Wednesday, 11 July 2012
Qualifications and Quality Assurance (Education and Training) Bill 2011 [Seanad Bill amended by the Dáil]: Report and Final Stages
I welcome the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Ruairí Quinn. This is a Seanad Bill which has been amended by the Dáil. In accordance with Standing Order 118, it is deemed to have passed its First, Second and Third Stages in the Seanad and is placed on the Order Paper for Report Stage. On the question, "That the Bill be received for final consideration," the Minister may explain the purpose of the amendments made by the Dáil. This is looked upon as the report of the Dáil amendments to the Seanad. For the convenience of Senators, I have arranged for the printing and circulation of the amendments to them. There are also four amendments tabled to the Bill, as passed by Dáil Éireann. They relate to the text of the Bill which was changed by the amendments made by the Dáil. I propose to allow the Minister to explain the changes made by the Dáil. The House will then consider the four amendments to the Bill, as passed by Dáil Éireann. Is that agreed? Agreed.
In the context of the amendments made by the Dáil, I am suggesting seven groupings which are based on the subject matter of the amendments. The Minister will deal separately with the subject matter of the amendments in each group. Senators may contribute once only on each grouping. I remind them that the only matters which may be discussed are the amendments made by the Dáil. I call on the Minister to speak on the subject matter of the amendments in group 1.
I welcome the opportunity to return to the House to report on the amendments to the Qualifications and Quality Assurance (Education and Training) Bill approved in Dáil Éireann. A total of 45 amendments were approved on Committee and Report Stages in the Dáil. They were all Government amendments. However, one of them provides for the inclusion in the Bill of the right of the Union of Students in Ireland to nominate a learner representative to the board of the new authority. That issue was originally raised in this House by Senator Averil Power and subsequently raised in Dáil Éireann by Deputy Brendan Smith. The Senator and the Deputy are both members of the Fianna Fáil Party.
A significant number of the amendments accepted in the Dáil involve either technical changes or textual corrections to the Bill. Section 51 has been added to the legislation in order to deal with joint awarding arrangements involving the new authority and other educational providers. This also required a number of consequential amendments throughout the Bill to ensure consistency of approach in respect of single and joint awarding arrangements.
The other issues covered by the amendments provide for the withdrawal of delegated authority to make an award; clarification about consultation between the Higher Education Authority and the new authority in particular instances; a change in the requirements for the composition of committees established by the new authority; and clarification on an amendment initially made in this House in respect of the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland. For ease of reference and as the Leas-Chathaoirleach stated, the amendments are grouped under seven headings.
The amendments in group 1 make explicit the new authority's power to make awards jointly with other awarding bodies. A joint award refers to a single award which is jointly made by two or more awarding bodies. Such awards are an important feature of the higher education landscape, both in Ireland and in an international context. They allow for flexibility in higher education provision and can also help to avoid potential duplication of provision across institutions. The development of joint awarding between institutions - whether in the same country or in different countries - has been promoted at international level through the Bologna process and also by means of the Convention on the Recognition of Qualifications concerning Higher Education in the European Region.
On a national level, there are some very good examples of inter-institutional co-operation. One such example is the memorandum of agreement reached between UCC, Cork Institute of Technology and HETAC in November 2010, whereby UCC and HETAC jointly validate programmes of higher education and make awards jointly in respect of such programmes delivered in collaboration between UCC and Cork Institute of Technology. The specific programmes are a master of science degree in biomedical science and a bachelor of science, honours, degree in architecture.
Amendment No. 18 inserts a new section into the Bill which will empower the new authority to enter into a joint awarding arrangement with an awarding body and the provider of the programme of education and training where such a programme is not provided by the awarding body. A joint awarding arrangement can only be entered into where a programme of education and training has been validated by the authority.
The other amendments which relate to joint awards are intended to ensure the same procedures will apply in respect of education provision leading to joint awards as applies to all other awards. The amendments provide for, inter alia, the validation of education and training programmes, the issue of quality assurance guidelines and effectiveness review procedures and the establishment of standards of knowledge or skill to be acquired by a learner where successful completion of these programmes leads to a joint award of the authority and other awarding bodies.
For reference purposes amendments Nos 2, 6, 8, 14 and 26 are in the second group of amendments which concerns consultation with the Higher Education Authority.
This group of amendments provides for clarification on consultation between the Higher Education Authority and the Qualifications and Quality Assurance Authority of Ireland, QQAAI, when the latter carries out certain functions in respect of institutions covered by the Higher Education Authority. These functions include the issuing of quality assurance guidelines and effectiveness review procedures, carrying out reviews of quality assurance procedures in institutions, undertaking quality reviews and reviewing the implementation of procedures for access, transfer and progression in those institutions.
These are technical amendments that clarify the precise institutions concerned by referring to the definition of higher education institutions used in the Higher Education Authority Act 1971.
My concern is that this is adding yet another layer of bureaucracy. At present two people are responsible, the person who gives the lectures and the external examiner. We had a very good discussion with the Minister of State on that point and he assured me that it will remain and has been a feature of Irish universities for 400 to 500 years. I am glad to report my personal experience at the BESS meeting on final year courses, where the external examiner who is on over 40 final year courses commented most favourable on the students, the lecturing and on the pastoral care received by students.
I do not know why universities have not promoted that. In a sense what we are now trying to correct is a problem that they created themselves by not drawing the attention of the appropriate authorities to the fact that there has been an external examiner system in operation pretty much throughout the lifetime of the university institutions, that degrees at the top level are acceptable for those who want to enter Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, Yale and the rest and our students have pretty good employment records. If somebody does not give a very good lecture, 400 people will know pretty quickly and the head of the department will know. It strikes me that we should keep it simple, to use that old slogan, as we have made the system much more complicated. I am not so sure of the purpose of this complexity. Obviously the Qualifications and Quality Assurance Authority of Ireland should consult with the institutions it is examining but one wonders what is the purpose of having the Higher Education Authority as well. If we have a quality officer in each university, the Irish Universities Quality Board, the Higher Education Authority and the Qualifications and Quality Assurance Authority of Ireland, together with the external examiner and the head of the department, we will have four or five people supervising a single person giving a lecture. It is an unnecessary ratio of overheads to directly productive activity.
Many people in the universities have lost the plot on that, but the important thing is that the intake of 400 people in September should know a lot more by the time they get to the following May. There is no need for all these supervisory grades, one such person in an Irish institution was called a self licking ice cream recently. One should know when a lecturer has communicated the knowledge, the external examiners will confirm that and the head of the department should know it. I would be parsimonious, particularly in times of tight finance, at extending the range of bureaucracy further. That was a large part of the debate we had with the Minister of State, Deputy Cannon, the last day.
If we had critical problems, as the Minister knows, I would be one of the first persons in here to say that. I have criticised enough institutions but the standard of lecturing has not come to my notice. Is this an excessively large administrative response to what may be a very small problem? If the universities had presented it properly, it may have been a minimal problem. When I move my amendments, I will return to the topic. I thank the Minister for bringing this to our attention.
For reference purposes amendments Nos. 4, 13, 31 to 34, inclusive, 36 and 40 are in the third group of amendments. This group of amendments are all technical amendments that do not change the substance of the Bill, as a perusal of the text will readily demonstrate. These amendments either correct textual or grammatical errors in the Bill, as in the case of amendments Nos. 4 and 36, or they make corrections to some sections where an incorrect subsection number is provided, as in the case of amendments Nos. 13, 31 to 34, inclusive, and 40. Let me emphasise these are technical amendments and there is no change to the substance of the relevant sections as a result of these amendments.
This concerns amendment No. 25. This amendment makes explicit that if the new authority withdraws delegated authority to make an award in accordance with section 54, the programmes of education and training leading to that award shall be deemed to be validated under section 45. Therefore, the authority would assume award making responsibility for those programmes until and unless it withdraws validation of those programmes in accordance with section 47. The purpose of this is to ensure that withdrawal of delegated authority in respect of a programme or programmes does not necessarily result in the withdrawal of all awarding arrangements for that programme or programmes.
For reference purposes amendments Nos. 41 to 43, inclusive, are grouped together as they all relate to the board of the new authority. Amendment No. 42 provides for two learner representatives to sit on the board of the QQAAI, one of whom shall be explicitly nominated by the Union of Students in Ireland. It was initially proposed to include one learner representative on the board, however, following reflection on the arguments made by Senator Power in this House and by her colleague, Deputy Smith, in Dáil Éireann, I recognised the merit of making specific provision in the Bill for USI to make a nomination to the board of the new authority. The provision in amendment No. 42 for two learner representatives to be included on the board of the new authority, means that USI can be accommodated as a nominating body but there is also scope for the second learner representative to be representative of the further and adult education sector, which is less formally constructed and is not clearly represented.
There is clearly a confederal USI group overarching for students coming straight from second level schools in the main. As there is not the same type of organisational structure some discretion must be exercised in the appointment of the second person. In response to what Senator Power and others said I wanted to explicitly recognise USI because of the constructive contribution it has been making in recent years.
Amendment No. 41 provides for an increase in the size of the board from eight to ten, accordingly. This will ensure that the two learner representatives will provide a strong voice at the board for learners' interests but that the enlarged board will also have a balanced membership. As a result of this group of amendments, five positions on the boards will now be reserved - the chair, the CEO, an international expert and the two student learner representatives, respectively.
Amendment No. 43 provides for an increase in the quorum required for a meeting of the authority from four to five members of the board. This is a procedural necessity as a result of the increase in the size of the board from eight to ten members.
I thank the Minister for tabling amendment No. 42 and for accepting the arguments made by Deputy Smith and I in respect of learner representation. This is wise. Given that the body will cover further and adult education right up to PhD level, it is important that students are adequately represented at the table. I welcome the Minister's acceptance of the points made in the debate.
I congratulate the Minister and Senator Averil Power. Her idea is fantastic and it will be a major improvement. I am pleased the Minister acceded to the request and also that the Union of Students in Ireland has been designated as the nominating body. That is the way to go.
The Senator must have been looking into my notes because that is exactly what I was about to say. I congratulate Senator Power who made a great case during the debate for the two learner representatives on the board. I am pleased the Minister accepted her proposal. It goes to show the House has a function.
Amendment No. 44, which is the sole amendment covered in group 6, enables the authority to establish committees that do not include board members as long as those committees include staff members of the organisation. This is in line with similar provisions in the Qualifications (Education and Training) Act 1999. A previous requirement in the Bill for committees to consist wholly or partly of persons who are members of the authority was overly restrictive and could place an excessive burden on members of the authority, particularly as the board is of a relatively small size. That is the reason we are introducing the amendment.
This concerns amendment No. 45 and refers to the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland. Amendment No. 45 provides clarification on an amendment inserted into Schedule 3 of the Bill on Committee Stage in this House. It is an amendment to the Universities Act 1997, dealing with the designation of degrees and other qualifications of the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, RCSI. A previous amendment that was inserted into Schedule 3 on Committee Stage in the Seanad provided for degrees and qualifications of the RCSI to be degrees and qualifications of the NUI where they are approved by the NUI and for so long as the RCSI remains a recognised college of the NUI. This could be interpreted as meaning that if the RCSI were to cease to be a recognised college, degrees and qualifications awarded while it was a recognised college would no longer be degrees and qualifications of the NUI, and this was not the intention of the original amendment. To provide clarification of this issue, therefore, this amendment provides that degrees and qualifications which are awarded by the RCSI while it is a recognised college and which are approved by the NUI - this is the net point - shall be degrees and qualifications of the NUI in perpetuity. In other words, one cannot lose one's qualification in mid flight.
Senator John Crown is here for that purpose. In the printing of the Bill, the line numbers may have been changed. I think the amendment I am seeking to introduce is on page 22, lines 15 and 16, rather than line 25, in case I cause unnecessary distress in various offices in trying to amend something that is not in place. The second amendment is on page 27, lines 5 and 6, the third amendment has moved to page 44, line 37, and the last amendment is on page 69, line 43. As the Leas-Chathaoirleach mentioned, there has been much rearranging of sections.
I see lecturing as a quite a simple task. A podium is in place and there are up to 400 people in the audience should anything happen. We have made it unduly bureaucratic in the Bill. I am trying to take out one of the layers of bureaucracy from it. That is the key point. In regard to my report back on an external examiners meeting, all the external examiners were from outside the jurisdiction and all were very pleased at what was said. That has also been the experience of Erasmus programme students. They have said there is a much greater level of attention and interest in students in Irish universities than in their home universities on the mainland, and American students have told us the same thing.
I question the need to involve the Higher Education Authority with all the other groups I mentioned who are involved. It makes it unnecessarily complex and expensive at a time when the important question is whether people, up to 400 in many cases, know anything more in the following April or May than when they joined the course in September and if they were carefully guided through all the work by good lecturers. The answer is an overwhelming "yes". Therefore, I wonder about the involvement of the Higher Education Authority. What was the reason for abolishing the Irish Universities Quality Board? What was the problem with it, at a time when funds are tight, as the Minister reminds us frequently, and why the need to take this particular route?
The Minister mentioned Bologna. The Bologna impact on the courses on which I lecture was to reduce the number of courses from five to four. We dropped the dissertation and the general paper. The people who did the work, who had produced the graduates, were told by people outside the system that they had to drop either the dissertation or a general paper. As I said to the Minister of State - the general paper was not one the Minister advertised much - one should not just do courses but have a general knowledge of the subject of economics, and the scientists in my college were annoyed at that and, certainly, those of us in the social sciences area were annoyed.
The problem is that many people who have never given a lecture think it is a bit of cinch of a job and that they could undoubtedly do it better and know far more about it and keep on making rules. That demoralises the people who do the work. Part of the feed-through on it is that in the promotions system there is 40% for giving the lecture, 40% for research and 20% for other factors. Lecturing, which has been devalued as a skill, along with what students learn from each other, is the core of the university. This is a plea from somebody in the front line. Please have no more quangos and no more committees. The world was performing just as well and was far simpler when I had people in charge such as Professor Louden Ryan, as my first head of department, and Basil Chubb, sometimes known as the dean. Layer upon layer of bureaucracy is being inserted on top of what is a simple task. I agree that if people are not giving good lectures, a mechanism has to be found to deal with that. I am not sure we have yet done that. When we get satisfaction ratings from students from mainland Europe, North America and from the external examiners, I ask why people who do not give lectures are assumed frequently to know much more about the issue than those who do. It is corrosive of morale and a waste of money within a university system which is always saying how cash-strapped it is to run these quangos.
Senator John Crown will be my seconder. We have in his field an outstanding international reputation.
What is the QQAAI supposed to do? There are also fields where we meet the highest international standards, which may not be suitable for bureaucratic scrutiny. Much of what went wrong in economics required not State quangos or work studies but subversive people to say that this kind of theory is damaging to society as a whole. We must protect the autonomy of universities and of individual lecturers and not have a curriculum approach, which brought eastern European universities to disarray. They disappeared when the Berlin wall fell because they were there to teach orthodox wisdom and not have the constant disputes and debates that are the nature of higher education. I ask the Minister to consider why there is a necessity to have the Higher Education Authority and the Qualifications and Quality Assurance Authority involved. What problem is this meant to address?
I will not say much more than what has been said by Senators Barrett and Crown. The aim of simplicity should be the objective. There is a danger of making this more bureaucratic than it will otherwise be. We must consider its cost effectiveness. Senator Barrett has made a strong case and it is worthy of consideration.
I have a certain amount of sympathy for Senator Barrett's point about academic freedom and the curriculum. However, the level of external supervision over qualifications and quality assurance in our third level education system proposed in the Bill is not such as to dictate curriculum or any such intrusion. A certain amount of oversight is necessary. I am not familiar with the system Senator Barrett described as going into the ground but I know that, in Europe, there is a system of external oversight in line with other education systems. I do not support the amendment.
I have heard Senators Barrett and Crown on this area before. The amendments seek to replace the requirement for consultation with the HEA, in these instances, with the requirement to consult with the relevant powers instead. I am opposed to these amendments on the following grounds. In the first instance, the Bill already provides for consultation by the QQAAI, with relevant providers, where the authority is engaging in any of its core activities. This includes a requirement for consultation in respect of quality assurance and effectiveness reviews. The provision in the Bill for consultation with the HEA supplements requirement for consultation with the relevant providers, instead of seeking to replace it. It is entirely appropriate that the new authority consults with the HEA in respect of institutions funded through the HEA. It would be a cause for concern if the new authority did not consult with the body with statutory responsibility for planning and policy development for higher education and research in Ireland. As part of its statutory role, the HEA has wide advisory powers throughout the third level education sector. It is important the HEA has the opportunity to contribute to the work of the QQAAI.
It may be that these amendments originate from concerns previously expressed in this House during earlier discussions of the Bill, which I remember, about perceived encroachments by the new authority on the academic autonomy of higher education institutions. If this is the case, I will reiterate some of the points made by my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Ciarán Cannon, on Committee Stage. The role of the authority on quality assurance in previously established universities and providers generally, will simply be to act as an external quality assurance agency. It will periodically evaluate the effectiveness of the university's internal quality assurance procedures, to which Senator Barrett referred. This mirrors the review provisions set out in section 35 of the Universities Act 1997, with the authority replacing the governing authority of the university as the review body. At present, the Irish Universities Quality Board has a key role to play in respect of quality assurance in the university sector. In establishing the IUQB in 2002, five years after the Bill was enacted, the seven universities' governing authorities recognised the importance of external review of quality assurance. The governing authorities, including the board of Trinity College, delegated their review function under the Universities Act 1997 to the IUQB. 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 new authority will continue the role of the IUQB in respect of external quality assurance in the university sector. In that respect, it seeks to build on the infrastructure already there, not to duplicate or augment it.
Section 28 of the Bill requires universities to prepare quality assurance procedures and the Bill also provides that any quality assurance procedures already in place under section 35 of the Act are carried forward to meet the requirements. These procedures include long-standing, "university organised" or "internal quality assurance procedures", such as the external examiner system to which Senator Barrett referred. They also include the involvement of external subject matter experts in assessing the value of assessment work and research. The work of the authority will complement these processes rather than replace them.
In reviewing the effectiveness of our universities' quality assurance procedures, the authority will consider whether processes such as external examination and peer review are being universally applied across the institution. It will also assess the extent to which systems are in place to ensure reports and recommendations arising are properly considered and, more importantly, acted upon. In doing so, the authority will use expert international review panels, sourced from outside the authority's staff. The work of the authority will be to support and maintain quality assurance in all sectors, including the university sector. The establishment of the new authority does not represent an attempt to encroach on the traditional academic autonomy of universities. Any new quality assurance procedures established by a previously established university, in accordance with the Bill, will not require the agreement of the authority. This is in contrast to the requirement for other relevant providers to have their procedures approved by the authority. Previously established universities will be required to consult the authority when it is proposed to establish a new quality assurance procedure. This is a clear acknowledgement of the traditional autonomy of universities.
We are moving into a new space in respect of third level education. Members are familiar with what is known as the Hunt report. We now have 33 higher level institutions on the CAO forms. There will be some rationalisation of the initial teacher education provision. No doubt, the House will want to discuss that point. We are doing so because, when I went to college 40 years ago, only 10% of my confrères and citizens went to third level college. That figure is now at 60% and rising. The expectation that people, during the course of their lifetime, move in and out of continuous learning through further education or related matters is new territory for all of us. It is essential that we ensure some mechanism of quality assurance that confirms the good work being done by third level institutions. I am not talking about displacing it, getting in the way of it, making it more bureaucratic or hindering it but making sure that, if one does a course in college X or college Y, there is some comparability in respect of quality assurance. Senators Barrett and Crown suggest in amendments that I will not accept, that the Higher Education Authority should have no role whatsoever in this space of quality assurance. The new body will be involved in quality assurance. We are merging three institutions and, at the same time, the universities have decided to dissolve the IUQB. In other words, we are reducing the number of institutions in the quality assurance space and standardising methods of assessment and evaluation. In anticipation of this legislation - I pay tribute to the previous Administration for initiating it - there has been rationalisation and integration at personnel level. The new body will have a shared workforce from the three amalgamated institutions, with one chief executive officer. For these reasons, I am not in position or convinced by the argument set out therein to accept the amendments in the names of Senators Sean Barrett and John Crown. Having said that, I take the opportunity to thank them for their co-operation in this area. I will be more than happy to return, at a time of Members' choosing, to discuss issues around academic freedom, including a separation between the quality of teaching in third level institutions, on the one hand, and the requirement for some framework for engagement by the regulatory authorities and the Higher Education Authority, on the other.
It might be useful for Members to consider an example of what we are trying to do. The state of Singapore which has a population greater than Ireland's has one institution for teacher education encompassing both primary and second level. The republic of Finland has eight such institutions, while the province of Ontario in Canada has 13. We have 22 and something like 43 education courses. On foot of the Hunt report, we have requested a group of international experts to examine how we can ensure improved quality and consistency across that very broad landscape. The historical reasons for the existence of five stand-alone primary school teacher training colleges are well understood. However, all of the best educationist advice I have received, as reflected in the Hunt report, argues that initial teacher training should be located on a university campus or in a university context. That is what we are proposing to introduce. The traditional call to training, as it was historically known, was for a two year teacher training course which did not receive the same academic recognition as the three and four year arts degrees available in the three or four universities in the State at the time. That changed many years ago when the qualification became a bachelor of education, but it remains a three year course.
I apologise. I will conclude by reminding Members that in the future teacher training courses will be of four rather than three years duration, with the focus on pedagogical skills and a broad range of other facets of training. The third level education landscape we have inherited is an uneven one, with the Senators' institution, for example, being more than 400 years old, while others, namely, the University of Limerick and DCU, are less than 20 years old. There is inevitably a degree of duplication and a loss of efficiency in that situation, which is what we are seeking to address.
I certainly do not wish to interfere with the timetable.
I thank the Minister for his response. I hope copies of his speech will be circulated as a bulwark against the bureaucratic menace we have discussed. In regard to the Higher Education Authority, it is not long since an bord snip nua recommended its abolition, yet it is now assuming new powers which will see it supervising a university that has been awarding degrees of international standing for the past 400 years. We should bear in mind that such fashions in bureaucracy come and go.
I thank the Minister for considering the points made my Senator John Crown and me. Being mindful of the time, I do not propose to press amendments Nos. 1 to 3, inclusive. However, it is important to remember that in a country with real problems - the Minister has been particularly prominent in raising these problems in public media - we must be careful not to invent artificial problems with expensive solutions. From my experience and based on what external examiners are telling us, there simply is not a problem with the quality of lecturing to the degree suggested in some quarters. In a time of limited resources, the focus should be on the classroom rather than bureaucracy. We seem to be losing sight of the reality that the role of the universities is primarily to cherish and educate 18 to 23 year olds. Seeking to establish a branch of IDA Ireland in the education sector represents a mistaken allocation of resources. The people in the lecture room are usually at the low end of the budget in terms of remuneration, while the individuals observing them and issuing reports on their performance are often on salaries twice or three times as large. This was reflected in the Comptroller and Auditor General's report on top level management which made particular reference to the 13 vice presidents of universities. The way to obtain these positions is to get out of the lecture hall. Resources should primarily be put into teaching itself. The type of supervision proposed by some is often demonstrably unnecessary, expensive, wasteful of resources and tending largely to interfere with the job of education in the classroom.
Amendment No. 4 is also in the name of Senators Sean Barrett and John Crown. I remind Senator Sean Barrett that the clock is against us. He should also be mindful of the Minister's very honourable commitment to return to the House for a broad debate on education.