Seanad debates

Wednesday, 10 October 2018

Qualifications and Quality Assurance (Education and Training) (Amendment) Bill 2018: Second Stage

 

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

10:30 am

Photo of Mary Mitchell O'ConnorMary Mitchell O'Connor (Dún Laoghaire, Fine Gael)
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I am pleased to bring the Qualifications and Quality Assurance (Education and Training) (Amendment) Bill 2018 before the Seanad. The Bill proposes to amend the Qualifications and Quality Assurance (Education and Training) Act 2012 which established Quality and Qualifications Ireland, QQI, as the national agency responsible for external quality assurance and qualification across the further and higher education sectors. The main purpose of the Bill is to further empower QQI as a regulator of quality and strengthen the agency's role in ensuring high standards across Ireland's education system. This important legislation will enable QQI to realise its potential, facilitate the introduction of deferred policies and clarify, strengthen and make more efficient the operation of existing policies.

I highlight for the House six key provisions of the Bill. The first relates to the listing of awarded bodies. The Bill will enable the expansion of the range of awards included in the national framework of qualifications, NFQ, by giving QQI explicit authority to list awarding bodies and include their qualifications in the framework. Qualifications such as those awarded by professional and international awarding bodies are offered by providers in Ireland, but currently they are unable to access the NFQ. The Bill addresses this issue by establishing a pathway for awarding bodies and their associated providers to engage with QQI to have their awards included in the framework, while also ensuring the quality standards of the NFQ are upheld.

The second key provision relates to the examination of the bona fides and financial capacity of providers. As part of strengthening QQI's quality assurance procedures, the Bill seeks to provide a legal basis for QQI to examine the bona fides and financial capacity of the providers with which it engages. This will enable it to assess a provider's capacity to provide programmes of education and training consistent with the quality assurance processes and procedures required by the 2012 Act. To conduct this assessment, QQI will be further empowered by means of statutory instrument to establish criteria addressing key issues such as legal personality, ownership and the corporate governance arrangements of providers. In addition, it will be empowered to examine whether adequate financial resources are in place to ensure the viability of these businesses.

The third key provision relates to the international education mark, IEM, which will be introduced on the enactment of the Bill. The IEM forms part of Ireland's international education strategy which aims to foster and strengthen Ireland's reputation as a destination of choice for international students. The IEM will serve as a crucial tool for Ireland's educational providers in underpinning the quality of our educational offerings. To obtain the IEM, providers will have to demonstrate compliance with key criteria and practices covering protections for enrolled learners, recruitment and admission, information provision, student welfare, cultural awareness and academic support provisions. Once it is in place, only providers authorised to use the IEM will be eligible to recruit international students. The Bill provides for variants of the IEM to reflect and respond to the demands of different types of educational provision. At the outset, there will be two initial forms of the IEM, one of which will apply to the higher education sector and other to the English language education sector.

The fourth key provision relates to the protection of enrolled learners. The Bill aims to provide for a more robust national scheme for the protection of enrolled learners, PEL. PEL will come into effect in circumstances where a provider ceases to offer a programme or trade. It is intended to ensure learners who commence a programme can be confident that they will be facilitated to complete the programme or, as a lesser alternative, receive a refund of fees paid should such an event occur. The current arrangements for PEL as required under the 2012 Act have fallen short of their objective and are no longer fit for purpose. The Bill proposes to replace the existing measures with the establishment of a learner protection fund. The fund will provide QQI with the necessary resources to manage PEL events. Should a provider cease to provide a programme, where necessary, the fund will be used by QQI to fund the teaching out of the original programme where possible; fund the payment of fees for the transfer of an enrolled leaner to a similar programme of another provider, or, where circumstances dictate, provide for a refund of fees to the learner. Those providers, the programmes of which are covered by the fund, would be required to pay an annual charge to QQI for PEL. The fund will be fully resourced by these charges. The level of the fee is intended to be as affordable as possible to avoid any undue imposition on providers and students, while also avoiding any risk transfer to the Exchequer. The precise details of the fund will be agreed following further consultation with stakeholders.

The fifth key provision of the Bill relates to the prosecution of cheating services. The Bill will provide QQI with powers to prosecute the provision or advertising of essay mills and other forms of academic cheating. Essay mills are services which supply to learners, in whole or in part, assignments which are required to be completed as part of a programme of education and training. These services are principally advertised online and have been a growing phenomenon in recent years. Such services present a challenge to the academic integrity of programmes and awards within the remit of QQI. The creation of offences for the provision and advertisement of these services will serve to prohibit the practice and make the services more difficult to access.

The sixth key provision relates to the awarding powers of institutes of technology. Currently, all institutes of technology, with the exception of the Dublin Institute of Technology, have delegated authority from QQI to make awards from level 6 to level 9 of the national framework of qualifications. By contrast, the universities, the Dublin Institute of Technology, DIT, and the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, RCSI, are designated awarding bodies, which means that they are self-awarding bodies. There is, therefore, a legislative difference in the relationship between QQI and the universities and the institutes of technology, respectively. The Bill addresses the legislative difference by providing for amendments to the Regional Technical Colleges Act 1992 to grant award-making powers, with the exception of doctoral awards, to all institutes of technology.This will put the institutes of technology on an equal footing with the designated awarding bodies with which they are expected to establish regional and thematic clusters, as per the goals of the National Strategy for Higher Education to 2030. It will create a single, coherent quality assurance and qualifications space among public higher education institutions.

Having set out the policy context underpinning the development of the Bill, I will now turn to its contents. It comprises 36 sections divided into three Parts. Part 1 comprises sections 1 and 2 which contain standard provisions on the Short Title and commencement and provide a definition for use in the Act.

Part 2 comprises sections 3 to 34, inclusive, which address amendments to the Qualifications and Quality Assurance (Education and Training) Act 2012. Section 3 provides for amendments to section 2 of the principal Act which introduce new definitions and revise existing definitions under the 2012 Act. Section 4 amends the functions of Quality and Qualifications Ireland and includes specific statutory functions for the inclusion of awards within the national framework of qualifications and the listing of awarding bodies. Section 5 provides for the specific legislative function for QQI to share relevant information with other State bodies including the Higher Education Authority and SOLAS. Section 6 amends section 27 of the principal Act to provide for the periodic review and updating by QQI of quality assurance guidelines and for the issuance of different guidelines for different types of programmes, including for the new category of listed awarding bodies. Section 7 amends section 28 of the principal Act and contains provisions to clarify the scope of quality assurance procedures established by providers having regard to the guidelines issued by QQI. Section 8, as I have outlined, provides QQI with statutory powers to evaluate the bona fides and financial capacity of providers. Section 9 contains provisions to allow QQI to impose certain conditions on an education and training provider the quality assurance procedures of which it has approved.

Sections 10, 12 and 23 require QQI to consult SOLAS when conducting reviews of further education and training procedures. This runs parallel to existing provisions in the 2012 Act for consultation with the Higher Education Authority in respect of higher education institutions. Sections 11 and 17 provide for certain occasions when QQI can withdraw approval of quality assurance procedures and programme validation without conducting a review. Section 13 amends section 43 of the principal Act to provide a legal basis for the inclusion of awards made by designated awarding bodies, namely, the seven universities, Dublin Institute of Technology and the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, in the national framework of qualifications. It further provides for QQI to establish policies and criteria for awards to be included within the framework and for the establishment of different policies and criteria for different awards and different awarding bodies. Section 14 provides QQI with powers to prosecute the provision or advertising of essay mills and other forms of academic cheating.

Section 15 provides necessary amendments to facilitate the extension of the awarding powers of institutes of technology to include awards up to level 9 on the national framework of qualifications. As a result, institutes of technology will be required to apply for QQI validation for doctoral degree level awards only. Sections 16 and 34 amend sections 45 and 84 of the principal Act, respectively, to provide that QQI validation for all education and training programmes is time limited. Sections 18 and 22 contain provisions to authorise QQI to list awarding bodies and to include their qualifications in the national framework of qualifications. Section 18 provides for a transitional period of five years to facilitate existing arrangements between certain providers, such as institutes of technology and education and training boards, and awarding bodies other than QQI. Section 19 provides a technical clarification that learners seeking access to recognition of prior learning processes should apply in the first instance to an education and training provider rather than to QQI.

Section 20 provides for QQI to examine the suitability of a provider’s quality assurance procedures in the context of determining a provider’s request for delegated authority. It also provides for QQI to define a class of programmes for the purposes of delegating authority to enable a more focused approach to delegating authority where it is warranted. Section 21 amends section 53 of the principal Act to reflect the revisions to the national scheme for the protection of enrolled learners. Sections 24 to 26, inclusive, contain provisions to facilitate the introduction of the international education mark. Sections 27 to 30, inclusive, provide for the introduction of a new national scheme for the protection of enrolled learners, the related regulations, and for the establishment, governance and operation by QQI of the protection of enrolled learners fund.

Section 31 amends the obligations on a provider to inform enrolled learners of recognition of the award within the national framework of qualifications to refer instead to inclusion in the framework. This would allow for an associated provider of a listed awarding body to align with these statutory obligations. Section 32 provides for an exemption for the listing of junior certificate, leaving certificate and other post-primary programmes and awards from QQI’s database of awards. It was not the intention when making provisions for this database in the 2012 Act that those awards would be included. Section 33 amends section 80 of the principal Act to provide a legal basis for QQI to charge fees for certain existing services such as periodic quality reviews and for new functions contained in the Bill such as the assessment of applications to become a listed awarding body.

Part 3 comprises sections 35 and 36 which address amendments to other Acts. Section 35 amends the Regional Technical Colleges Act 1992 to provide for the granting of award-making powers, with the exception of doctoral awards, to all institutes of technology. Provisions are also included to strengthen the independent control of the academic councils of the institutes of technology to bring them into line with those of the designated awarding bodies. The autonomy of the academic decision making of the academic council and its independence from the governing authority is necessary to support its awarding powers. Section 36 provides for references to awards recognised within the national framework of qualifications in other Acts to be construed as awards included in the framework.

The Bill is an important step to underpin the quality agenda in Irish higher and further education.The amendments that are being proposed will make QQI a stronger and more responsive regulator and will facilitate the introduction of key policy measures such as the international education mark and the learner protection fund. I hope Senators will agree that this is an important Bill. I look forward to listening to their views today and to debating this Bill further as it progresses through the Oireachtas. I commend it to the House.

Photo of Michael McDowellMichael McDowell (Independent)
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I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I commend her on this overdue legislation, which I am sure will be worked on closely by Members. I am grateful to Senator Gallagher for permitting me to make a short contribution out of sequence. I propose to raise on Committee Stage the question of designating the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland as a university of medicine and life sciences or health sciences, notwithstanding the provisions of the Universities Acts. The Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland has an important role to play as one of our flagship international third level education providers. It is held back by the fact that it cannot in any sense signal to the world at large its status as a university. I intend to raise this matter on Committee Stage. I hope we can have a debate on that subject at that time.

Photo of Robbie GallagherRobbie Gallagher (Fianna Fail)
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The Minister of State is very welcome to the House to discuss this important issue. Like all Senators, the Fianna Fáil Members of the House are committed to maintaining the highest standards in education and to improving those standards where possible. In line with that, we broadly support the measures that are being introduced in this Bill. As Senators will be aware, most of the measures arise from a 2015 High Court case and are largely technical in nature. The measures in the Bill relate to the listing of awarding bodies, to statutory powers to evaluate providers and to the international education mark. The Bill makes a number of positive contributions, for example, by improving protections for English language students, providing greater powers to tackle cheating, introducing new powers to recognise private colleges and giving institutes of technology the power to confer degrees. We are concerned that the proposed supports under the learner protection fund, LPF, would see the State step in to act as an insurer for private language schools. It is possible that this could lead to potential costs for the State. Fianna Fáil believes that any potential funding which might come to be required should be subject to public scrutiny. While we will support the Bill on Second Stage, we believe the LPF measures might need to be amended at a later stage. Perhaps the Minister of State will take that on board. As I have said, all of us are committed to maintaining and, where possible, improving the highest standards in education. For that reason, I broadly welcome the Bill. Fianna Fáil will support it fully.

Photo of Maria ByrneMaria Byrne (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister of State to the House to discuss this important issue. I compliment QQI on the work it has done to date. It has engaged in consultation and has highlighted some parts of the Bill that need to be improved. I know the Minister of State is bringing a number of proposals before us today on foot of that consultation. I worked closely with a number of colleges when I was going through the Bill. I would like to raise an issue that relates to section 65(6) of the Bill. I propose that this section should refer to Mary Immaculate College and Marino Institute of Education. They did not get to make submissions because they missed the date. They are not mentioned in this Bill even though other universities are. I ask the Minister of State to take this on board when she brings the Bill back to this House. Other than that, I think it is a very positive Bill. I understand the concept behind its introduction. I know the third level institutes we are discussing have been working very hard. I have been monitoring some of the work they have been doing. As a result of the decision to bring everything together, students are able to apply to a single body for their qualifications. This service is being monitored. As far as I can see, it has been provided in a very effective and efficient manner to date. The maintenance of the national framework of qualifications is also important. It has been highlighted that the Bill needs to be strengthened and that changes need to be made to it. I compliment and support that proposal.

Photo of Pádraig MacLochlainnPádraig MacLochlainn (Sinn Fein)
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I welcome the important legislation before the House. Sinn Féin intends to work with the Minister of State and all Members of the House to improve it. This Bill stems from the current lack of regulation in the English language school sector, which is worth €1.58 billion per annum to the economy. The vast majority of the approximately 120 private English language schools in the State make a profit each year. Student fees range from €2,000 to €4,500 for six-month part-time courses. Our schools are so highly regarded that civil servants from other EU member states are being sent to Ireland to learn English here. The Department of Education and Skills is well aware of the potential growth of this sector, which it has identified as a key sector in its international education strategy. It is aiming for 25% growth in the sector over the next four years, potentially making it worth €2 billion by 2020. We welcome the Department's focus on this sector and the production of a Bill that attempts to regulate this industry. However, we are disappointed that at this early stage in proceedings, the Bill has a distinct lack of focus on regulating employment practices in this sector. This industry has lacked serious regulation for many years. Bad employment practices have practically become the norm. We need to reverse this trend. The Bill gives us an opportunity to do just that.

Approximately 1,200 teachers are employed in this sector all year round. This number doubles during the summer season. Unfortunately, this sector has largely been characterised by precarious employment and poor workers' rights. The Unite union, which has been active in this sector for many years, is well aware of serious abuses of workers' rights, such as the overuse and misuse of fixed-term contracts. Teachers are often released before Christmas and rehired in January so that the payment of holiday pay can be avoided. Zero-hour contracts are rife in this sector. Every one of the 40 teachers in one school is on a zero-hour contract. Bogus self-employment is a very worrying development in this sector. Teachers are being asked to provide schools with invoices for their services, rather than being paid a wage. There are vast disparities in pay. Non-native teachers are paid lower rates than native speakers. Teachers are not paid for non-contract hours, which means they are not paid for time spent preparing and correcting lessons. Unite has found that this means teachers in this sector are doing an average of eight hours of unpaid work each week. Teachers in this sector have no entitlement to sick pay.

This is the reality for workers in the English language school sector. The introduction of this Bill means that this is the time and the place to correct these wrongs. While we welcome many aspects of the Bill, we emphasise that it needs to go further. For example, section 27 proposes the establishment of a learner protection fund. We absolutely agree with the principle underpinning this fund and we welcome its introduction. In recent years, we have seen numerous rogue businesses coming to Ireland and taking money from students, before fleeing the country or going into insolvency, thereby leaving students high and dry.An example of such a scenario occurred last March, when a school in Limerick suddenly closed. Just to highlight the lack of regulation that currently exists in the sector, the owner of that school had actually bought it for just €100 the previous year. He had no idea how to run a business and, as such, had failed to put the school into insolvency before he left. The students were left without their money and without the service. If a similar scenario were to occur again, I imagine the learner protection fund would kick in and the students would be compensated. Sinn Féin, however, also wants the Bill to include a "staff protection fund". When these schools go bust or flee the country, they also leave the workers high and dry. In Limerick, when that school went bust, the teachers were left with one month's unpaid wages, which meant families could not pay their rent or put food on the table. We need to ensure that a safety net exists for workers as well as students.

Section 25 of the proposed legislation includes provision for an international education mark, IEM. This mark would regulate the ownership and management of these schools. Sinn Féin welcomes this proposal. We would, however, also like to see this section go further and introduce a fair employment mark, FEM. If the Department is serious about regulating this industry, it must also regulate workers' rights in the sector. A fair employment mark would ensure that employers adhere to basic employment standards for teachers and administration staff in the sector. Under the international education mark, if a school contravened health and safety regulations, the business would be sanctioned. We want the same sanctions to be handed out for the contravention of employment regulations. A fair employment mark could include provisions such as: a limit on the number of fixed-term contracts a school can issue at any one time; a requirement for employers to give a worker a legal, written statement of terms and conditions; a ban on zero-hour contracts; pay for non-contact hours; and equality of pay for non-native speakers. A worker should also have the right to be represented in his or her workplace by the union of his or her choice.

These are basic rights to which a worker in the sector should be entitled, and the Department must take responsibility for regulating adherence to them. It is not good enough for the Minister and this Bill to look the other way and leave it all up to the Workplace Relations Commission. Workers on three-month or six-month fixed-term contracts will not take cases to the WRC over any of these issues because if they do, they will not have their contracts renewed. If the Department is serious about regulating this sector, it also needs to get serious about protecting workers in the industry. The Department has the authority to introduce such a fair employment mark and to exclude bad employers from the IEM if they breach such basic conditions. We have an opportunity with this Bill to regulate the sector. Let us do it right away and do it the right way. We all want this sector to be a success, but it needs to work for its workers. We welcome the Bill and will support its passage through Second Stage, but it is vital that progress on workers' rights is made on Committee Stage.

Photo of Lynn RuaneLynn Ruane (Independent)
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I thank the Minister for her time. I wish to start by welcoming the legislation before the House. It is a good Bill overall, with the principal aim of strengthening and clarifying the legal and regulatory standing of Quality and Qualifications Ireland and ensuring that it is able to achieve its aim as a regulator of quality assurance in further and higher education in the State. I wish to point out, however, that the Oireachtas education committee, of which I am a member, is currently engaged in a stakeholder consultation process with the industry, NGOs, unions and representative groups involved in this area. Why is the Bill being progressed through the Oireachtas when this process is still ongoing? We are now in a position where I have had a chance to read all the submissions made on the Bill to our committee but most others in the House have not. How can the Bill be evaluated comprehensively when Members present are not aware of what the actors in the sector have to say about it? I ask the Minister and the Leader not to bring the Bill back for Committee Stage and potential amendment until the education committee has completed our work on it.

In addition to the clarification of the role of the QQI, the Bill seeks to bring forward a number of welcome reforms. I welcome the proposed creation of the offence for the provision or advertising of cheating services or so-called "essay mills". I welcome the proposed creation of the protection of enrolled learners fund to provide for both academic and financial bonding for students in the case of a programme or school closure. These are unfortunate circumstances for any student, and it is to be welcomed that the State is willing to take responsibility for the administration of a financial instrument that will serve students well in a crisis. I also lend my support to what Senator Mac Lochlainn said about protections for staff who would be affected.

I welcome the proposed creation of the international education mark and the focus on high-quality service provision for students of the English language. It is a great development that Ireland is becoming a global destination for excellence in this area. I also welcome the expansion of award-making powers to institutes of technology. This is welcome at a time of change and reform in the institute of technology sector.

However, I do have a couple of concerns about the Bill that have arisen through the public consultation process on the education committee and on which I hope we can work together between now and Committee Stage. These concerns really underline the importance of delaying the Bill's progression until the consultation is complete.

First, I am concerned about the impact of the new learner protection fund on smaller community education projects and organisations. They do not appear to have been communicated with and they are unsure where they will stand in terms of their quality assurance obligations and financial liabilities on contributions to the fund. While for-profit providers are able to charge fees to cover the cost of QQI re-engagement and programme validation costs, independent providers do not have the same financial flexibility. Section 28 sets out the providers who shall be exempt from contributing to the learner protection fund. I ask the Minister to consider including not-for-profit community education organisations in that same list in light of their not-for-profit role and the financial burden such a liability would represent.

Another area where the Bill is in need of further work, consultation and amendment is the regulation of the English language teacher sector. I welcome the growth of this sector in recent years and the role played by the Government in its growth. I also welcome the targets set out in An International Education Strategy for Ireland 2016-2020, which aims to increase the number of English-language students by 25% from 106,000 in 2014 to 132,500 in 2020. It is, however, deeply unfair and just wrong to talk about growing this industry by a quarter and increasing standards for students without acknowledging the often terrible conditions under which English language teachers in the sector are working. This is a sector which our own Oireachtas Library and Research Service estimates to be worth €1.58 billion to the Irish economy, an astronomical figure which is only set to grow and further increase the profits of providers while teachers work in extraordinarily precarious conditions. The money is there in this sector. However, providers are deliberately excluding their teachers from benefitting and the State needs to intervene. We can all agree that it will be impossible to improve the learner experience if we do not improve conditions for the teachers providing the service to them. In submissions to the education committee, we heard about a range of employment law violations which are happening every day in English-language schools across the country. We have received accounts of teachers receiving no contract for their work despite working for the same provider for years, and abuse of single and short-term contracts whereby teachers are effectively fired over the holidays in order that providers are not liable for basic holiday entitlements.

Zero and low-hour contracts are the norm in the industry, as is widespread bogus self-employment, whereby providers demand teachers send them invoices rather than pay teachers a wage and to avoid the associated employer obligations. There are vast disparities in pay and remuneration in the sector and even within the same school, with very few teachers even making the living wage in Dublin price terms. Teachers receive no remuneration or accommodation for non-contact hours, that is, work outside the classroom, despite the many hours that go into preparation for a single class. There is no entitlement to sick pay, holiday pay or maternity or paternity leave for teachers, and shocking accounts exist of teachers' contracts not being renewed following requests for parental leave. There is also the extraordinary practice of non-native teachers often being automatically paid less than native speakers. This is apparently a widespread phenomenon. What could possibly be the justification for this? It is simply not acceptable that we would seek to legislate for high and stringent standards for the provision of education to English-language students but do nothing to improve the situation for the teachers instructing them.This Bill has high regulatory standards at its core. It recognises that programmes and providers need oversight by the State to ensure students are getting a fair deal. We need to apply the exact same principle to the employment conditions of staff in these schools. This sector is growing well and is highly profitable. It is not unreasonable to provide for stronger protections for teachers in this Bill.

I am aware that this is education legislation and not employment law, but we do not have to write new statutory labour protections into this Bill. All we need to say is that if a provider wishes to be accredited with the International Education Mark, IEM, they must be able to demonstrate that they are in full compliance with existing employment law and some smaller additional, industry-specific provisions. I would be happy to work with the Minister of State on this before Committee Stage, where I plan to table amendments on this issue. I look forward to hearing her views.

Photo of James ReillyJames Reilly (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister of State to the House and I welcome the Bill. I am very much in support of the legislation in what it sets out to do to regulate foreign language schools in particular, and the many other aspects of the Bill that have been touched on. I share the view that this is not just about protecting students, who we have all seen being exploited and victimised in the most awful way by unscrupulous operators of these schools. They could not be called anything other than cowboys because they do not have the interests of the students at heart and they are just there to turn a quick buck. There have also been stories indicating a use of this as a ruse to get around visa rules.

I share in the comments made by others with regard to the terms and working conditions of people who work in these schools and the lack of certainty and security around their terms and conditions. The Bill is also about protecting Ireland's international reputation as a safe place to come to a college that is, on the face of it, supported by Government, in a country that is part of the EU and has laws and regulations that people should feel would protect their loved ones when they send them so far afield for an education. English language schools are a huge international market. I spoke to the ambassador from India who told me that, at the time, there were more than 100,000 Indian students in the UK learning English but only 1,000 in Ireland, and that this was a massive market that Ireland had not fully explored or exploited. Ireland's EU colleagues, the Spanish in particular, certainly know the value of learning the English language in Ireland and the positive experiences those students have had.

While I want to use this opportunity to touch on an issue, I am aware that from her previous role as the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, the Minister of State would be very concerned about the working conditions of people and workers. I know that I am pushing an open door when I speak to that end, and when I speak on Committee Stage of the opportunities this Bill might present.

I want to emphasise a problem that I believe is grossly unfair, as it was explained to me, and I would like to get a fuller understanding as to why this situation pertains. I put my hand up to say that I am a graduate of the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, RCSI, as was my mother before me and my son after me. The RCSI has been adjudicated in The Irish Times higher education tables as second only to Trinity College Dublin as an education facility in Ireland. That includes all of the other universities, but I will not mention them or upset them. The RCSI has been around for a few centuries and, indeed, UCD students got their medical degrees from the RCSI all those years back. Then the tables flipped and now I am one of those qualified doctors who has degrees from both colleges. The RCSI has a huge international reputation and has campuses in four countries. The college is seen as the greatest and largest western supporter of surgical training in sub-Saharan east Africa. The college has been held out by The Lancet as an exemplar for its work there. The college has graduates throughout the world and has huge influence. Despite this, it is only in this country, in the Twenty-six Counties, that it is not allowed to call itself a university. It is considered a university everywhere else. I do not understand the rationale for this. I am aware there is resistance to this in the Department. I would love that individual or individuals with those views to come before an Oireachtas committee to explain why they would single out the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland and exclude it from calling itself a university in this jurisdiction. This has a very detrimental effect on the college. I travelled to China when I was a Minister and I promoted the idea of education, among other things, as we improve our trade links with that great nation. They said to me that it was not a university. They take these things very literally.

In this Bill, I hope the opportunity will be taken to have the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland considered a university in Ireland. I certainly intend to bring an amendment on Committee Stage in this regard. The RCSI has educated tens of thousands of doctors for Ireland and across the world. Those connections come back to us in spades. When I visited the Mayo Clinic, I found that the two gentlemen who set it up - the Mayo brothers - had received an honorary degree from this college. I make an impassioned plea on this matter because it seems to be in no one's interest to allow this situation to pertain.

Photo of Aodhán Ó RíordáinAodhán Ó Ríordáin (Labour)
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I welcome the Minister of State to the House. Much of what I was going to contribute to the conversation has been raised by my colleagues, Senators Mac Lochlainn and Ruane. I will make my contribution relatively short.

As Senator Ruane has said, there is no huge rush to get this done if we are not going to get it done correctly and properly. The Unite trade union, with which I hope the Minister of State will engage, has a very impressive document that details not just its concerns on the Bill but also the opportunities. As Senator Mac Lochlainn has said, the Bill is a vehicle that affords us an opportunity to do more in a sector, especially around the English language teaching sector, which as we all know has been hugely problematic and rife with a number of problems. Unite has said that it has been dealing with cases that illustrate a range of abuses relating to contracts and wages and issues of discrimination where a non-native English speaker is treated differently from a native English speaker when it comes to wage rates. The sector is known for having precarious employment practices and variable pay rates. We have spoken about the issue of zero-hour contracts.

Unite has made two particular proposals, which I believe are viable and decent, and the Labour Party supports these proposals. The Labour Party will bring amendments forward, which I know other parties will also do. It is interesting that my colleagues who represent the left in this Chamber, such as Sinn Féin, the Labour Party and like-minded Independents, are focusing on the vulnerable workers in the sector, whereas other speakers have been very short in their contributions and have perhaps focused on those who do not necessarily need the same protections.

We suggest that section 25 be amended to establish a fair employment mark as part of the IEM. This is the way that employment practices have to work. We have to ensure that workplaces and employers are treating their employees fairly and that this should be known to anyone who comes into contact with whatever institution they engage.

We also advocate for teacher protection funds. Again, given the precarious nature of these schools, the way they open and close and the way they can collapse overnight and not be seen again, the people working in this sector deserve much more protection.

These proposals are positive and proactive. They work within the vehicles provided for us by the Minister of State. We are in the position where we want to welcome this Bill but we want to improve it for those who are most vulnerable within the sector. I hope the Minister agrees that the proposals make sense. As Senator Ruane has said, let us get this right and, if we can, use the process to its utmost at the various stages. Let us ensure that the protections needed for workers within the sector are put in place.If I was to advise anybody to use the services of an English language school, it would be of great comfort to me to know that an individual school had a fair employment mark. It would let me know in my heart of hearts that everyone was being treated fairly. The teacher protection fund, which has been outlined, makes sense.

I advise the Minister of State not to be adversarial about this and to work together to ensure that, whatever her officials say about our contributions here or if they wish to critique what we have said, we can somehow meet between the two positions. The proposals as outlined make sense. We all want to have a sector of which we can be proud and which we can stand over. With those remarks, I join with Senators Ruane and Mac Lochlainn in hoping we can work constructively on this, and we will discuss this again on the next Stage.

Photo of Mary Mitchell O'ConnorMary Mitchell O'Connor (Dún Laoghaire, Fine Gael)
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I am glad to be here and am delighted to bring this Bill to Committee Stage. I appreciate the consideration and have taken on board who has said what. I will try to answer some questions but there are other aspects where I will have to revert to my officials and work through what has been brought up today. I apologise, therefore, for not addressing the speakers in the order in which they spoke but rather by theme.

In regard to the point about the RCSI that Senators McDowell and Reilly raised, the RCSI wrote to me requesting that the Bill contain a provision that would allow the RCSI to describe itself both in Ireland and overseas as a university of medicine and health sciences. I will return to this matter on Committee Stage. As many Senators know, the RCSI also made this request to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Education and Skills.

Senator Ruane raised the issue of the joint committee meeting stakeholders and said that we should not wait until after that happens before we proceed to Committee Stage. This is priority legislation that we need to progress. The IEM, for example, was promised five years ago and we do not want to delay it further. Committee Stage of this Bill is expected in November. I understand the joint committee is meeting the stakeholders in the next two weeks, which will allow it to conclude its consultation process before November.

Senators Mac Lochlainn, Ruane, Reilly and Ó Ríordáin mentioned conditions of employment. I note their concerns about the employment practices in the English language education sector. While the IEM and the associated code of practice for this sector will greatly help to improve standards, there are a number of other regulatory activities that are outside the remit of the QQI's intended functions. The majority of the English language schools in Ireland are privately run and do not come under the remit of my Department. They are typically registered for business purposes as private limited companies. Consequently, the terms and conditions of individuals who are employed as teachers by these companies are a matter for their employers.

Given the extensive range of legislation in Ireland on unfair dismissals, payment of wages and related matters to protect the employment rights of workers, including English language teachers in fixed-term work, it would not be appropriate to duplicate or undermine these statutory schemes through affording QQI powers to regulate ultra vires. It is proposed, however, that a code of practice for the IEM will ensure that providers authorised to use the IEM will be compliant with their statutory obligations, such as employment law. The Bill will also provide QQI with the powers to examine the robustness of a provider's bona fides in its governance practices, ownership and financial sustainability. This will ensure providers which are awarded IEM are regarded by QQI as legitimate providers which operate in accordance with good corporate governance practices.

Senator Ruane also referred to the impact of the learner protection fund on smaller community education organisations.

Photo of Lynn RuaneLynn Ruane (Independent)
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My point was they will not have the capacity to pay into the sinking fund, and they will not benefit in the long run as, although they are not-for-profit, they are not listed as excluded from it.

Photo of Mary Mitchell O'ConnorMary Mitchell O'Connor (Dún Laoghaire, Fine Gael)
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I will look at that and I know we are aware of it. I note the Senator's concern, especially as a result of the cost of providers operating in the community and voluntary sector. The relevant powers to waive fees that the Senator discussed are provided for under section 80 of the 2012 Act. Therefore, the question she raised relates exclusively to the implementation of the current Act rather than the introduction of new amendments to this Bill. I have taken note of the matter and I know the Senator will raise it again on Committee Stage.

I also note Senator Byrne's comments on Mary Immaculate College and Marino College.

Question put and agreed to.

Photo of Paul CoghlanPaul Coghlan (Fine Gael)
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When is it proposed to take Committee Stage?

Photo of Maria ByrneMaria Byrne (Fine Gael)
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Next Tuesday.

Committee Stage ordered for Tuesday, 16 October 2018.

Sitting suspended at 4.38 p.m. and resumed at 5.30 p.m.