I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
In the education sector alone, places in third level have increased by 8,000 in only two years and by 4,000 with regard to post-leaving certificate courses. These represent increases of 9 per cent and 22 per cent respectively. An unprecedented number of places and diversity of courses are now available throughout the country and represent the driving force behind our economic development. I am sure everyone in the House welcomes this expansion of opportunity and would wish to see it further built upon.
The essential point for us to address is that it is not enough just to provide the resources for places. All international experience shows we must be vigilant to ensure that we are genuinely providing flexible and appropriate opportunities and are protecting the quality of qualifications. Based on this idea, and resting on the four pillars of access, transfer, progression and quality, the Bill before the House will make a major contribution to the future development of our country.
The need for a more cohesive, coherent and effective system of certification for higher education and training and further education and training has been both recognised and endorsed by successive Governments and by the European Union, which also supports it as part of the current Operational Programme for Human Resources. Over the past seven years a series of reports has reiterated and endorsed this need. The 1992 Green Paper on Education, proposed that a new council for educational and vocational awards should be established. The National Economic and Social Council's report, "Education and Training Policies for Economic and Social Development", published in 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 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 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 only directly concerns the programmes that are funded under it and through the European Structural Funds.
The White Paper on Education published in 1995 announced that the then Government had approved the establishment of Teastas, the Irish National Certification Authority. These concerns and considerations were supported in the White Paper on Human Resource Development, published in May 1997. The Green Paper on Adult Education, "Adult Education in an Era of Lifelong Learning", published in November 1998, outlines further the Government's support for the development of a national framework of qualifications and the role it can play.
The provisions of the Bill, however, are reflective not just of national concerns in the area of education and training, but of a much wider concern about how the skill needs of industry, business and society at large can be met in the 21st century. This gives rise to another issue – how can our present resources and endeavours be more effectively harnessed in meeting these concerns? Such concerns are not merely national but truly international in terms of their dimension and resolution.
The effects and impact of change are now global in character in the sense that their implications for education and training are similar in the developed world. Although education and training systems and structures may differ from country to country, the impact of global change will require similar responses. The seminal question is how existing systems and methods of education and training can be made to respond effectively to such global change. Part of the answer lies in having a sense of purpose and an appreciation of definite objectives. Never before has the world community experienced what is termed the "massification" and profusion of education and training now being demanded. The Bill must be seen in this context and has emerged against this background.
Deputies will be aware of the work of the Dearing review in the UK which pointed to the extensive damage which can be caused by a laissez-faire, “one size fits all” approach to education. The review's essential point was that academic drift and official neglect had seriously damaged Britain's competitiveness. One of its most important recommendations referred to protecting the different levels of awards through a framework of quality control and progression between levels.
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 education and training developments over the past decade. The National Skills Standards Board in the United States, the New Zealand Qualifications Authority and the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority in the United Kingdom are 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 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 will in turn 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.
A further aim of the Bill is that standard setting for Irish awards is put in an international context and informed by internationally accepted standards. We must strive to ensure that the standards of our awards are at least equal to the highest international standards and the international liaison function of the authority will ensure this.
Discussion on the Bill also builds on the work of Teastas, the Irish National Certification Authority, which was established as an interim authority in September 1995 and issued its first report in January 1997. Its second report, published in January 1998, recommended the development of an overarching qualifications authority to act as the ultimate guarantor of the quality of the higher and further education and training system outside the seven existing universities, as well as to ensure cohesiveness and flexibility throughout education and training through the development and promotion of ladders and linkages between the various strands of education and training.
The report went on to recommend the establishment of two new awarding bodies – the national institute of technology for higher education and training, and the national certification council for further and continuing education and training outside the third-level sector. The report further recommended that the Dublin Institute of Technology be a third awarding body within the framework. I again express my appreciation and thanks for the major contribution made by the chairperson, board and staff of Teastas to this process. The task given to Teastas was arduous but it was fulfilled admirably. Following the publication of the second Teastas report I hosted, in February last year, a forum on the development of a national qualifications framework. The principal stakeholders in education and training attended the forum where the issues and proposals involved were discussed fully.
As will be evident from what I have said, a considerable amount of time and energy has already been expended in addressing those issues and concerns dealt with by the Bill. As is evident from the reports cited above and the continuous commitment at Government and EU level, there was a general consensus over recent years that much can be gained from the establishment and development of a national framework of qualifications and the benefits which will accrue to both learners and providers, as well as industry, business and the wider community.
The underlying support for such a development was evident from the debate in the Seanad. While varying approaches may be adopted reflecting different concerns and while interested parties may have particular reservations or requirements, there is an underlying consensus among those involved in education and training of the desir ability and efficacy of such a framework. I have no doubt but that members of this House will have much to say on these matters. For my part, I assure Deputies that I will listen to what they have to say with an open mind. My aim and concern, which I know is shared by all Members of this House, is to ensure a legislative underpinning for the establishment and development of a framework of qualifications which will enable all persons engaged in the activity of learning, wherever or whenever it takes place, to achieve their full potential, not only in terms of their education and career paths but also in the context of lifelong learning.
The principal aims of the Qualifications (Education and Training) 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. The individual student is central to the thrust and purpose of the Bill. The term "learner" is used in the Bill with a definite purpose. When we speak of learners in this context, we are not just speaking of learners in educational or training institutions or those involved in what might be described as formal learning situations, but rather of learners as defined in the Bill. In other words, a learner is a person who is acquiring or has acquired knowledge, skill or competence regardless of how, when or where that takes or took place. Learners may be students in educational institutions, workers in the workplace, participators in community activity or independent learners.
As a corollary to this, students and workers accessing education and training are not dealt with in a separate manner in the Bill. Education and training institutions, providers and certifying bodies have a long and distinguished record of striving to meet the needs and aspirations of learners. Equally, learners have benefited enormously from the expertise and endeavour that resides in such institutions, providers and certification bodies. What has perhaps been lacking somewhat to date is a coherent and cohesive overall structure of education and training awards. It is this which this Bill, through the establishment and development of a national framework of qualifications and routes for access, transfer and progression, is seeking to achieve. I am convinced that there are great benefits in this for both learners and providers. A coherent and cohesive system of national awards will ensure security and clarity for both learners and providers, enabling both in their respective ways to make informed choices and to plan ahead.
Under the Bill all providers of education and training will now have to inform learners of the transfer and progression routes available to them when they undertake a course. Such transfer and progression routes will form a comprehensive and transparent network that will greatly assist learners in determining and pursuing education, training and career paths.
The new arrangements will also ensure that throughout the education and training sector, learners can have full confidence in the quality of the programmes they are undertaking. Guaranteeing the quality of programmes and the efficacy of access, transfer and progression is predicated on appropriate standards of knowledge, skill or competence being set and mechanisms being in place to ensure that these standards are met.
It is not possible, nor do I consider it desirable, to set out in precise detail the components or parameters of a framework of qualifications in the Bill. Such an approach would have the effect of predetermining and petrifying the framework. The establishment and development of such a framework will be an onerous task, requiring expert knowledge and application, and it cannot be achieved within a short timeframe; it is also a task which is not appropriate to legislation. I am convinced that the most reasonable and feasible approach is to set out in legislation where responsibility lies for establishing and developing the framework and to put mechanisms in place to ensure that it can be continually revised and updated.
The most important body for whose establishment the Bill provides is the National Qualifications Authority of Ireland. As will be apparent, the authority is the keystone of the structure set out in this Bill. It will have an overarching role and responsibility in ensuring that the various components of the system as outlined in the Bill – the framework of qualifications, the standards of awards, the quality of education and training provided and greater opportunities for all learners – are established and maintained in a consistent and open manner so as to meet not alone the needs but also the aspirations of the wider community.
The authority will have three principal objects: the establishment and maintenance of a framework of qualifications for the development, recognition and award of qualifications based on standards of knowledge, skill or competence to be acquired by learners; the establishment, promotion and maintenance of the standards of awards of the further and higher education and training sector, other than in the existing universities; the promotion and facilitation of access, transfer and progression throughout the span of education and training provision.
The Bill also provides for the establishment of two new awarding bodies, the Further Education and Training Awards Council and the Higher Education and Training Awards Council. These will be the awarding councils which will make national certification available for all education and training in the State, other than that provided in the primary and post-primary sectors, the Dublin Institute of Technology and the universities. I wish to stress that any provider of education and training regardless of the source of that provision, whether it be in an educational institution, the workplace or the community, can apply to the further council or the higher council for validation of a programme.
A provider of a programme of education and training is defined in the Bill as "a person who, or body which, provides, organises or procures a programme of education and training". A programme of education and training is defined as "any process by which learners may acquire knowledge, skill or competence and includes courses of study or instruction, apprenticeships, training and employment". The intent is to facilitate ready and flexible access for providers of education and training so as to enable them to have their programmes validated where the relevant awarding council is of the view that such programmes meet the necessary criteria for validation.
The provisions of the Bill will not predetermine who should provide education and training. It is my hope that the Bill will, and indeed should, bring providers closer together to ensure there are clear and developed linkages between the various levels and sources of provision. The nature and content of the provision will in all events change somewhat over time and nothing in this Bill will impede this. Instead, it will facilitate and give coherence to such developments.
The framework of qualifications will ensure that access, progression and transfer arrangements for learners will be provided between and within levels of awards throughout the education and training sector. The providers of education and training encompassed by the Bill will be the implementers of these arrangements. Such arrangements will not alone promote access and opportunities for all learners but will also provide greater coherence for providers in planning and delivering education and training.
The establishment and development of such a framework will not be an easy task and can only be achieved if the various stakeholders involved in education and training are fully committed to making it work. However, the development of such a framework has inherent advantages for both learners and providers in enabling both, in their respective ways, to achieve their full potential.
It will also be open to learners to approach the new awarding councils to seek certification or recognition for their existing knowledge, skill or competence. This will effectively allow individual learners to approach the further council or the higher council directly with a view to having an award which they have achieved in whatever capacity recognised by the council. It will also allow for individual learners, perhaps with no formal qualifications but with considerable knowledge or experience gained in the workplace or in some other capacity, to approach the council with a view to receiving a relevant award.
The intent of this section is to allow for the formal recognition of learning and experience by individuals which heretofore has not been adequately catered for in the education and training system. It will be a matter for the new awarding councils 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.
The Bill also provides strict criteria for the delegation of authority from the Higher Education and Training Awards Council to make higher education and training awards, within the framework of qualifications, to institutes of technology who may seek such powers. Similarly, provision is also made for delegation of authority 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 concept of delegated authority derives from the fact that the institutions and bodies I mentioned have a long and much valued tradition in the provision of education and training and, to a certain extent, in making awards. The concept of allowing them certain autonomy, subject to the relevant provisions of the Bill, is an acknowledgement of the experience and expertise which they have garnered over the years and the State's and the wider community's recognition of this. As well as allowing for greater autonomy, it will also involve greater responsibility and a recognition that only through partnership and subsidiarity can the objects of the Bill be attained.
The arrangement for delegation of authority in the technological sector of higher education and training also take cognisance of the fact that transitional arrangements will be necessary to provide for the necessary steps to be taken arising from the work of the interim review group chaired by Professor Dervilla Donnelly. As a result of provisions in the Bill I will give effect to the recommendation of the group that both Waterford and Cork Institutes of Technology have authority delegated from the Higher Education and Training Awards Council to make awards within the national framework of qualifications in relation to programmes at the levels of certificate and diploma. In addition they and other institutes will be able to seek further delegation and achieve same through an objective review process.
I congratulate Waterford and Cork on their excellent work and the recognition which they have received through the review process and I look forward to being able to approve the charters which will confirm their delegated authority. The arrangements set out in the Bill for the development of the technological sector are directed at meeting two key objectives of the Government. These key objectives are to guarantee that the sector will continue to meet the needs of their existing students and future students as well as the needs of the economy and society as a whole and to facilitate and give scope for the future development of the sector.
In essence, the Bill provides for a process, which will be both detailed and exacting, whereby institutes of technology have the opportunity for further development. The Bill also provides that an institute of technology may be established following a positive outcome to an independent review process and where the Higher Education Authority is in support of such a proposal.
Part V of the Bill sets out the principal provisions in relation to the Dublin Institute of Technology. The role of the institute under the Bill will be to facilitate and assist the qualifications authority to implement procedures for access, transfer and progression as determined by the authority and to put in place new statutory arrangements for quality assurance.
The power of the institute to make awards will in no way be affected by this Bill. The intent is to ensure that the institute is an integral component of the framework of qualifications as recommended by the second report of Teastas. Given its history, its breadth of provision and its status as one of the largest providers of higher and further education in the country, its inclusion in the framework of qualifications is both central and crucial to its development and success.
The Dublin Institute of Technology is a unique third level institution in this State and the new statutory arrangements set out in the Bill will ensure the institute will continue to play a central and dynamic role in the technological sector of higher education.
As Deputies will be aware, the institute has recently been reviewed under section 9 of the Universities Act, 1997 and the Higher Education Authority has issued its recommendations in that regard. I take this opportunity once again to thank the Higher Education Authority and the review group, chaired by Dermot Nally, for the sterling work done in assessing the application of the Dublin Institute of Technology for designation at a university. I also congratulate the institute on the quality of its courses, which is reflected in the comments of the bodies involved in the independent assessment procedure.
With regard to the university sector, the Bill also sets out a number of provisions to ensure that the existing universities play a key role in the development of new arrangements and procedures. It was not envisaged when Teastas was set up in 1995 that it would have a strong role in the existing universities. Nevertheless, it is essential for the success of this endeavour that the universities are linked as much as possible into the new arrangements and procedures.
The Bill provides that universities will be advised by the Qualifications 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 will publish the outcomes of any such review.
There is nothing in these provisions that would conflict with the principle of academic freedom. Furthermore, I stress that I consider that the Universities Act, 1997, is not amended in its application to the existing universities in this Bill.
The Bill also sets out a number of provisions for any new universities, which may be established in future under the provisions of section 9 of the Universities Act. Such a university shall facilitate and assist the Qualifications Authority in its work, implement procedures for access, transfer and progression set out by the Authority and provide it with appropriate information.
The Bill also provides that in determining money to be allocated to such a university the Higher Education Authority shall ensure there is an appropriate range of education and training provision and may make binding directions with which the university shall comply. These provisions reflect the recommendations in the report of the review group on the application of the Dublin Institute of Technology for university status. In its report, the review group stressed the importance and distinctiveness of multi-level institutions and the need to protect the balance of provision in such institutions so as not to undermine provision for sub-degree level programmes in particular, which have such a crucial role in meeting the skills needs of the future.
The intent is to introduce a greater dynamic and flexibility into the whole area of higher education. It will enable institutions to aspire to university status without impeding or downgrading the value of the work they have done to date. It will also widen and strengthen the role which the modern university has in contemporary society in meeting the growing needs of lifelong learning as well as the needs of industry, business and the wider community.
As pointed out in the Nally review, to adopt a simplistic approach to multi-level institutions in the section 9 review process would be extremely damaging and would ignore the very basis for valuing the contribution of these institutions.
In the context of this Bill, it is appropriate and timely that the issue of protection of learners should be addressed. This is a pressing matter for learners in the commercial education and training sector. The aim of the provisions in this part of the Bill is to put in place protection for learners who avail of education and training provided by bodies established on a commercial profit-making basis. In such instances, learners can be assured that where a programme of more than three months' duration of any such provider leads to an award of either of the two awarding councils, then protections are in place.
There was much discussion in the Seanad on the nature of the protections that are needed. The Bill sets out that in cases where a programme of education and training cannot be completed, the learner must be refunded the most recent fees paid. In addition to this, the relevant awarding council must endeavour to find a place for the learner on another programme to enable him or her complete the programme concerned. It was agreed in the Seanad that this House would further examine the nature of the protections being proposed and I agreed to facilitate this. The key issue for me is not that the Bill sets out the detail of the arrangements to be put in place, but that it ensures that appropriate arrangements will be put in place and I look forward to the debate on this issue.
I am pleased to inform the House that we have been able to agree an amendment to the Bill with the principal private college organisations, which will have the effect of achieving the objective of guaranteeing the right of learners to complete their courses or have their fees refunded. This will be introduced on Committee Stage.
The essential point is that the right of every person considering a course, to key information on protection, will be achieved through this Bill and an effective system of bonding for all public awards made in private colleges will also be achieved.
The Bill will replace effectively the existing National Council for Educational Awards Act. The National Council for Educational Awards has been in place since the early 1970s and has been on a statutory basis since 1979. It has played a vital role in the development of certification for higher education and particularly in the development of the technological sector.
In this context, I am fully conscious of the tremendous work done over the years by the council and its staff in certification and in making awards. The figure for awards made – well over 150,000 – speak eloquently of these endeavours. The intent of this Bill is to ensure continuing good practice and to build upon it to ensure a more cohesive and all-inclusive system of certification and awards. In addition, the position of existing staff members will be protected; it will be enhanced by their being able to participate in a wider framework with the various opportunities which that will present.
The National Council for Vocational Awards has played a crucial role, on a non-statutory basis, in recent years in developing the further education sector and, in particular, in the development of certification for the important post leaving certificate area and, more recently, in the certification of community education and of programmes for early school leavers. Working with the vocational education committees, the NCVA in this area has played a key role in ensuring the relevance of education and training to the economy and to the wider community.
The work of the NCEA and the NCVA, as well as that of FÁS, NTCB and Teagasc, will provide a sound and secure base for the development work of the two new awards councils. I will work with these organisations in ensuring the effective implementation of this Bill. It is essential to maintain confidence in and acceptability of national education and training awards. Clearly, there needs to be a continuum between what is happening at present and what will happen under the provisions of this Bill. I am confident that this will be the case.
One of the major concerns addressed in the Bill is the need for improved partnership, co-oper ation and cohesion between the education and training sector on the one hand and industry, business and the wider community on the other. One of my main priorities as Minister has been 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. We all know that human capital is being continually identified as the key to our present prosperity.
One of the most crucial tasks facing the Qualifications Authority and the two awarding councils will be the need not alone to inform themselves of the educational and training needs of industry but also to promote practices in education and training to meet those needs.
This is in no way to suggest that contact and co-operation between the education and training sector and industry has not been a conspicuous feature of education and training for a long time. It would be impossible for bodies such as FÁS, CERT, Teagasc and the institutes of technology to fulfil their remits without continuous co-operation and interaction with the relevant industrial and business sectors. The establishment and development of a national framework of qualifications will act as a greater focus and nucleus around which co-operation between the education and training sector and industry can take on a new dimension where both parties are seen as partners with equal responsibility for guaranteeing the future skills needs of the economy and society at large.
Co-operation between the education and training sector and industry is a vital component in guaranteeing our future economic and social well-being.
The provisions of this Bill are enabling rather than prescriptive. In essence, it seeks to assure the quality and standards of education and training, to put in place a coherent and transparent framework for the co-ordination and comparison of awards and to ensure access, transfer and progression for all learners. Positive democratic values underpin the provisions of this Bill – openness, accountability, practicality, responsibility, equality and a sense of the value and integrity of the learner.
This is an important Bill, which will provide the framework within which our education and training system can grow in the decades ahead. It is built on national and international learning and will promote access, transfer, progression and quality.
The debate in the Seanad was very positive and represented a definite contribution to the improvement of this Bill. I hope the debate in this House can achieve the same. I look forward to listening to the contributions of Deputies and to our discussions subsequently in Committee.