Tuesday, 28 April 2015
Education (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2014: [Seanad Bill amended by the Dáil] Report and Final Stages
I welcome the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan.
This is a Seanad Bill 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 to them, of these amendments. The Minister will deal with the subject matter of the amendments in each group. I have also circulated the proposed groupings to the House. A Senator may contribute once on each grouping. I remind Senators that the only matters that 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 this opportunity to be back in the Seanad where there was considerable interest in this Bill. Indeed, the amendments to which I will refer are largely a response to the debate in the Seanad rather than the debate in the Dáil. I am keen to make that clear. We had a very productive discussion in this House and I welcome the strong engagement of Senators.
In accordance with what the Cathaoirleach just said, I will not talk about the general purpose of the Bill but instead, I will go straight to the amendments. A total of nine amendments were approved during Committee and Report Stages in Dáil Éireann. They all relate to the issue of granting university authorisation, which is provided for in sections 2, 3, 4 and 5. Although these were all Government amendments, I note that several of the amendments were introduced to address concerns raised in this House. The amendments are grouped under two headings. I will begin by setting out the position on the amendments in group 1.
Senators will be aware that the purpose of sections 2, 3, 4 and 5 is to provide for the authorisation by the Minister of the use of the description "university" by a high-quality education provider for specified purposes outside the State. The use of the description is restricted in its geographical application and in the purposes for which it can be used. Use of the description is restricted to outside of the State and for the following purposes: to market programmes of education and training provided by the authorised provider or research services of the authorised provider; and to enter into an arrangement with any person outside the State for the purposes of participating in a collaborative project relating to the provision of programmes of education and training or research services.
Section 3 provides for review of the authorisation to use the description by the Higher Education Authority.Section 4 provides for the withdrawal of the authorisation by the Minister on the grounds that it is not being used for the specified purpose or that the provider no longer fulfils the qualifying criteria for application. Section 5 provides for an appeals board to hear appeals relating either to a Minister's decision to refuse to grant an authorisation or a decision to withdraw an authorisation.
Following discussions in this House, and in particular the significant input provided by Senator Barrett in suggesting amendments to the draft Bill, amendments Nos. 1, 2, 3 and 4 were introduced to allow the Minister, when granting a university authorisation, to impose such additional conditions on the provider concerned as the Minister thinks appropriate. The provider would be required to comply with those conditions, although amendment No. 3 provides that the provider can appeal against the imposition of those conditions to the appeals board provided for under section 5. Amendment No. 4 then provides that a review carried out by an t-údarás under section 3 of the Bill would include a review of the provider's compliance with any conditions imposed by the Minister and provides that the Minister can direct a provider to comply with conditions imposed by him or her. These amendments will, therefore, allow the Minister to put in place additional safeguards to ensure that any provider which receives university authorisation is operating to the highest standards.
I acknowledge that the Minister has taken on some of the feedback from this House. We had an extensive discussion on the Bill in this House both on Committee and Report Stages. The Fianna Fáil Senators, Sinn Féin Senators and university Senators all spoke against the Bill and we voted against the legislation when it left this House because we had concerns about the procedure that is being set up in respect of allowing a university to use the name of a university abroad when it does not qualify for university status internally. I acknowledge that the Minister has brought forward some amendments to deal with the process and to improve it, but I still have problems in principle with the proposition in the Bill.
It is duplicitous to allow an institution to use a designation abroad that it is not entitled to use in the State. I accept that there are issues for our non-university third level institutions in terms of marketing themselves abroad and I accept that they are often competing against far inferior institutions that can carry the name of university. I accept that is unfair and that there is an issue here, but I do not think this is the best way to go about it. I also do not accept that RCSI is the only institution in that situation. Many of our institutes of technology, which are fantastic and superior to those that might describe themselves as universities in other countries, have the same issue in terms of marketing themselves abroad and yet, the RCSI is the only institution that fulfils the criteria set out in the Bill. There are better ways of addressing the genuine concerns about marketing, not least by ensuring full implementation of the strategy set out by the last Government for the internationalisation of Irish education and for marketing ourselves more coherently and strongly abroad. There is no doubt that there is a market that we have not tapped into sufficiently, but this legislation is not the best way to address it.
I welcome the fact that the Minister has accepted amendments giving additional safeguards as to standards. This Bill is a good idea and I welcome it. I also welcome the fact that institutions of such high repute as the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland can market their services abroad on a level playing field with others. Senator Power has acknowledged the high quality of the provision in comparison with other institutions. I do not know how this could be done other than in the manner proposed in this Bill if the idea itself is good. What the Minister is proposing is reasonable. What she has done is very fair and welcome.
It may be the only one that qualifies now, but this is legislation for the future. We have deliberately set the bar high because we want to protect the reputation of our universities and our higher education institutions in general. An institution must reach very high standards before it can use the title of university outside the country. The purpose of this provision is to ensure that those that do reach that standard can compete with institutions in other parts of the world, as the Senator mentioned, which can call themselves universities despite not reaching those standards. We have no control over what other states call universities. We can only control what happens with our own institutions. I am satisfied that the purpose is to do that and that the first group of amendments is designed to specifically address the concerns in this House that we need to be absolutely sure that this legislation would not be used inappropriately. It gives the Minister the power, if we do detect something that must be more tightly safeguarded, to do that, so it does address the concerns that were raised in that regard.
The purpose of amendments Nos. 5 to 9 is to amend section 5 of the Bill, which sets out provisions relating to the hearing of an appeal against a decision of the Minister to impose conditions in relation to the use of university authorisation, to refuse to grant university authorisation under section 2 or to withdraw university authorisation under section 4. The Bill provided that the Minister, having regard to certain criteria, would upon receipt of an appeal appoint three to five persons to an appeals board. However, the purpose of the appeals board is to hear an appeal against a decision of the Minister and, therefore, the appointment of the appeals board by the Minister could bring into question the independence of an appeals board appointed in this manner. Amendment No. 5, therefore, provides that the Minister shall, upon receipt of an appeal, request the nomination by Quality and Qualifications Ireland, QQI, of three persons to be appointed to the appeals board, two of whom shall be experts in matters relating to higher education and one of whom shall be either a solicitor or a barrister. This will ensure that appeals are not only fair, but are seen to be fair
Amendments Nos. 6 and 7 provide greater clarity about how an appeals board would conduct an appeal, and provide for the establishment of procedures by an appeals board, the provision of written submissions by parties to the appeal and the holding of hearings, where necessary.
The purpose of amendment No. 8 is to provide that appeals will be determined by an appeals board as soon as practicable after its consideration of an appeal. The Bill provided that appeals will be determined within 60 days of the service of a notice of an appeal on the Minister, and this is considered to be too tight a deadline, given the issues which the appeals board will be required to consider in hearing an appeal.
Finally, amendment No. 9 is a technical amendment which sets out a definition for "Quality and Qualifications Ireland".