Níl éinne eile anseo. B'fhéidir go gcríochnóidh an díospóireacht níos luaithe ná mar a chríochnódh sé de ghnáth. Fianna Fáil is committed to maintaining and improving the highest standards in education. It is intended to increase the number of international students and the number of students entering higher education in this country is increasing all the time. It is vital, therefore, that these students are supported by a high quality education system. That is why we will support, in principle, the passing of this legislation. As the Minister of State outlined very helpfully, the Bill has a number of objectives. It will give Quality and Qualifications Ireland, QQI, the statutory power to list awarding bodies, include qualifications on the framework of qualifications, provide QQI with statutory powers to evaluate providers' bona fides, facilitate information sharing by QQI and State bodies, strengthen and improve QQI's approvals process for providers' quality assurance procedures and facilitate the international education mark introduction. It will also involve education and training providers more centrally in the application process for recognition of prior learning, which is really important, and it will strengthen learner protection measures, about which there has been much discussion. The Bill will provide QQI with statutory powers to prosecute essay mills, as they are known, and other forms of cheating, as well as giving award-making powers to all institutes of technology. There is also a general provision that is directed at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, RCSI, to enable it to begin the process of gaining full university status. Once the Bill has been passed, the RCSI will be able to comply with the requirements of the legislation to enable the Minister to make a determination as to whether it should be a university. I have no doubt it will be successful and the quick passage of the legislation will enable that to happen.
This legislation comes in the context of major controversies at English language schools in Dublin. Although we have a very good reputation for educational and academic excellence, these privately run institutions are dragging down the name of Irish education. There is no point in saying anything else about it as some of them have operated in a disgraceful manner. We need protections both for students and staff or, at the very least, we must investigate fully what protections already exist and new measures could be introduced. I accept the Minister has begun the process by appointing an expert to consider the matter but Fianna Fáil proposed, both in the Seanad and now in this debate, that there would be full stakeholder engagement at the Joint Committee on Education and Skills before completion of Committee Stage of the Bill. I spoke today to the Chair of the committee, Deputy Fiona O'Loughlin, as well as the clerk, and I have been assured that this will happen. There is no doubt that everybody connected to the matter will have the opportunity to make the case and the committee will consider those in advance of Committee Stage. This will happen very quickly, as I understand it, which is very good news. The process should be done carefully but it should not delay the passage of this very important legislation. This is a serious attempt to make things better for staff and students in the sector.
The learner protection fund is to be self-funded to some extent but we have some concerns in this regard. Perhaps the Minister of State, either later on Second Stage or on Committee Stage, will provide some comfort on this. There is a blank cheque written into the legislation that if there is any shortfall, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform can provide moneys in this respect. Perhaps the Minister of State can clarify that matter if I am not interpreting the legislation as intended. I certainly want some clarity on the matter. We all remember various colleges, including, famously, Grafton College, closing in 2014 and 2015, with staff given no notice and left with wages owed to them. Students were also affected. It was madness in this day and age. The existing system has let down students and teachers so it is welcome that there is now an effort to change it. Nevertheless, we have a little way to go. The legislation concentrates on learners but compelling cases have been and, I have no doubt, will be made by teachers. That will happen at the education committee meeting next week.
The question has been raised with me on a number of occasions in this debate as to where the State is in the provision of English language colleges. Where are the education and training boards and is this something in which they could be involved? Perhaps they could generate revenue by getting involved as people coming to our country would have to pay for any language education. Currently this is done on a completely private basis and the process is very unsatisfactory. The regulation is welcome but it might be an opportunity for education and training boards to get involved, particularly in Dublin and Cork if there is a capacity to do so, as a revenue generating measure.
We welcome the plans to address essay mills. I understand the provisions are modelled on New Zealand legislation, which makes it illegal to advertise or provide third-party assistance in order to cheat. This includes not just essay writing but the sitting of exams on behalf of students as well. We know that this happens occasionally and it will always happen. With the online and digital world we inhabit, cheating will be facilitated. We should be honest, however, and it has always happened. It will probably continue to happen and will, in general, be an internal disciplinary matter for universities and colleges. The provision is nonetheless welcome as it has been introduced in other jurisdictions. It is right that we are doing it here as well. According to The Irish Times, between 2010 and 2016, approximately 1,000 students in Ireland were basically caught cheating, and the real number is probably higher. I am sure many people did not get caught as there are various ingenious ways of cheating. To be completely serious, it is absolutely essential that this country maintains the highest academic and examination standards in our third level institutions to maintain our deserved reputation.
We support this legislation and we look forward to working within the education committee to strengthen the measures in the Bill. We are allowing this to pass through Second Stage on the basis that there will be full stakeholder engagement before Committee Stage. Although this is very welcome, the elephant in the room is third level funding. There is gross underfunding across public sector education. We have facilitated the passage of legislation such as this and the Technological Universities Act 2018, which certainly enhance our education system at third level. The truth, however, is that the third level system is creaking and is currently unable to maintain itself because of a lack of Government funding. That must change.
We need to get much more funding into the system and have more certainty on the funding that will be available because class sizes at third level are too high; they are way above international standards. That is having a reputational effect on the league tables and college rankings. On a practical level, that discourages students who only want to attend certain highly ranked universities, perhaps those in the top 50 or 100 worldwide, of which we should have two, three or four. It then results in a revenue issue for the universities because they depend on foreign students coming here. It is, therefore, a vicious circle. When public funding is reduced, our reputation in terms of the international rankings goes down. That discourages fee-paying students from outside the European Union from coming here and results in a decrease in the funds third level colleges have to fund what they want to fund. That has to change and it must be a major focus of legislation such as this. It will certainly be a major focus for us as usual in the run-up to the budget and the general election, whenever it will happen. If those on this side of the House have anything to do with it, it will not happen before the budget, but it will happen at some point after that.
We were disappointed - I have said this publicly in the media also - that some of the money raised from the increase in the employer contribution to the national training fund was deducted from general State funding for the third level sector and not fully replaced. The State is now putting less money into third level education because of the increase in the national training fund when the spirit of the Cassells report was that the national training levy would be increased. It did not state anything about reducing the level of State funding by a corresponding amount. Because of that, there is now less funding being put in by the State this year, which is a pity.
The Minister of State sits at the Cabinet table, but she is not the Minister for Education and Skills. The Minister for Education and Skills has a solemn duty to fight harder than the former Minister, Deputy Bruton, did last summer in ensuring adequate funding is given to the third level sector and that any further increase - I think there is another due in the national training fund - will not simply be an excuse to remove money the State has provided in previous years.