Is pribhléid dom bheith i láthair sa Seanad chun an Bille seo a léamh agus a chur os comhair an Tí.
I would like to introduce the Qualifications (Education and Training) Bill, 1999, to you today. Over the last year and a half I have brought a number of pieces of legislation before this House and each has received a very constructive and thorough debate. Particularly because of this, I am pleased to be in a position to commence this very important Bill in the Seanad.
While it may appear quite technical in many ways, this Bill is no less than crucial to the future work of much of our education and training system. The one essential principle which informs all of its provisions is that the interests of the student must be to the fore. In order to achieve this, quality must be guaranteed and appropriate routes of progression provided.
The Government reached an important milestone with the publication of this Bill last week. The establishment of a more coherent and effective system of certification for the higher education and training as well as for the vocational education and training sector has been endorsed by successive Governments and by the European Union which also supports it as part of the current operational programme for human resources.
The 1992 Green Paper on education proposed that a new council for education and vocational awards should be set up. The Green Paper stated:
It is vital that we develop a national framework of certification for our various vocational education and training programmes, involving both the education and training agencies and the social partners, which would facilitate the mobility of our young people, both at home and in the wider European context.
The National Economic and Social Council's report, Education and Training Policies for Economic and Social Development, 1993, welcomed this proposal to establish a national education and training certification body. The 1993 Report on the National Education Convention recorded widespread approval for such a unified national awards framework.
The EU funded operational programme for human resources development, which is now in place, endorsed the policy for the setting up of an integrated certification board. The proposal that had emerged at that time was for a national education and training certification board. It was envisaged that such a board would take over the certifying functions of vocational education and training institutions and provide a structure for the formal involvement of industry and the social partners in programme development and assessment of vocational training programmes, other than those provided in universities, in the education and training sectors. The operational programme, of course, only directly concerns the programmes that are funded under it and through the European Structural Funds.
Teastas, the Irish National Certification Authority, was established as an interim authority in September 1995. Teastas issued its first report in January 1997. In this report it recommended a single structure which would operate as a certifying authority for programmes, assuming the functions of the National Council for Vocational Awards, and the certification functions of CERT/National Tourism Certification Board, FÁS and Teagasc. In addition, the report recommended that the structure would be a supervisory and regulatory authority, providing for delegated approval for certification by the Dublin Institute of Technology and a new single regional technical college awards body. There was a substantial debate on, and consultation in regard to, these proposals with Teastas further developing its thinking in this process.
In its second report in January 1998, Teastas recommended the development of an overall qualifications authority which would be the ultimate guarantor of quality in the higher and further education and training system, other than the seven universities, and which would ensure flexibility and coherence throughout education and training through promoting progression and linkages between the various strands.
It further recommended that two awarding bodies would be set up – the National Institute of Technology and the National Certification Council for further and continuing education and training. In addition, it recommended that the Dublin Institute of Technology would be a third awarding body within the framework.
I wish to express my deep appreciation for the important contribution made by members of the Teastas board to the process which has led to these legislative proposals. It was a difficult task that the board undertook to begin to advise on how to put in place a nationally and internationally accepted certification structure. They have performed their task admirably. In particular, I wish to express my gratitude to Mr. Dick Langford, the Chairman of Teastas and to the staff of Teastas, for the level of their personal commitment to this endeavour.
In February last year, and arising from the second Teastas report, I hosted a forum on development of a national qualifications framework, where the main partners in education and training played a full role and proposals were discussed.
It is clear that a great deal of time and energy has already gone into the consideration of the issues surrounding the Qualifications (Education and Training) Bill. It is clear from the extent of the debate and from the continuous commitments from Governments and in reports that there has been general agreement for a number of years that there is much to gain from a national framework of qualifications.
The variation of proposals has also been very noticeable over the years. Discussion has continued for all this time and has focused on all the different ways a new framework can be developed. I would summarise developments by saying that there has been a general support for what is needed and many views on precisely how this should be done. I believe this Bill represents an effective and constructive means of achieving shared objectives.
The Government has now published the Qualifications (Education and Training) Bill, 1999. The principal aims of the Bill are, first, to establish and develop standards of knowledge, skill or competence; second, to promote the quality of further education and training and higher education and training; third, to provide a system for co-ordinating and comparing education and training awards and, fourth, to promote and maintain procedures for access, transfer and progression.
My focus in setting out these aims is based on the need to ensure the needs of the individual student can be met by the Bill. The Government's analysis of the issues arising in the Bill has been built around the needs of learners. "Learners" is the term used in the Bill for all students and workers who are participating in education and training or who seek to participate in education and training. There is no distinction in the Bill between education and training and there cannot be. There is no gain from trying to make distinctions between education and training. Similarly, students and workers accessing education and training are not dealt with in a separate manner in the Bill.
In the debate on the issue of developing the framework, institutional concerns have arisen continually. This is natural enough as education and training institutions and certifying bodies have been striving to meet the needs of learners in many diverse ways and continue to do so. The rights of the individual learner have often been raised. When raised, however, it is often in the context of how the institution or provider in question has served the needs of the learner but when it came to the consideration of progression to another institution, it was not always possible for that other institution to recognise fully what had gone before. There has been no authority or body with overall responsibility for ensuring the needs of learners are met. I aim with this Bill to ensure the learner can see all options before an initial choice is made and can continue to see the options that are there. All providers of education and training will need to inform learners of the transfer and progression routes that are available for them if they undertake a particular course. The transfer and progression routes themselves will be much improved on the existing situation and all learners will gain from this. In addition, new arrangements are put in place to ensure that across education and training, learners can have confidence in the quality of the programmes they are taking.
In my view this can only be achieved by having a coherent national basis for co-ordinating and comparing all education and training awards. If there is to be such a national basis, it follows naturally that there is a need to ensure appropriate standards of knowledge, skill or competence are set and mechanisms are put in place to ensure these standards are met. When all these elements are in place it is then possible to set out mechanisms for access, transfer and progression.
I do not think that it is possible to set out the precise detail of a framework of qualifications in the Bill. Such an approach would result in freezing the existing position until such time as further legislation is passed. Furthermore, it would not allow for continuing innovation and the introduction of new ideas. I am convinced that the only feasible approach is to set out in legislation who is responsible for developing the framework and to put mechanisms in place to ensure it can be continually revised and updated.
The Bill establishes the National Qualifications Authority with three principal objectives. These are to establish and maintain a framework of qualifications, to act as the overall guarantor of the quality of further and higher education and training awards, other than in the existing universities, and to facilitate and promote access, transfer and progression into and within education and training.
The National Qualifications Authority is the key implementation body established under the Bill and the new arrangements that are to be put in place arise from the objects and functions of the authority. The establishment of the authority meets the key need that there needs to be a body set up with the statutory responsibility to develop the framework of qualifications and, arising from the work of the authority, the implementation of the aims of the Bill will come into effect.
The Bill also establishes two new awarding bodies – the Further Education and Training Awards Council and the Higher Education and Training Awards Council. The aim is that these bodies will be the certification bodies for all the education and training in the State other than that in primary and post-primary education and in the universities and the Dublin Institute of Technology.
The awards councils will work within the ambit of the National Qualifications Authority. The principal functions of the councils will be the establishment of policies and criteria for the making of awards and the validation of programmes in further or higher education and training, as appropriate, and the determination of standards of knowledge, skill or competence which must be acquired by learners, before an award may be made.
The general approach is that each council would validate the programmes of the providers of further or higher education and training, as appropriate, subject to the setting of certain key conditions. One of these conditions is that where a programme has been validated, a provider must implement the procedures for access, transfer and progression that will be set out by the qualifications authority. In addition, in these cases, there will be new quality assurance mechanisms put in place to ensure that the relevant programme remains of a high quality.
Learners may also approach the new awarding councils directly to seek certification or recognition for their existing knowledge, skill or competence. It will be a matter for the new awarding councils themselves to determine how this prior learning and prior experiential learning can be assessed and they may seek the assistance of providers of education and training in this regard.
There is provision in the Bill to allow for delegation of authority from the Higher Education and Training Awards Council to make higher education and training awards, within a national framework, to institutes of technology, which are former regional technical colleges, who may seek such powers, and similarly from the Further Education and Training Awards Council, to FÁS, CERT or Teagasc in respect of further education and training awards should they seek it. The provisions for delegation of such authority in respect of further education and training awards build upon the existing arrangements for FÁS, CERT and Teagasc and provide that they may seek such delegation.
The arrangements for delegation of authority in the technological sector of higher education build on the work of the interim review group, chaired by Professor Dervilla Donnelly. The review group has been processing applications from institutions seeking such delegation. The interim review group is also carrying through the process leading to the delegation of authority to make awards to the Waterford Institute of Technology, within the national qualifications framework. I have received the reports from the interim review group in relation to the Waterford Institute of Technology and Cork Institute of Technology, and the Bill provides the necessary legislative background to implement the relevant recommendations of these reports.
I consider that the arrangements set out in the Bill for the development of the technological sector meet the Government's twin objectives for these institutions in that sector – that they be given the scope to develop and, at the same time, that there is a certainty that they will continue to meet the needs of their existing students and successive students as well as the needs of the economy and society as a whole.
The essential point is that the Bill sets out a process whereby institutes have a full opportunity to develop, subject only to an objective assessment of academic quality and procedures. The Bill sets out further important provisions for the technological sector of higher education in that it ensures that an institute of technology can only be set up under the Regional Technical Colleges Act where there is a positive outcome to an independent review and where the Higher Education Authority supports such a proposal. This new provision is important as it ensures that there is a statutory review process for institutes of technology paralleling that for universities in section 9 of the Universities Act. The independent review must look at the need for additional education and training provision and, if it is needed, whether it is possible to meet the needs by expanding existing institutions. I am confident that this new review process will help, together with other elements of the Bill, to ensure that the status of the technological sector of higher education is copperfastened under this Bill. This provision will not apply to the new institute of technology at Blanchardstown, which will be formally established under legislation which I will shortly be bringing forward.
The principal provisions in relation to the Dublin Institute of Technology are included in Part V of the Bill. The role of the institute under the Bill will essentially be to facilitate and assist the National Qualifications Authority to implement procedures for access, transfer and progression set out by the authority and to put in place the new statutory arrangements for quality assurance which are set out.
The Dublin Institute of Technology is a unique third level institution in this State and the new statutory arrangements that are set out in the Bill will ensure that the institute shall continue to play a dynamic role in the technological sector of higher education.
The institute has recently been reviewed under section 9 of the Universities Act, 1997. The recommendations of the Higher Education Authority in relation to the review were published last week. I would like to thank the Higher Education Authority and the review group which was chaired by Dermot Nally for the extensive work on the application of the Dublin Institute of Technology to be designated a university. I congratulate the institute on the quality of its courses which is reflected in the comments of the bodies involved in the independent assessment procedure. Now that this procedure has been completed I have asked my officials to contact that institute in order to discuss with them the detailed recommendations to the Government from the authority. In addition, I have asked my officials to begin detailed discussions with the Higher Education Authority concerning the transfer of appropriate funding and regulation powers for the institutes of technology from the Department to the authority.
It is also the case that the Bill envisages a similar relationship between the National Qualifications Authority and any new university that may be established in the future. In addition, in relation to any such university, the Bill sets out provisions to ensure that in determining money to be allocated to such a university the Higher Education Authority shall ensure that there is an appropriate range of education and training provision and may make binding directions to such a university in that regard.
These provisions are in accord with recommendations contained in the report of the review group on the Dublin Institute of Technology's application to be established as a university. The review group stressed the difference of multi-level institutions and the need to protect the balance of provision so as not to undermine provision for sub-degree courses in particular.
The Bill also sets out a number of provisions to ensure the existing universities play a key role in the new arrangements that are to be developed. It is of note that it was not envisaged by the then Government in 1995 that Teastas would have a strong role in relation to the existing universities. Nevertheless, it is essential that the universities are linked as much as possible into the new arrangements.
The Bill sets out that the existing universities will have a nominee on the National Qualifications Authority and will be advised by that authority on the implementation of access, transfer and progression arrangements. Furthermore, the qualifications authority will work with the Higher Education Authority in reviewing the implementation of those arrangements and shall publish the outcome of any such review. There is nothing in these provisions which conflicts with the principle of academic autonomy.
The Bill also sets out new arrangements to ensure that learners are protected. As I have said, all providers of education and training will need to inform learners of the transfer and progression routes available to them if they undertake a particular course. The transfer and progression routes themselves will be much improved and all learners will gain from this. In addition, new arrangements are put in place to ensure that across education and training, learners can have confidence in the quality of the programmes that they are taking.
There are specific provisions for the protection of learners where a provider operates programmes of education and training on a commercial and profit making basis. Learners can have the confidence that if a programme of any such provider which is more than three months long leads to an award of either of the two new awarding councils, protections are in place. The learner must be refunded the most recent fees paid where the rest of the course cannot be provided. In addition, the appropriate awarding council must seek to find a place for the learner on another course to help the student to complete the course.
State certification will also mean that learners can have confidence in having the opportunity to finish a course they have commenced. These provisions represent a fair and balanced response to an important issue.
The Bill will replace the existing National Council for Educational Awards Act. The NCEA has been in place since the early 1970s and has been on a statutory basis since 1979. It has played an essential role in the development of certification for higher education in the State, particularly in the development of the technological sector. Throughout its lifetime it has helped to ensure that the quality of those completing its courses is equal to all other graduates in the State. The NCEA has also played a key innovatory role, most recently in the way in which the NCEA has worked with the institutes of technology and business in developing new technician courses and, in particular, the National Certificate in Manufacturing Technology.
Similarly, on a non-statutory basis, the National Council for Vocational Awards has been essential in developing the further education sector, in particular, in the development of certification for the post-leaving certificate sector. The combined initiative of the vocational education committees and the NCVA in this sector have played a key role in ensuring the relevance of education to the economy and to society as a whole.
The work of the NCEA and the NCVA, as well as that of FÁS, NTCB and Teagasc, will provide a base for the developing work of the two new awards councils and I hope to work in tandem with these organisations to ensure that this can be the case. It is essential to maintain the confidence in, and acceptability of, the education and training awards of the new councils. There needs to be a clear continuum between what happens currently and the developing new arrangements. I am confident that this will be the case.
The new arrangements in the Bill essentially deal with progression, quality and making awards. They will not change who are the providers of the education and training programmes. It may, and indeed should, bring the providers closer together and ensure there are clear and developed linkages between their various provisions. The nature and content of the provision may change over time. Of course, it will do this anyway and the arrangements in the Bill will facilitate these developments.
Progression and transfer arrangements for learners will be provided between, and within, levels of awards throughout education and training. The existing providers of education and training will implement these developing arrangements. These can build upon existing progression arrangements and they will expand and be much more comprehensive. I do not see the new arrangements as a threat to institutions.
My aim in this regard is to promote access and opportunities for all learners. This will not mean, for example, that a holder of a national certificate in business studies will have credits which will reduce the amount of study required for a degree course in Irish. However, it will be expected that such a certificate holder will have credits for entering a related diploma or degree course. It will not be easy to develop such a qualifications framework. The new structure needs to be put in place to resolve these difficulties. In the short-term, the learner has lost out. Furthermore, institutions of education and training have not been able to develop or to fulfil their potential without fully developed progression routes.
Another major issue is the need for greater partnership, co-operation and cohesion between the education and training sector on the one hand and industry, business and the wider community on the other. It has been a central aim of mine since I came into office that education and training interests and business interests should work closely together for the mutual benefit of both, and for the benefit of society as a whole. All of us are aware that human capital is continually identified as one of the keys, if not the key, to our current prosperity. International studies have found that Ireland has a significant advantage over potential European rivals because of its well educated workforce.
A major consequence of the identification of the key role of education and training is the realisation that what is done to improve the level of co-operation between the education, training and business sectors needs to be continually examined and that any opportunities for improvement are grasped. I see the development of a new national qualifications framework as a real opportunity to enhance this co-operation. There are many effective ways across the entire education and training sector where such co-operation is being put into action.
The joint education/industry task force, chaired by Dr. Seán McDonagh, which looked at the expansion of education and training for technicians is one example. As an immediate result, a pilot scheme for the recruitment and training of 300 technicians for high technology industries was initiated in 1998 and expanded this year. Senators will be aware that the Government announced the setting up of a forum of business and education/training interests of which Dr. Chris Horn, chief executive of Iona Technologies, is the chair. Skills identification mechanisms were already in place but the Government considered that they could be widened and improved and I am confident that the new arrangements will prove effective. Effective links and consultation between providers of education and training and business and industry need to be further developed at all levels. They are already there in many cases at the level of provision. However, they need to be built upon, in some cases, at certification level.
In its first report, the expert group on future skills needs emphasised the crucial role the education and training sector in co-operation with industry had in ensuring a rapid and in-depth response to future skills needs. The expert group pointed to the need for a comprehensive approach to delivery and accreditation, a greater use of student work placements, accreditation of prior learning, awards of credits for elements of courses and more flexible progression to higher levels. In these respects, the establishment of a national framework of qualifications as envisaged in this Bill will be of fundamental importance.
The key relevance of the framework of qualifications in relation to competitiveness has also been stressed by the National Competitiveness Council which, in its statement on skills last year, stated that "a national system of certification should be put in place immediately, covering as broad a range of skills as possible". The council awaited the publication of this Bill.
The introduction of new awarding arrangements and the development of a national qualifications framework must be viewed as an opportunity to build on innovative developments. I consider that the practices of FÁS, CERT and Teagasc, in particular, and the key way in which each of these manage to involve business in their curricular development, can help to inform educational institutions on future possibilities.
I would like to point out that the provisions in the Bill are not just reflective of national concerns in the area of education and training and the manner in which these might be harnessed more effectively to meet the skills needs of industry, business and society at large in the 21st century. They are also very much reflective of international concerns.
The establishment of national bodies to set up and maintain qualification systems so as to ensure standards and meet the future skills needs of economies and societies has been a feature of educational and training developments over the past decade. The National Skills Standards Board in the United States, the New Zealand Qualifications Authority and Qualifications and Curriculum Authority in the United Kingdom are but some examples of the endeavours of governments and those involved in education and training to bring greater cohesion and openness to national systems of awards and qualifications. National qualification frameworks have been established in both Australia and New Zealand in the past decade.
A key aim of the introduction of a new framework is to promote international recognition of awards and international mobility. By putting in place a national framework it will be possible to link with other countries where qualifications frameworks have been developed or are developing. This, in turn, will help to bring a new international dimension to our education and training system and may help to put us to the fore in the development of international policies in that regard.
This Bill creates an enabling rather than a pre scriptive framework, one which is concerned solely with promoting the quality of courses and student mobility. We need to do this in the interests of all those involved in education and training. Our citizens are entitled to clear and unambiguous structures to support their learning and development.
I know that many Members will have views on the Bill and I look forward to listening keenly to what they have to say and to teasing issues out in more detail during the subsequent Stages of the debate. I know we will have a constructive debate based on doing all we can to recognise and promote the interests of the many thousands of students who participate in education and training each year.