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Dáil Éireann díospóireacht -
Wednesday, 24 Mar 2010

Vol. 705 No. 2

George Mitchell Scholarship Fund (Amendment) Bill 2010: From the Seanad.

The Dáil went into Committee to consider an amendment from the Seanad.
Seanad amendment No. 1:
Section 3: In page 4, line 10, after "manager" to insert "with the consent of the Minister".

I am happy to bring George Mitchell Scholarship Fund (Amendment) Bill 2010 back before the Dáil. All stages of the Bill were taken in Dáil Éireann on Thursday, 18 February and in Seanad Éireann on Tuesday, 23 February 2010. I am now seeking the agreement of Dáil Éireann to one amendment made in the Seanad to section 3 of the Bill.

Section 3 amends subsection 2(3) of the 1998 Act, which comprises a number of general provisions relating to the establishment, scope and management of the George Mitchell scholarship fund, with particular reference to the accounts of the fund. The Seanad amendment ensures that accountability arrangements for the annual audit of the fund are further strengthened. The amendment ensures that the auditor, which the fund manager is obliged to appoint each year, is appointed with the consent of the Minister.

The George Mitchell scholarship fund is held, controlled and managed in the United States by a fund manager, currently the US-Ireland Alliance, on behalf of the Minister for Education and Skills. Under the existing agreement the fund manager is required to provide the Minister with a copy of the audited accounts of the fund on an annual basis. During the debate on Committee Stage in the Dáil it was suggested that consideration should be given to having the Minister actually appoint the auditor each year. I explained then that given that the fund is managed in the United States it is considered more appropriate that a US based audit firm conduct the annual audit of the fund. The present arrangement, whereby the fund manager appoints the auditor, has operated since 1999. Copies of the audited accounts are also conveyed each year to the Office of the Comptroller and Auditor General before being laid before the Houses of the Oireachtas. It is also considered more practical for the fund manager to select the firm to conduct the annual audit in the ordinary course of events.

Under both the existing and draft new agreement the Minister can request, and the fund manager must permit, additional independent auditors to examine the records relating to all matters of the agreement. Having considered this issue in some detail, however, I am satisfied that having the fund manager appoint the auditor each year with the consent of the Minister makes for an improved arrangement and on that basis I brought forward this ministerial amendment.

I add that my Department is also arranging for the draft new agreement with the alliance to be amended to reflect this provision once the amending legislation has been passed.

I thank the Minister of State for coming back to the House on this matter and for taking the unusual step of accepting an amendment in principle from this House and formally proposing it in the Seanad with the clear knowledge that he would have to bring the Bill back to this House and thereby lose a certain amount of operational time. I appreciate that.

I will briefly explain the reason we tabled this amendment. Some concerns were expressed about the operation of this fund and some ill-informed comments were made which have been distractionary. In view of the variable standard of accountancy practices worldwide, it is not necessary for the Minister to be in the driving seat in terms of the nomination or identification of either an accountancy firm or a manager but it is necessary for the Minister to have some oversight or final say and to be satisfied on behalf of taxpayers that the selection was appropriate and those concerned are professionally competent to do the work involved.

Suggestions were made to the effect that this fund represents a great deal of Irish taxpayers' money being allocated at a time when there are cutbacks and constraints in other areas of expenditure in education, but Deputy Brian Hayes and I have held to account in that regard the Minister of State and the Minister. In the ill-informed commentary against this project an understanding of what an endowment fund actually is has been obscured. An endowment fund is a once-off lump sum of capital allocated for a particular purpose, surrounded by proper trustees, fiduciary requirements and safeguards, and the income derived from that once-off fund would go towards the funding of the scholarships. In other words, it is not the case the €20 million in the fund will be disbursed over a period of time and once it is all allocated the trustees will come back and seek more money. Such a fund is a fairly standard procedure in many educational institutions. There are chairs endowed in Trinity and UCD. A once-off capital sum is set aside and made available and the income derived from that fund is deemed to be adequate to fund the exercise, in this case to provide for approximately 12 students under the George Mitchell scholarship fund.

I want to repeat a point, as I want to put it on record in view of what has been said by way of ill-informed comment elsewhere. Since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, the St. Andrews accord and the other agreements, Hillsborough being the final one, we have finally reached a stage in our relationship with the other island and the Unionist community in Northern Ireland, it having been bedevilled for centuries. That bedevilled relationship found its way across the Atlantic and was reflected in the activities of many Irish Americans in trying to help their former homeland to come to an accommodation as to how we share these islands together. This has been successfully achieved. It is, to borrow a phrase from the Italian Communist Party, a classic historical compromise. We now need to reach out to a much wider American community who have no Irish connections, no Irish antecedents and no reason to be aware of what Ireland, and Britain for that matter, have achieved or not achieved in the past. The option presented to Americans to study here in some of the best universities in Europe, as international rated agencies have testified, will give us in Ireland an opportunity to reach out to new cohorts of Americans who have no knowledge, experience or familial ties with this country. Hopefully their experience of studying in top class universities here will open up new opportunities to achieve the kind of knowledge-based economy and international collaboration which is one of the objectives of the Government and one of the specific responsibilities for which the Minister of State, Deputy Haughey, has direct responsibility. I thank him for accepting the amendment and for bringing it back to the House.

I congratulate Deputy Quinn on proposing this amendment in the House and the Government, through the Minister of State, Deputy Haughey, for accepting it and tabling an amendment in the Seanad. It significantly strengthens the Bill for the Minister of the day to have such oversight in working with the alliance to ensure there is clarity on the question of accountancy practices and the usefulness of the funds that are in place. The inclusion of this amendment is a significant improvement. I congratulate Deputy Quinn and the Minister of State on amending the Bill in this bipartisan way.

I wish to make two comments. We have a tremendous opportunity to tap into the potential of international education and to create in this country a destination for many international students who want to come and study here. Last week I produced a paper on behalf of my party which highlights the potential over a five-year period — similar to what has been done in New Zealand and in Britain — whereby we could virtually double the number of students coming to this country and double the yield in that respect. At present the yield accruing is €900 million made up of €500 million on the English language side and €400 million in higher education. There is no reason we could not achieve that over a five-year period. The potential for extra jobs is enormous.

We have a tremendous location. We are an English speaking country in Europe and ours is a safe community. We have diaspora not only in the United State but throughout the world, as Deputy Quinn said, comprising second generation Irish people in the United States in particular. We need to market our country.

This fund is good for our country, for employment and for universities. I spoke to the president of UCC some time ago and that university is ahead of the game here. Some 10% of its total student cohort is made up of international students. The main benefit to be gained from such a measure for a university is not only monetary but that of the participation in tutorials of international students alongside our students and they being part of the same examination process and upping standards for our students. With the George Mitchell scholarship fund, which emanated from the Northern Ireland peace talks, we have managed to put in place a scholarship programme for American students. We need to consider if we could put in place a scholarship programme for the Asian, Chinese or the Indian markets, which would result in our having ambassadors who would come to this country, obtain opportunities through higher education and then return home and sell Ireland indirectly in their home countries.

One of the proposals in the paper we produced last week is that we would extend the excellent idea of George Mitchell scholars to other parts of the world in the next few years.

I am grateful to the Minister of State's Department which sent me, on foot of my request on Committee Stage, a detailed breakdown of the number of scholars under the George Mitchell scholarship fund initiative in each year since 2001 and it showed the variety of colleges, North and South, in which they studied. It is important that scholars be allowed to study in programmes in the institutes of technology in the next few years. While Trinity, UCD, UL, DCU, the Queen's University, Belfast, are the typical traditional colleges, we have an opportunity to market many of our excellent institutes of technology during the next few years. That would be good for them and good for the scholars.

I thank the Deputies for their contributions and co-operation on this legislation. In particular, I thank Deputy Quinn for bringing forward his proposals to ensure more accountability. I agree with him on the broader objectives of this legislation and on what he said in the context of the peace process and so on. I thank him for his contribution and for his suggestions to improve accountability.

I agree with Deputy Brian Hayes that the promotion and marketing of international education is now a priority for the Government and Enterprise Ireland has a key role in that regard. I would be interested in considering the Fine Gael proposals in that regard. I thank Deputies again for their co-operation. It will be possible to raise with the alliance the views expressed by Deputy Brian Hayes on institutes of technology.

Seanad amendment No. 1 put and declared carried.
Seanad amendment reported.

A message will be sent to Seanad Éireann acquainting it accordingly.