I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
I am pleased to bring the Bill before the House. It will amend the Qualifications and Quality Assurance (Education and Training) Act 2012, which established Quality and Qualifications Ireland, QQI, the national agency with responsibility for external quality assurance and qualifications across the further and higher education sectors.
The main purpose of this Bill is to further empower QQI as a regulator of quality and to 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 the operation of existing policies more efficient.
I would like to highlight seven key provisions, in particular. The first is the listing of awarding bodies. This 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 to include their qualifications in the framework.
Qualifications, such as those awarded by professional and international awarding bodies, are offered by providers in Ireland but are currently 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 and to have their awards included in the framework while also ensuring that the quality standards of the NFQ are upheld.
The second key provision is the examination of the bona fides and financial capacity of providers. As part of strengthening QQI’s quality assurance procedures, this Bill will provide a legal basis for QQI to examine the bona fides and financial capacity of the providers with which it engages. This will enable QQI to assess a provider’s capacity and capability 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 a statutory instrument to establish criteria addressing key issues such as the legal personality, ownership and corporate governance arrangements of providers in addition to examining that adequate financial resources are in place to ensure the viability of these businesses.
The third key measure to be introduced upon enactment of this Bill is the international education mark, IEM. 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 surrounding the protection of enrolled learners, recruitment and admission, information provision, student welfare, cultural awareness, and academic support provisions. Once 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 its outset, there will be two initial forms of the IEM, one which will apply to the higher education sector and one for English language education.
Following its passage through the Seanad, the provisions governing the IEM have been strengthened to reflect concerns emerging during debates relating to the employment terms and conditions of education and teaching staff working in the English language education sector. Following a number of amendments agreed with Senators, providers who seek authorisation to use the IEM will be subject to additional requirements and oversight. First is that QQI’s powers when assessing a provider’s corporate fitness have been broadened to enable checks of compliance with employment law. This assessment is the first step that a provider must undertake when seeking authorisation to use the IEM. Second, through the code of practice for the IEM, providers will be required to establish policies and procedures that address specific areas surrounding the employment of their education and teaching staff. This will include key matters such as recruitment, training and the cessation of employment of staff.
QQI will be empowered to withdraw the IEM from those providers that are found to be in breach of employment law. The withdrawal of the IEM is a serious sanction which QQI could impose on providers. This approach utilises the IEM as a further incentive for providers to comply with their obligations under employment law. In addition to these measures, in January 2019, I appointed Mr. Patrick King as mediator to work with stakeholders in the English language education sector. Since his appointment, Mr. King has been engaging with employer and employee representative bodies to seek to secure agreement on a set of minimum employment standards that could be agreed for the sector. This work has been ongoing with extensive engagement on all sides.
These discussions have included the potential for a set of appropriate employment standards to take the form of an agreement or order, such as an employment regulation order, under the Industrial Relations Acts, 1946 to 2015. I wish to inform the House that should this process result in such an agreement or order, it would become part of employment law. Consequently, compliance with such an agreement or order would also become an automatic requirement of the IEM via the provisions now contained in this Bill without the need for any further legislative action. I encourage all sides to continue their engagement in the mediation process with the aim of reaching a comprehensive agreement that will benefit this sector in both the short and long term.
This Bill will also provide for a more robust national scheme for the protection of enrolled learners, PEL. PEL comes into effect in circumstances where a provider ceases to offer a programme or ceases to trade. It is intended to ensure that learners who commence a programme can be confident that they will be facilitated in completing that programme, or as a lesser alternative, in receiving 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 these existing measures with the establishment of a learner protection fund. This fund will provide QQI with the necessary resources to manage PEL events. Should a provider cease to provide a programme, the fund would, where necessary, 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 onto a similar programme of another provider, or where the circumstances dictate, provide for the refund of fees to the learner. Those providers whose programmes are covered by this 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 detail will be agreed following further consultation with stakeholders.
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 that 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. These services present a challenge to the academic integrity of those programmes and awards under the remit of QQI.
The creation of offences for the provision and advertisement of these services will serve to prohibit the practice and make these services more difficult to access.
The next provision relates to awarding powers for institutes of technology. Currently, all of the institutes of technology, with the exception of the Dublin Institute of Technology, DIT, have delegated authority from QQI to make awards from levels 6 to 9 on the NFQ. In contrast the universities as well as the DIT and the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, RCSI, are designated awarding bodies. This 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. The Bill addresses this 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 of the institutes of technology. This will put them 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 framework among public higher education institutions.
The next provisions relate to the use of the title of "university". The Bill contains an amendment to the Universities Act 1997, which establishes a pathway for higher education institutions whose primary source of income does not derive from the Exchequer to access and use the title of "university". This amendment establishes a process whereby such an institution may apply for authorisation to describe itself as a university and provide evidence that it meets the high standards associated with this title. This process will allow an institution, such as RCSI, to seek the designation "university" while ensuring that the existing regulatory and governance framework operating in the higher education sector remains intact.
Having set out the policy context underpinning the development of the Bill, I turn to the specific provisions. The Bill comprises 38 sections and is divided into three Parts. Part 1 comprises sections 1 and 2. It contains standard provisions on the Short Title and commencement and provides definitions for use in the Act.
Part 2 comprises sections 3 to 34, inclusive, and amends the Qualifications and Quality Assurance (Education and Training) Act 2012, which is the principal Act. Section 3 provides for amendments to section 2 of the principal Act. It introduces new, and revises existing, definitions within the 2012 Act.
Section 4 amends the functions of QQI and includes specific statutory functions for the inclusion of awards within the national framework of qualifications and the listing of awarding bodies.
Section 5 amends section 13 of the principal Act to make listed awarding bodies subject to the requirements of the section. Section 13 requires that providers facilitate and assist QQI in the performance of its functions insofar as those functions relate to the functions of that provider.
Section 6 provides for a specific legislative function for QQI to share relevant information with other state bodies, including the Higher Education Authority, HEA, and SOLAS.
Section 7 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 8 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 9 provides QQI with statutory powers to evaluate the bona fides and financial capacity of providers.
Section 10 contains provisions to allow QQI to impose certain conditions on an education and training provider whose quality assurance procedures it has approved.
Sections 11, 13 and 24 provide for QQI to consult with SOLAS when conducting reviews of further education and training providers. This parallels existing provisions in the 2012 Act for consultation with the HEA in respect of higher education institutions.
Sections 12 and 18 provide for certain occasions when QQI can withdraw approval of quality assurance procedures and programme validation, respectively, without conducting a review.
Section 14 amends section 43 of the principal Act to provide a legal basis for the inclusion of awards made by designated awarding bodies, that is to say, the seven universities, DIT and RCSI, in the NFQ. 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 15 provides QQI with powers to prosecute the provision or advertising of essay mills and other forms of academic cheating.
Section 16 provides necessary amendments to facilitate the extension of the awarding powers of institutes of technology to include awards up to level 9 on the NFQ. As a result, institutes of technology will be required to apply for QQI validation for doctoral degree level awards only.
Sections 17 and 35 amend sections 45 and 84, respectively, of the principal Act to provide that QQI validation for all education and training programmes is time limited.
Sections 19 and 23 authorise QQI to list awarding bodies and include their qualifications in the NFQ. Section 19 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 20 provides a technical clarification to the effect 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 21 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 to make awards. 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.