQAI must place a particular focus on the implications resulting from cuts to essential services in SNA support and special language resource teachers, both at primary and post-secondary levels. The impact of rising third-level fees on restricting access to students from disadvantaged families must also be taken into consideration. This could be achieved through the development of procedures on access transfer and progression that ensure positive outcomes across life-long learning.

The RIA claims the Bill will have no additional cost to the Exchequer and will result in savings of €1 million annually. Savings will be realised over time and through economies of scale, reductions in staff numbers and CEOs. What are the projected job losses resulting from the establishment of the QQAI? What will be the cost to the Exchequer of terminating senior management and CEO contracts?

The RIA considers that costs may be incurred by universities in implementing revised quality assurance practices. Can the Minister provide assurances that if there are any additional costs, they will not result in higher student fees?

The Bill must establish quality assurance procedures that address the recent slippage of three Irish universities in world rankings, as has already been mentioned. In recent years, I have taught in two third-level institutions. One of the things that alarmed me in both institutions was the push to pass people. Every available opportunity was used to ensure that students would pass their exams, so that it did not look bad for the institution in question to have people failing courses. It will be interesting to see how that matter will be taken on board. In fairness to everyone sitting exams, we must be sure that the quality of courses is assured and that qualifications are awarded fairly, thus demonstrating what work has been put into the courses.

There has been a great deal of discussion in recent times on the issue of public appointments to State boards and State bodies, and the Minister's influence on their operation. I would echo the comments by previous speakers who sought to ensure that those appointed to the new body are suitably qualified. When new bodies are created, such as this one, they must be as transparent and accountable as possible, as well as meeting high standards from the outset.

The Bill provides that only the Minister can appoint the eight members of the QQAI board. We hope, however, that consideration might be given to interested parties, individually or in appropriate groups, to make at least some nominations. The appointed CEO will have a good deal of power under the change of legislation but will he or she only be accountable to the Minister?

The authority aims to encourage providers to apply for an international education mark based on their code of conduct. Nowhere is it mentioned, however, that course providers must guarantee that courses will run to their final completion.

To some degree, the Bill is related to the Bologna process and the Bologna Declaration which aims to create a single higher-education European area. While there is clearly merit in cross-European co-operation and standardisation to some degree, I would note that the Bologna process is not without its critics. I ask Senators to consider that in areas such as these, we must proceed with caution. The process has been criticised as facilitating the commercialisation of higher education, and for the increasing emphasis on competitiveness as opposed to a broader, holistic approach to education. It has also been criticised by many for turning universities into businesses or diploma factories rather than places of learning. Real concerns exist that students are being treated as customers and that the system which is over-regulated, does not allow for national differences or individual considerations.

The emphasis on the attainment of vocational degrees, while not always a bad thing has, in some commentators' eyes, meant a reduction in funding in some non-vocational areas and has seen sponsorship by big business of the more "employable" education programmes. Many institutions offer a broad education, in particular, the NUI colleges and many other institutions and this approach must be preserved. There is more to education than the mere grinding out of results for the lowest costs possible and for the international league tables which can be rather misleading. While Sinn Féin does not oppose the purpose of the Bill, I wish to urge caution and care in the progress of such reforms and the preservation of the positive, unique aspects of our higher and further education systems while seeking their improvement.

Photo of Sean BarrettSean Barrett (Independent)
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Hear, hear.

Photo of Trevor Ó ClochartaighTrevor Ó Clochartaigh (Sinn Fein)
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I recall the uproar in the summer when some well-known language schools in Dublin closed after fees from students had been accepted. Providers should have to show they are financially viable before being approved with the mark and support of the QQAI and this should be applicable to all higher education providers. Tacaíonn Sinn Féin leis an reachtaíocht seo i bprionsabal. Tréaslaíonn muid leis an Aire as í a thabhairt chun cinn, ach coinníonn muid an cheart leasuithe a thabairt isteach ar na Céimeanna eile den reachtaíocht.

Photo of Terry LeydenTerry Leyden (Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Minister for staying for the duration of the debate and I welcome him to the House. I invite the Minister to reply to the Second Stage debate on the Bill.

Photo of Ruairi QuinnRuairi Quinn (Minister, Department of Education and Skills; Dublin South East, Labour)
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I thank the Senators for their contributions and for their consideration of the Bill. I have made notes of the points made and anything that has not been satisfactorily discussed can be on Committee Stage. I hope to be back in the House next month for Committee Stage and I will present a number of technical amendments.

I thank Senator Power for the support of the Fianna Fáil Party and I recognise that this Bill originated with a Fianna Fáil Minister some years ago and we are now building on that work on which there is broad consensus.

The issue of quality assurance and the role of students is very important. I have said elsewhere that I regard the involvement of students in modern day terms as having three phases. The first phase was in the 1960s when we were out on the street, barely tolerated and regarded as pups, and which resulted in confrontation. As John Hume famously said, the trick about street politics is knowing when to come in off the street. The begrudging recognition - which varies in different colleges - of the need for student representation, is more or less given under duress rather than as a right of place.

I refer to the appointment by the Minister of the day to the boards of the universities of, not so much a token student, but a lone student, in the case where everybody needs a seconder on a board for support. I take the point made that bringing students in from the street and putting them on the board and then ignoring them is not desirable. I have asked USI and IFUT to provide representation on the student appeals board under the student support legislation which has been enacted. I regard the third stage of student engagement as being the quality assurance. Students are partners in the education system to which they contribute and they are entitled to good service. The occupation of the school of architecture in UCD in which I played a role, along with others, was about that very point. We were not doing it for fun. We were in danger of losing the international recognition which was tantamount to an international degree in those days, pre-Bologna and pre-everything else, with the consequence that we would have less earning power and that our degree would not be recognised abroad, in the case where half of the college's 30 students used to emigrate out of choice in order to gain experience or out of necessity if the economy was not going well.

Students are the direct consumers and have a role to play in ensuring excellence in standards and this point was made by Senator Barrett. Among the younger generation of academics there is a recognition that students are partners in the education process and not subjects within it.

Senator Barrett referred also to policies on access and transfers. This is an important point. Currently, one third of entrants into the university system are not coming through the points system which is the traditional route for second-level students. This varies from college to college and from place to place but the likelihood is that as access programmes are advanced - Trinity College probably led the way as regards access programmes - and improved, one will see a diversity and an increase in the non-secondary school route into college. I do not believe one can have a knowledge economy without a knowledge society and such a society requires the availability of lifelong learning.

As regards the international dimension, I supported the previous Administration's policy and we have built on it. We regard the international student body not just as a cash cow, because this attitude would be very damaging from all points of view and we would not get away with such an attitude. There are three reasons for actively progressing the internationalisation of our university structures. Ireland is a very homogenous society and the cohort of people in the university system is a social minority. It is important to include people from different backgrounds and cultures. The learning abilities of some of the international students show up some of our own students in an unfavourable light. The introduction of international students at either undergraduate or postgraduate level, raises the game for everybody.

International lecturers and participants are also to be welcomed. Yesterday in his address, to which Senator Bacik referred, the Provost of Trinity College, Professor Prendergast, said that half the staff in Trinity College is composed of people from countries from all over the world. Education itself has been internationalised. The Internet has facilitated collaboration and the exchange of academic papers. For those reasons I will be taking up the points made.

There has been an improvement in the issuing of visas by the Department of Justice and Equality to allow foreign students to attend university. I am informed there is a speedy recognition of visas at a percentage rate of 92%. Senator D'Arcy is correct that the experience is not universal. One can speculate on the reason but the experience of Indian and Nepalese students in obtaining visas is different to that of the Chinese students. This will need to be investigated.

I welcome Senator D'Arcy back to the House. He spoke about the large number of students and the potential for internationalisation, in particular, in the development of the sector for learning English as a foreign language. We aim to deal with any of the barriers to this sector, in so far as is possible. I was very taken with his reference to universities no longer being like those in Brideshead Revisited . I do not know what Senator D'Arcy does with his teddy bear but I never had one. He also spoke about the necessity to use best international practice to raise the standard of Irish universities and I support this view.

Senator Zappone made a number of points and I will try to refer to all of them if possible. Those points I do not deal with can be discussed on Committee Stage. She spoke about the Hyland report and the issue of duplication of courses. There has been an extraordinary inflation in the system. I did not realise until I became Minister for Education and Science that the State Examinations Commission sets the leaving certificate papers and provides for their examination while the Department, through the NCCA, sets the syllabus. However, the CAO is a privately-owned company, owned by seven universities. It allows other institutions to use its services but the CAO has effectively, through its joint owners, added to the system. The number and range of alternative courses has increased 300%. This has then allowed colleges to privately boast that they are in the top league because their courses need 500 points for entry. This also forces young people to make career choices at a very early stage. I received an e-mail today from a guidance counsellor and maths and chemistry teacher, who pointed out that approximately 10% of people starting fifth year actually know what they want to do or have a clear idea of what to study. When they fill up the CAO forms the following year, at age 17, they are being asked to make a choice between law with German or law with Sanskrit but they may want to simply to get into that space rather than commit to something specific.

Years ago, the UCD school of engineering - the old college of science is now part of Government Buildings - offered a generic general foundation course in the first year. People got a flavour of the course and could then opt for specialisation into civil, construction, mechanical, chemical or electric engineering. If we consider the paper published earlier today by the Irish Universities Association as a contribution to tomorrow's conference, we may be seeing a change and a response to the paper that Professor Hyland spoke about.

We already discussed access and second-chance education, including recognition of prior learning. I know Senator Barrett was concerned about the impact on the university sector or even one particular university. The purpose of this legislation is to examine the entire third level sector, which was not possible before, although there was a general recognition that we needed one body. There are savings to be achieved and the process has been ongoing for some time. To answer the Senator's question, there is now a designated CEO, who has been there for some time. There will not be the kinds of costs for termination of salaries spoken about by Senator Ó Clochartaigh.

Senator Zappone spoke about the importance of progression for all learners and recognition, in particular, of the needs of adult learners. I have spoken to people with a third level qualification in this respect and as Senator Moran indicated, in going back to college after 20 years one may find it a very different place. Making an allowance for somebody in this respect is something of which to be conscious.

The parity of esteem between further and higher education is critical. This country was riven with academic snobbery in the teaching profession, for example. When somebody applied to a training college years ago, the famous term was the "call to training" when that person was accepted. Secondary school teachers, who had a university degree, tended to look down their nose at people who did not have a degree. That informed relationships between various unions and also had an extraordinary impact on the relationship at second level between vocational education on the one hand - or in the techs, to give them a generic name - and in secondary schools. Fortunately, we have moved on.

Part of the consequence, however, was that when training colleges became colleges of education attached to universities, the Teaching Council discovered that there was an assumption that they were part of the university experience. The reality is that the Teaching Council did a recent consultancy report on Mary Immaculate College in Limerick where there was a feeling that the college was teaching subjects at an academic level that would never be appropriate for a primary school experience. There was far too little emphasis on pedagogical skills. That has come up in some of the other contributions, which I will refer to later.

Senator Zappone also referred to security of a college opening and providing a course on a commercial basis but subsequently going out of business. In these cases students' fees are lost. From my experience of the building industry - and the travel agency business is a similar sector - we could probably deal with that best with a bond. If a course goes belly up there could be a financial provision to compensate people damaged by that act. I would be open to considering such a feature.

I have already referred to the points made by Senator Mary Moran in her contribution. I will return to this House with legislative proposals to give effect to SOLAS, which has an Irish name as a full title. The relationship of this piece of legislation to the new authority, SOLAS, will provide for the first time a structured authority in the higher and further education space. To use a shorthand description, which might be dangerous, it will become the equivalent in the further education sector of the Higher Education Authority in the university sector and for institutes of technology. When the two pieces of legislation are in place we will have a solid piece of infrastructure, in educational terms, in that space. After that it will be a case of getting on with the business of providing education and ensuring outcomes are positive.

Senator Bacik referred to the speech by the provost of Trinity College. Trinity is still the best known university. It is 419 years old and one of the oldest universities in Europe. It is well known internationally. I recall the angst coming from the city centre in 1999, when the university legislation was going through. Many of the prophets who foresaw the end of civilisation as it was known have been reasonably surprised at how that Armageddon did not arrive in the manner suggested by some.

We must get the balance right in that there is a necessity for some oversight of an independent institution while allowing for the autonomy of that institution to flourish. With a venerable institution like Trinity College as opposed to Dublin City University or the University of Limerick, which are less than 40 years old, there is a different tradition and sensitivities may be stronger. I say to Senators Bacik and Barrett that whatever was embedded in the culture on Marlborough Street to which they referred, or the attitude of the Higher Education Authority, which deals more directly with universities, that is certainly not my intention.

If practices or attitudes are evident of which I am unaware, the Senators can let me know. By the same token, when certain specific instructions and requirements attached to funding are conveyed to those institutions, we expect at minimum those conditions would be adhered to. There should be an honest dialogue if there are difficulties in adhering to the conditions as it is in none of our interests to have misapprehension or misunderstanding in either direction. I hope that will not happen and I do not intend to compound the issue in a difficult or counter-productive fashion.

Senator Bacik also raised the question of how section 31 will work and we will probably discuss this in more detail on Committee Stage. There was also a question concerning bogus colleges. The word "university" is protected here and permission must be given to use the description. Some colleges have put their addresses on websites and offered courses intimating that the institution is a university; at the time a few years ago I hoped the Department would take a more proactive line than it did. In one case discussions have been initiated and action will be taken. We must protect the reputation of our seven universities, the DITs and other colleges in the third level sector.

There was a question on membership of the board, and Senator Barrett mentioned increases in bureaucracy in the management of universities. In some respects that is a matter for universities. I know how strident the Senator has been in the past and respect that point of view. The absence of academics on the Hunt report is something I regretted.

I am perhaps wrongly quoted but I am responsible for that myself because I said that the Hunt report was the only report we had. This was at its launch in January 2011 in the convention centre. It took a long time to put together. It stalled in the system for three or four months because the junior partner in the previous Government could not agree to some components of it. Like all reports, it is the veritable curate's egg. The last thing I wanted to do was to find fault with its contents and then look for a new report. I wanted to go with pieces in it without necessarily accepting all of its recommendations and get on with the job of reforming, modernising and improving the third level sector. The academic input into this is important. The Senator used an interesting phrase when he described the culture of the university as "collegiate rather than managerial". We might explore what is meant by that on Committee Stage.

I have the power under the Bill to appoint board members. In a previous Ministry I had the opportunity to appoint a full board de novo and I appointed a team with different skills and voices representing a balanced overview of the area they looked after. In this instance, the board will cover the entire sector and, therefore, I would like to appoint people with a knowledge of different aspects of the third level sector. The reason I am not nominating stakeholders is, for example, if the Irish Universities Association nominates someone, the person will feel he or she has to represent the views of that organisation. If people have a knowledge of the sector but are appointed in their own right, they will not necessarily be beholden to the university sector or the sectors they come from. I hope to reflect the entire spectrum of the education system and that students, administrators, staff and academics will be able to recognise a kindred spirit or somebody who at least understands their role in the higher education system. I assure the House no thought has been given to the composition of the board.

I look forward to amendments from Senators on Committee Stage. I will examine the question of court cases and the autonomy of the CAO and why we want those powers.

Senators Keane and Zappone referred to the application of prior learning and how that would be recognised and to the savings that will be generated by these proposals. Senator Ó Domhnaill welcomed the decision in which I took an active part to retain the NUI. A key element in the internationalisation strategy for Irish education is a college with a national reputation. We are dealing with parts of the world, for example, the Middle East, which are quite statist in their approach. The Royal College of Surgeons of Ireland is recognised and validated by the NUI. The NUI provides a benchmark, quality and comfort that we should not jettison because it no longer applies in the way it did in 1909 when colleges were established.

The cost of third level education for parents with a number of children in college was also referred to by Senator Ó Domhnaill. My first thought was that it was unfortunate that each student found a course in three different universities when he recounted his clinic case. This is a problem but parents make extraordinary sacrifices to give their children an education. I recall when I was struggling years ago as an architectural student, trying to get my head around the periodic table, my father saying to me that I should keep studying and not give up because no matter how difficult I would find it, no bank or recession or economic downturn can take away my qualification. Very few of his generation had gone to third level college and his advice is apposite now. A qualification is costly and how it is paid for is secondary. Third level education costs money and how we, as a society, fund it is a secondary issue but part and parcel of the difficulty, according to the Provost of Trinity College, Dr. Prendergast, is the ratio of academic staff to students has deteriorated in the academic sphere. This is one of the criteria measured by the QS world university rankings and other agencies and we have to be conscious of its impact.

I thank all the Members for their contributions and I look forward to Committee Stage.

Question put and agreed to.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Cathaoirleach of Seanad; Fine Gael)
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When is it proposed to take Committee Stage?

Photo of Ivana BacikIvana Bacik (Independent)
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Next Thursday.

Committee Stage ordered for Thursday, 29 September 2011.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Cathaoirleach of Seanad; Fine Gael)
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When is it proposed to sit again?

Photo of Ivana BacikIvana Bacik (Independent)
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Ag 10.30 a.m. amárach.