Thursday, 10 May 2012
Qualifications and Quality Assurance (Education and Training) Bill 2011: Report and Final Stages
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Cannon, to the House. Before we begin, I remind Senators that a Senator may speak only once on Report Stage, except the proposer of an amendment, who may reply to the discussion on the amendment. Each amendment on Report Stage must be seconded.
I move amendment No. 1:
In page 12, between lines 27 and 28, to insert the following:
"9.—(1) This Act shall not apply:
(a) to the evaluation of educational course materials, course designs, evaluation structures and materials that have been analysed and adjudicated upon by an external examiner appointed by the academic council and the governing body of a previously established university, the National University of Ireland, an educational institution established as a university under section 9 of the Act of 1997 and the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland;
(b) to the evaluation of research outputs or research processes that have been subjected to any form of academic peer review that was deemed to be valid and acceptable by the academic council and the governing body of a previously established university, the National University of Ireland, an educational institution established as a university under section 9 of the Act of 1997 and the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland;
(c) to student evaluations of staff that have managerial or human resource implications;
(d) to any additional pedagogical, didactic or research activities that have been subjected to external examination or academic peer review that have been enumerated by the academic council and the governing body of a previously established university, the National University of Ireland, an educational institution established as a university under section 9 of the Act of 1997 and the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland.
(2) The Authority created under this Act shall not in any way hamper, inhibit or run contract to the principles of academic freedom and tenure as outlined in the Act of 1997.".
It gives me pleasure to move this amendment in my name. I have been very concerned about this legislation in the two previous discussions we had in the House. The non-controversial part of the Bill is in the amalgamation of HETAC and FETAC. The controversial part, as far as my constituents are concerned, is the intention of the Minister to pressurise the universities into abolishing their own quality body and procedures, following ministerial and departmental pressures, when this Bill becomes law. This raises serious questions.
Section 14 of the Universities Act 1997 states a university, in performing its functions, shall:
(a) have the right and responsibility to preserve and promote the traditional principles of academic freedom in the conduct of its internal and external affairs, and
(b) be entitled to regulate its affairs in accordance with its independent ethos and traditions and the traditional principles of academic freedom[.]
The discharge of these duties by the universities is through a system of external examiners, typically from abroad. They see the vital examination questions first. They read all the first class honours scripts, they read the failed scripts, they read all the marginal scripts, and they take a random sample. That provides Irish universities with the international standing and reputation of the home university of the international external examiner. That is extremely valuable because universities are international institutions. Attempts by Marlborough Street to bring them under some kind of quango's thumb are seriously opposed within the sector.
Statements at earlier stages that there has been consultation about this are incorrect. I have been a member of the governing body of a university for the past two and a half years and it has never been discussed. In the case of charter universities, the charter cannot be altered without the consent of the people to whom the charter was awarded. These discussions have not taken place. There seems to be a momentum in the Department to do this, regardless of the wishes of the universities.
I submit to the Minister of State that the external examiner system is working. I tried to take research out of this Bill the last day, and that was refused by the Minister of State. The idea that a quango can evaluate research, when it is conducted in international journals and published, is bizarre to say the least.
The third aspect in the current system of quality control consists of the quality reviews. Unlike the Department, the Comptroller and Auditor General, when he reviewed Irish universities in 2010, reported the following.
In the peer review, considering their size, Finland, Ireland and Sweden were the countries with most universities pointed out by their peers as being excellent.
Ireland was ranked first out of the 28 countries for which the recruiter review measure was calculated. Recruiters regard the universities in Ireland and in the UK as providing highly employable graduates.
I do not know honestly what problem this quango is supposed to be addressing. I see it interfering in the way we run universities, and interfering with international status. We have to compete with Harvard, Yale, Oxford and Cambridge, and this interference in our autonomy by a quango of eight people, all appointed by the Minister, does not sit well with that.
For those who want to go on to do graduate work, Irish universities, my own in particular, have qualifications ad eundem gradum - at the same step - as Oxford and Cambridge. We have also sent people to Harvard, Yale and Princeton. It works. There is no need for this interference in how universities run their affairs.
I think the Department is way out of touch. This system has worked for nearly 400 years. The Webb and McDowell history of TCD shows that examination system was introduced there in 1637. Their book states that: "Dublin, in fact, possesses the questionable distinction of being the cradle of the public examination system." We had the examination system before Oxford and Cambridge. It is validated by external examiners internationally. The research is validated internationally by the editors of international journals. The graduates are highly employable as confirmed to us by the Comptroller and Auditor General in his report on September 2010. I have repeatedly asked that we do not interfere with the autonomy of Irish universities.
These are charter corporations. A charter is a binding agreement between the king who granted the charter and the successors. It is binding on both in perpetuity. It cannot be altered because a Minister or a quango feels that they do not like what is happening in universities. I would like to draw attention to the Supreme Court case in the US in 1819, where the government of New Hampshire attempted to interfere in the affairs of Dartmouth College, which was a charter corporation:
The opinion of the Court, after mature deliberation, is that there is a contract, the obligation of which cannot be impaired, without violating the constitution of the United States. This opinion appears ... to be equally supported by reason, and by former decisions of this court [...]
It has been shown, that the charter is a contract on the part of the government, that the property with which the charity is endowed, shall be for ever vested in a certain number of persons, and their successors, to subserve the particular purposes designated by the founder, and to be managed in a particular way [...]
Nothing seems better settled, at the common law, than the doctrine, that the crown cannot force upon a private corporation a new charter[.]
This unnecessary and unjustified interference in the internal affairs of Irish universities, when we are trying to compete internationally, raises the appalling spectre that we are now going forward as a country that cannot tolerate even one autonomous university, no matter how highly they perform internationally or how well they serve their students. We have students from the United States and on Erasmus schemes. They regard the availability of and contact with Irish academic staff as superior to their home places.
We have been convicted in our absence and this legislation has been brought in. There should have been proper consultation, at least with the Chancellor of the National University of Ireland, the former Senator Maurice Manning. One cannot set aside the examination system simply because it is disliked. Universities seem to be innocent bystanders of the wasteful amalgamation of HETAC and FETAC.
The Bill will paint an appalling view of Ireland by trying to turn universities into a branch of the civil service. They cannot survive that. We must have divergence of opinion and view, choice and different ways of doing things. When our system is acceptable on an international stage and we are trying to reach out to foreign investment, why choose to nobble Irish universities in this way? That is why I have proposed this amendment.
If there are already quality assurance schemes in established universities like Trinity College Dublin, the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland and the National University of Ireland and they are working satisfactorily to all concerned, why set up a quango of eight ministerial appointments to intervene in something of which I had hoped this country would be proud? I strongly ask the House to consider the amendment.
I strongly support Senator Barrett's amendment. Having worked on the fringe and, in recent years, directly in the academic medical and academic scientific sectors for the past 19 years, I have a certain perspective on this matter. It is that we have not supported the sector well and that any deficiencies that exist within the sector cry out for reform of the way we organise, fund and support them. They do not cry out for increased bureaucratisation, which the proposed legislation will do. It will bring an additional bureaucratic oversight into organisations that are struggling badly for their resources.
The historically strong record of our universities and the unparalleled record our medical, science and other graduates have when they go abroad and rapidly develop fine international reputations that reflect well on our organisations are not reflected in the objective metrics of the international league tables. One must ask why that is. Are we getting an inferior product matriculating in? Clearly, we are not. Do people come out at the other side with degrees that are not internationally recognised? This is absolutely not the case. With Irish qualifications, one can have a huge level of respect and recognition and a high chance of advancement. The metrics used by league tables reflect resourcing in the institutions, principally factors such as staff to student and staff to faculty ratios, which are dismal in Ireland. They are way off the bottom of the scale.
I can give an example from an area where I speak most authoritatively. My colleagues here are bored by my repetition of this point. In our small republic, we have six medical schools. I am not saying that is bad, good or wrong, but if we are to have six medical schools, they need to be appropriately resourced. These six medical schools churn out a calibre of graduate that has no problem walking into North America, Australia or the European Union with an Irish qualification and being recognised and getting good employment. The total number of consultant level full-time faculty across those six institutions is 60, which is ten per school. We have checked it. Harvard Medical School has 1,500. That is a salient fact. When we reflect on the fact that all the Irish universities have dropped out of their higher rankings and out of the top 100 in the university pecking order, we must ask the hard question about resourcing and the freedom to get things done.
Which problem are we fixing by introducing this extra bureaucracy? The answer is none. We are going to create more problems. People who are already doing, by international standards, two, three, four or ten people's jobs will now be answering to an additional bureaucracy. The track record of bureaucracies in this country is that they tend to be comprised of inexpert people and rapidly become self-interested. I do not mean self-interested in any corrupt sense, but that the body itself develops a corporatist mentality to which its members assume primary loyalty. This will not be good for the rugged academic independence we should be fostering in our universities.
When one looks at the service delivery non-academic part of the medical system, one sees a system that has the lowest number of doctors, specialists and general practitioners, the longest waiting lists, and so on, but the response of the bureaucracy that runs our health system - the permanent government of the Civil Service and the various health quangos - is always that what we need is another bureaucracy. As a result we get HIQA, the special delivery unit or various other multi-alphabetised, acronymic organisations. If we are short of paediatric surgeons, if we have one third the number Scotland has, and God knows Scotland is not great by international standards, if we have fewer in the Republic than they have in the North and if our children are waiting a year or two years for operations, there is a certain element of joining the dots about what needs to happen.
The same thing applies in the non-medical and non-scientific academic structures. We need a critical appraisal of the resourcing and funding mechanisms we have put in place. There may be an argument for reassessing, at some stage in the future, the way we grant degree and diploma recognition, although it is not obvious to me that there is. One of the few things that seem to be working in the Irish academic structure at present is that people come out with diplomas, degrees, doctorates, masters, baccalaureates and so on that have high degrees of international recognition. What is the problem that is being fixed? What resources are going to be redirected into this that could be directed into the core deficiencies of the academic system.
I strongly support Senator Barrett's amendment. I know there are now smart people in Government looking at educational issues and I hope they will see this in a non-partisan fashion and reflect on the wisdom of proceeding with this aspect of what I believe will be an degree of over-regulation.
The Minister of State is very welcome to the Seanad for this debate. I add my voice to those of both the previous speakers. The evidence is that Trinity College has existed for, I think, 420 years and is managed very well. The other universities have been there for well over 100 years. Not only have they succeeded for that length of time but, as Senator Crown has said, they have enjoyed international recognition. That did not happen by accident.
I know the argument will be made that he who pays the piper calls the tune. The Government will say it is making a large contribution to the upkeep of the universities and, therefore, should have a say in what they do. The fact the universities have existed so long and so successfully and with such international recognition means tampering with them, and particularly adding an extra layer of bureaucracy, will mean the money aspect will, in the long term, take precedence over academic achievement. Senator Barrett's amendment is worthy of consideration and I urge the Minister of State to consider it.
I assume that the purpose of Senator Barrett's amendment is to address his concern that this Bill will somehow allow or require the authority to interfere in the academic life of universities in terms of how they organise their programmes of education and research and how they quality assure those programmes. The authority's role on quality assurance in previously established universities and providers in general will simply be to act as an external quality assurance agency to periodically evaluate the effectiveness of a university's own internal quality assurance procedures. There is no intention on the part of the Minister or the State in the legislation to somehow allow anything further than that and for the qualifications and quality assurance authority of Ireland, QQAI, to go into areas in which it has no expertise to assess the quality or otherwise of tuition, research or any other aspect of university life, other than to periodically assess the universities own internal quality assurance procedures which universities themselves find valuable within educational provision as a whole.
This mirrors the review provisions currently set out in section 35 of the Universities Act 1997 with the authority replacing the governing authority of the university as the review body. In 2002 the seven university governing authorities, including the board of Trinity College, established the Irish Universities Quality Board, IUQB, because they rightly acknowledged the importance of ongoing quality assurance assessment of the work they do in each of their institutions. They passed the review function under the 1997 Act to the IUQB in recognition of the importance of the external review of quality assurance. Since 2009 the IUQB has evaluated six of the seven universities under the Universities Act, most recently Trinity College in March of this year. The authority will continue the role of the IUQB in that regard. No change is suggested in the relationship between the IUQB and the universities in terms of how the review process is carried out and on the level of detail it goes into in the internal functioning and daily life of the university.
Section 28 requires universities to prepare quality assurance procedures. The Bill also provides that any quality assurance procedures already in place under the 1997 Act are carried forward to meet that requirement. These procedures include long-standing university-organised or internal quality assurance procedures such as the external examiner system which is an internal quality assurance procedure, as the university itself selects those examiners. The involvement of external subject matter experts is a central and important feature of a university's internal quality assurance procedures. It is fully acknowledged that the community of scholarship does not end at the walls of the institution and it is only experts in the discipline concerned that can really judge the academic value of assessment work in research. The authority's institutional level review role does not in any way seek to replace that function. However, the authority, in reviewing the effectiveness of a university's overall quality assurance procedures, would examine whether external examination and peer review are being universally applied and that systems are in place to ensure that reports and recommendations arising are properly considered and acted upon. In doing so the authority will use its expert international review panels sourced from outside the authority's own staff. Similarly, student involvement in quality assurance processes is of critical importance. The student view cannot be side-lined or ignored by institutions. However, academic staff have a right to fair treatment and any human resource implications that might arise from quality assurance processes will be handled under existing and well-established procedures. Academic tenure and terms and conditions of employment are not affected in any way by the Bill and there is no need to place an exclusion in the Bill in this area. It is important to note that any new quality assurance procedures established by a previously established university in accordance with the Bill will not require the agreement of the authority, unlike for other relevant providers. Instead, previously established universities will be required to consult with the authority and this reflects the traditional autonomy of universities. With regard to subsection (2) of the Senator's amendment, nothing in the Bill limits in any way the academic freedom or tenure established in the 1997 Act, as that Act remains intact, save for the deletion of section 35, which is largely recreated in Part 3 of the current Bill.
Senator Barrett spoke previously about reaching out to international investors and students to encourage them to invest in and study in this country. In recent months I have visited a number of Asian countries where we have a strong and fruitful relationship with many third level providers in that region. One of the reasons the relationship has been so fruitful and strong is that it is recognised in those countries that we do have very high standards of quality assurance in place. High quality degrees and qualifications which are recognised internationally as being of the very highest standard come about for many different reasons. One of the reasons they are respected internationally is because we have stringent quality assurance procedures in place across all of our educational provision. I do not see any rationale for somehow excluding universities from that process. Therefore, I cannot support the Senator's amendment.
I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Cannon. I should have welcomed him to the House in my introductory remarks. I believe the universities should be excluded, which is why I tabled the amendment. They are competing at the highest possible international standard. This is a vote of no confidence in them by the Government. We are competing in research and in teaching with people of the highest standards worldwide. The Minister of State confirmed the intention to abolish the IUQB, which was set up by the universities, and to replace it with another body. That is an undermining of the authority and of the autonomy of the universities. I will press the amendment because this is a dark day for Irish universities that they are treated in this way by the Department of Education and Skills, in particular in terms of the route that it now forces the colleges to go in legal terms. If one changes the charter of a university, one must do so by a Private Members' Bill. That was done previously and it was extremely expensive to the House and to those moving the Bill.
I do not see the necessity for interference to the degree that is being proposed. We are giving the quality. The Comptroller and Auditor General has confirmed that, as have international employers. Likewise, universities in other countries have confirmed that, yet the Department wants to abolish an independent body and replace it with its quango. I propose that my amendment should be accepted. I am not satisfied that the Department of Education and Skills realises the importance of an autonomous university system and its value to this country. It has served the country in a splendid way, as Senator Quinn observed, for well on 400 years.
The problems facing this country were not caused by the universities but by bureaucracy and by failures in the Central Bank and the Department of Finance and other Departments. The universities are being punished for a collapse they did not cause. In fact, they have remained the shining lights in the Irish firmament and have kept going despite all of the difficulties this country is facing. Bureaucrats will always seek to extend their powers into other areas, but this is one area where that should not be allowed to happen.
I assure the Senator that I would not support any legislation which would seek to impose added bureaucracy in an area where it is not required. I do not concede that this particular Bill is adding to the bureaucratic load facing third level institutions. In 2003 the institutions collectively acknowledged the importance of having a robust and effective quality assurance process in place across all of the colleges and, to that end, came together to form the Irish Universities Quality Board. The proposed qualifications and quality assurance authority of Ireland will simply continue that role. I do not know how often I must repeat that the authority does not, at any time in the future, intend to intervene in the life of any university other than at the very upper echelons in order to ensure its own quality assurance processes are as robust and effective as they should be. No more and no less than that is envisaged.
The Seanad Divided:
For the motion: 8 (Sean Barrett, John Crown, David Cullinane, David Norris, Trevor Ó Clochartaigh, Feargal Quinn, Jillian van Turnhout, Katherine Zappone)
Against the motion: 30 (Ivana Bacik, Paul Bradford, Colm Burke, Deirdre Clune, Eamonn Coghlan, Paul Coghlan, Michael Comiskey, Martin Conway, Jim D'Arcy, Michael D'Arcy, John Gilroy, Jimmy Harte, Aideen Hayden, Fidelma Healy Eames, Imelda Henry, Caít Keane, Terry Leyden, Marc MacSharry, Marie Maloney, Paschal Mooney, Tony Mulcahy, Michael Mullins, Catherine Noone, Brian Ó Domhnaill, Denis O'Donovan, Susan O'Keeffe, Pat O'Neill, Averil Power, Tom Shehan, John Whelan)
Tellers: Tá, Senators Sean D. Barrett and Feargal Quinn; Níl, Senators Paul Coghlan and Susan O'Keeffe.
Amendment declared lost.
On Committee Stage, Senator Barrett proposed an amendment to section 9(1)(b) which currently states that the authority shall "formulate national policy on quality assurance and enhancement in education and training". The effect of that amendment would have been to replace the authority's responsibility for the formulation of policy with a responsibility to guide policy. I indicated we would give further consideration to this matter with a view to bringing forward an amendment on Report Stage. In that context, amendment No. 2 will replace the authority's responsibility to formulate policy with a responsibility instead to advise the Minister in respect of policy. I hope this addresses Senator Barrett's concerns.
On Committee Stage, Senator Barrett expressed some concern regarding the provisions relating to the appointment of members of the appeals panel. In particular, he stated that the requirement that members of the appeals panel should have "a special interest or expertise in, or knowledge of, the functions of the Authority" was too narrow. The Senator suggested that members should also have knowledge of educational matters more generally. The purpose of amendment No. 4 is to address Senator Barrett's concerns by inserting the phrase "education and training" into the relevant subsection, thereby ensuring members may also have a special interest or expertise in, or knowledge of, education and training more generally.
I move amendment No. 5:
In page 67, to delete line 29 and substitute the following:
"(b) at least two people who are representatives of learners.".
I welcome the Minister of State. I spoke on this matter on Second Stage and I will not repeat what I said at that point. The purpose of the Bill is to improve the student experience and to ensure the education students across the entire sector are receiving is top class. The authority is to have eight members and we are of the view that two of them should be students. This is particularly the case because the newly constituted authority will have responsibility for an extremely diverse sector which will encompass everything from further education right up to fourth level postgraduate education. We are of the view that students from across the sector should be represented on the authority.
I was a student representative for two years and I am aware that it can be extremely lonely when there is only one student voice present. It is important to ensure there is very effective, rather than token, student representation on the authority. That is why we suggest two student representatives should be appointed. I hope the Minister of State can accept the amendment. As there will be eight members of the authority, appointing the two individuals to whom I refer would mean students would form one quarter of the overall membership.
I second the amendment, which is good and sound in nature. This is a very important new departure for the Department in the context of the establishment of the qualifications and quality assurance authority. There are thousands of students throughout the country, and Ireland will only prosper through having people who are well qualified and who are ready to undertake the challenges on offer within the private and public sectors. In that context, the needs of students must be recognised. I appreciate the Minister of State's proposal to the effect that there will be one student representative on the board of the new authority. However, I am of the opinion there should be two such representatives in order that a broader viewpoint might be put forward on behalf of students. In view of the fact we have both universities and institutes of technology, appointing two representatives might ensure the scope of student opinion on the authority would be more diverse.
The Bill provides for an eight-person board, which will include an international representative and also a representative of learners. It has been decided to move away from the stakeholder nomination model which applies to the National Institute of Quality Assurance, NIQA, the Higher Education and Training Awards Council, HETAC, and the Further Education and Training Awards Council, FETAC, as it would be difficult to maintain the board at an effective size without leaving some fundamental gaps in representation. I am committed to strong learner involvement at all levels of the quality assurance process. In formulating the new entity, SOLAS, Seirbhísí Oideachais Leanunaigh agus Scileanna, we are exploring many different mechanisms for ensuring there will be significant learner involvement across that organisation as well.
Student involvement is critical to the successful operation of quality assurance processes within institutions and the authority. The Bill specifically provides that institutional quality assurance procedures should include evaluation by learners of the education and training provided to them. Having a learner representative on the board of the authority is important and ensures the student perspective is provided at that level. However, this is only part of how learners will engage with the authority once it is constituted. Students will be involved in the committees and the many panels established by the authority. The authority will adopt a strong consultative approach and will engage formally and informally with a wide range of stakeholders, including learners. This will be the most appropriate and effective means by which learners can ensure their interests are promoted, particularly given the broad range of sectors covered by the authority's functions. One student representative on an eight person board is sufficient to give that learner perspective at that level. Accordingly, I cannot support the amendment.
We will be pressing the amendment. Given the whole function of the authority will be about the student experience and ensuring it is top class, I do not believe having two learner representatives on a board of eight is unreasonable. It was different when there were separate agencies covering different sectors. Now that only one agency will examine the whole and diverse experience from short courses in the further education colleges right up to doctorate level, it is not reasonable to ask one student to represent the whole student experience on this board. Two representatives out of eight would enhance the whole work of the authority and be of benefit to the board, making its work more effective.
The board has eight members, comprising one international expert on quality assurance, the chair, whom one would expect to take a neutral position, and the chief executive officer. This leaves five other representatives. For two of these to be learner representatives would disproportionately skew representation on the board. It is also important to note that once a person or individual is nominated or appointed to the board, rather than representing the sectoral interest from which they have emanated, they will actually work in the best interests of the board and education provision. I do not see combative situations arising at board meetings. Instead, it will be a more holistic approach. To have one person representing the views of the student body is more than adequate.