Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Seanad Éireann díospóireacht -
Thursday, 22 Apr 1999

Vol. 159 No. 2

Qualifications (Education and Training) Bill, 1999: Report and Final Stages.

An Leas-Chathaoirleach

Before we commence I remind Members that a Senator may speak only once on Report Stage, except for the proposer of an amendment who may reply to the discussion on the amendment. Also on Report Stage, each amendment must be seconded.

Government amendments Nos. 1 to 9, inclusive, form a composite proposal and may be discussed together.

Government amendment No. 1:
In page 7, lines 10 and 11, to delete "AN tÚDARÁS NÁISIÚNTA CÁILÍOCHTAÍ" and substitute "ÚDARÁS NÁISIÚNTA CÁILÍOCHTAÍ NA hÉIREANN".

These are technical amendments to guarantee the Irish title "Údarás Náisiúnta Cáilíochtaí na hÉireann", and the English title "National Qualifications Authority of Ireland", in the text of the Bill. Accordingly, I recommend these amendments to the House.

Amendment agreed to.
Government amendment No. 2:
In page 8, line 28, after "Authority" to insert "of Ireland".
Amendment agreed to.
Government amendment No. 3:
In page 8, line 33, after "Authority" to insert "of Ireland".
Amendment agreed to.
Government amendment No. 4:
In page 9, line 2, after "Authority" to insert "of Ireland".
Amendment agreed to.
Government amendment No. 5:
In page 9, lines 7 and 8, after "Authority" to insert "of Ireland".
Amendment agreed to.
Government amendment No. 6:
In page 9, line 18, after "Authority" to insert "of Ireland".
Amendment agreed to.
Government amendment No. 7:
In page 9, line 23, after "Authority" to insert "of Ireland".
Amendment agreed to.
Government amendment No. 8:
In page 9, line 30 and 31, after "Authority" to insert "of Ireland".
Amendment agreed to.
Government amendment No. 9:
In page 11, lines 30 and 31, to delete "An tÚdarás Náisiúnta Cáilíochtaí" and substitute "Údarás Náisiúnta Cáilíochtaí na hÉireann".
Amendment agreed to.

An Leas-Chathaoirleach

Government amendments Nos. 10 and 11 may be taken together, by agreement.

Government amendment No. 10:
In page 11, line 40, to delete "13" and substitute "14".

We have given consideration to the concerns expressed by Senators as regards learners' representation on the qualifications authority. I wish to reiterate that learners are central to the whole thrust and purpose of this Bill. When we speak of learners in this context, we are not just speaking of learners in educational training institutions or those involved in what might be described as formal learning situations, but rather of learners as defined in section 2 of 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 place.

In moving this amendment, therefore, the intention is to give representation on the qualifications authority to learners in general. The mechanism to do so is through the opinion of the Minister, as is the case in other sections on membership in the Bill. I commend this amendment to the House.

I welcome the amendment which increases membership of the authority from 13 to 14. I also welcome amendment No. 11 which provides for one person on the authority who is representative of learners. I do not know how the Minister will actually implement that provision, but it is his responsibility and I look forward to seeing him doing so.

I also welcome the inclusion of this amendment. Like Senator Costello, I will be looking to see what Solomon-like solution the Minister finds to this particular problem. I can guarantee that while he may please some people, he will not please many others. I am glad, however, that the principle has been accepted.

Amendment agreed to.
Government amendment No. 11:
In page 12, between lines 7 and 8, to insert the following:
"(h)one person who, in the opinion of the Minister after consultation with the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, is representative of learners,".
Amendment agreed to.

An Leas-Chathaoirleach

Amendments Nos. 12 and 14 may be discussed together, by agreement.

I move amendment No. 12:

In page 12, to delete lines 22 to 26 and substitute the following:

"(6)Regulations under subsection (5) shall ensure that not less than 40 per cent of members shall be men and not less than 40 per cent shall be women.”.

These amendments are the same for different sections. We want the Minister to enshrine gender equity on a statutory basis in boards established by the State under any Department. Yesterday, I understood that the Minister indicated his intention to look at the matter overnight to try to come up with some formula that would respond in some way to the position as enunciated here. The Minister has not tabled an amendment to that effect so presumably either his answer is negative or he intends to reflect upon the matter further before the debate in the Dáil.

This is the one area which the Minister has not made any serious attempt to address, which will inevitably mean an inequity of membership. We know from experience that if boards are left to their own devices, or if the composition of boards is not structured in some way with some formal mechanism to ensure gender equity, it will not occur. It has not happened in the past. Some horrific examples were cited recently, including that of the Medical Council.

The majority of people in education are female but policy-making bodies that make decisions, grant awards and determine progress within the educational framework are not representative of both genders to the same degree. We should take the initiative and show the way forward. I am disappointed that no effort is being made to compile an amendment that would provide a reasonable opportunity of having gender equity reflected in this legislation. It is the Minister's responsibility to lead in this fashion. That was the way it was under the previous Administration. I am surprised that the Department of Education and Science should move away from that principle.

I formally second both Senator Costello's amendments. In so doing, I recall that we had a long and interesting debate on this issue yesterday. Senator Costello and I did not quite see eye to eye on the procedures which he is proposing. There was no difference as to the outcome we both desire. I have reflected on the matter since listening yesterday to some of the vigorous assertions in some cases, arguments in others and reason on occasion. The Minister said he would reflect on the matter but that he would probably have to do so between now and the Bill's return to the other House. As long as I am assured that there is a commitment to the overall principle to gender equity I am happy to wait for the Bill to return from the Dáil.

Given the Committee Stage debate it is important that gender equity is reflected on the board. I do not doubt it was never the Minister's intention that he would not reflect gender balance on the board but I am not convinced by the argument for an absolute 40-40 requirement. It should be left to the Minister to get the best people, men or women, for the board. I understood that the Minister would reflect on this and bring it to the Dáil.

This was discussed in some detail on Committee Stage and I understand the Minister gave a commitment to consider this matter further. It has not been possible to devise appropriate amendments overnight. Sections 6, 13 and 22 provide that when nominations are being made to these bodies, regard shall be had to the desirability of an appropriate gender balance. Where a person or body has more than one nomination under the relevant section, the person or body shall nominate at least one male and at least one female. Under this provision at least two men and two women must be appointed to the qualifications authority, at least four women and four men to the Further Education and Training Awards Council and at least three women and three men to the Higher Education and Training Awards Council. The relevant sections also provide that the Minister for Education and Science may make regulations for the purpose of nomination to the bodies concerned. We have already discussed in detail the nature of the provisions of this Bill in relation to existing universities. Given the nature of the membership of the bodies outlined in the relevant sections, it is not possible to ensure a precise quota system as proposed in these amendments. If the amendments were accepted, some nominating bodies with a single nominee would be required to make nominations of a certain gender and I am unable to recommend support for that. However, the Minister has given a commitment in this regard and accepts the principle involved. He is reflecting further on the matter and if he can devise an appropriate amendment he will introduce it in the Dáil. The Bill will then return to the Seanad and Senators can discuss it again.

I accept the assurances that the Minister and the Minister of State have given us.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Government amendment No. 13:
In page 13, lines 47 and 48, after "of the Minister" to insert ", following consultation with the Authority".

It is essential that the authority can give effect to appropriate ministerial policies in the areas of education and training in the wider context of addressing the educational and training needs of the future. Any such policy will need to be consistent with the provisions of this Bill or the Minister could not effect the policy without proposing the House amend the Bill. The Minister has further considered the points raised by Senators on Committee Stage and the amendments tabled take cognisance of these concerns and allow effective consultation between the Minister and the qualifications authority in this area.

I welcome this amendment. On Committee Stage much stress was put on the principle of consultation and Senators asked for the Bill to be strengthened by the inclusion of references to consultation. I raised the matter on other sections. The Minister said he would consider the points made before the Bill went to the Dáil.

I thank the Minister for being true to his word on what he said he would provide. The rest of the section relates to how the authority would operate on a broad consultative and participative basis. Subsection (b) then comes out of the blue and gives the Minister the power to introduce policies almost by diktat. He does not even have to give a written directive on the matter and the authority must implement it. It is important that this caveat be introduced and the Minister's amendment covers that adequately. I welcome it.

Amendment agreed to.
Amendment No. 14 not moved.

An Leas-Chathaoirleach

Amendment No. 16 is an alternative to amendment No. 15 and they are to be taken together by agreement. Is that agreed? Agreed.

I move amendment No. 15:

In page 32, line 4, to delete "The" and substitute "At the request of a recognised institution or where necessary to comply with subsection (5), the".

This section gives the Minister the power to revoke an order at will. It is a similar catch-all provision to the one we have dealt with and we want a caveat here. The charter is a very important provision for the institutions. They will have to draw it up in consultation with all the participants and those involved in the learning process as well as a wider body of trade unions, businesses and so on. At one fell swoop the Minister can revoke that at will and we are looking at some acknowledgment to be given to consultation with the relevant sector and the institution itself. The Minister's amendment adequately covers what we are looking for.

I second Senator Costello's amendment. I agree that the Government amendment meets the case more than adequately.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Government amendment No. 16:
In page 32, line 4, after "may" to insert ", following consultation with the recognised institution,".

We have given further consideration to the points raised by Senator Costello on this issue and this amendment should go some way towards meeting the Senator's concerns. Clearly an order can only be made by the Minister and hence only amended or revoked by him or her. However, the amendment means consultation is now required with the institution concerned before the amending or revoking of an order and thus represents a balanced approach to the issues involved.

Amendment agreed to.
Government amendment No. 17:
In page 32, line 37, after "Authority" to insert "of Ireland".
Amendment agreed to.
Government amendment No. 18:
In page 33, line 23 and 24, after "Authority" to insert "of Ireland".
Amendment agreed to.
Government amendment No. 19:
In page 33, line 40, after "Authority" to insert "of Ireland".
Amendment agreed to.
Government amendment No. 20:
In page 33, line 46, after "Authority" to insert "of Ireland".
Amendment agreed to.
Government amendment No. 21:
In page 33, line 54, after "Authority" to insert "of Ireland".
Amendment agreed to.
Government amendment No. 22:
In page 34, line 4, after "Authority" to insert "of Ireland".
Amendment agreed to.

I move amendment No. 23:

In page 37, to delete lines 3 to 5.

This amendment relates to the Second Stage debate about whether we will end up with a two-tier system and what we mean by that. We had a wide-ranging and sometimes confused debate but we should have equity of treatment or parity of esteem among all institutions when it comes to their role with the new bodies. If we set up an umbrella authority to regulate areas like quality assurance, awards and access we should not distinguish between universities old or new and institutes of technology and further education. It is time to establish an over-arching body for all third level institutions. By exempting some institutions we undermine such a body from its inception. Autonomy is not weakened by the establish ment of strong procedures, systems and levels of accountability.

This issue has not been addressed adequately. It is the only flaw in the Bill and it will cause trouble in the future. New universities will balk at the idea of having conditions imposed on them which are not imposed on existing universities. I foresee institutes of technology being unhappy with the looser role, so to speak, given to universities. In the interests of learners the education system must be integrated but we have left this matter unfinished.

I second Senator Costello's amendment but I do not follow his reasoning. In supporting the amendment we have the same objective. I fear this section will create a two-tier system of universities. I am concerned that the newer universities will not have the same sense of autonomy and freedom to run their own affairs within proper frameworks as the existing universities. I want new universities to have the same status as the older ones. This section is a potential threat to that aspiration.

Senator Costello appears to want to level things downwards but I want to level them upwards and to ensure that the new universities do not find themselves disadvantaged from the beginning because they are denied the inheritance that is part of the existing university system. This matter was discussed at length last evening and I do not propose to labour the point. I agree with Senator Costello for entirely opposite reasons. We must agree to differ on this matter.

I understand the fears of other Senators regarding a two-tier university system but they are unfounded. Each university has its own identity. Newer universities provide certificate and diploma courses as well as degree courses. It is not appropriate to insist that new universities provide exactly the same types of courses as the older ones.

I do not like the concept of the two-tier university system. New universities and institutes are doing splendid work and have opened the door to education for many students who would not otherwise have been given access to higher education. I do not accept that this constitutes a two-tier system.

I approve of Part VI, Chapter II. Any new university will stand on its own merits and will cope with the requirements set out in this Chapter.

The role of the existing universities and the new arrangements have already been the subject of much consideration on Second Stage and Committee Stage and will be again, in the Lower House. The Government considers it essential that the universities are linked into the new arrangements. It was not envisaged by the then Government in 1995 that Teastas would have a strong role in relation to existing universities. A forum on the development of the framework of qualifications was held after the Teastas second report and a strong message came from those involved in education and training that universities should be involved as much as possible in the developing arrangements. At the forum, the universities themselves showed a strong willingness to co-operate as much as possible with the developing framework and associated arrangements.

Arising from this, 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 National Qualifications Authority will work with the Higher Education Authority in reviewing the implementation of those arrangements and shall publish the outcomes of any such review. Section 40 also provides that the Higher Education Authority, in performing this role of advising the universities in relation to quality assurance, shall consult with the National Qualifications Authority.

We consider the provisions in the Bill at present best provide a way for the universities to be involved in the developing framework. The Universities Act, 1997, has been in operation for less than two years. That Act sets out the key role for the Higher Education Authority in advising the universities in relation to quality assurance. I do not wish to transfer any such functions from the Higher Education Authority to the National Qualifications Authority, although the Bill provides that the Higher Education Authority must now consult with the National Qualifications Authority in performing its quality assurance role. Given this background, I cannot accept Senator Costello's amendment.

The Bill exempts the older universities from the requirements placed on new universities. Section 41(2)(d) requires that a relevant university shall implement procedures for access, transfer and progression determined by the authority under section 8(2)(d) in so far as those procedures apply to the relevant university concerned. Section 8(2)(d) simply requires that the authority shall determine the procedures to be implemented by providers of programmes of education and training for access, transfer and progression and shall publish those procedures in such form and manner as the authority thinks fit.

One section of the Bill sets out the responsibilities for the authority and another exempts a number of important institutions from those responsibilities. The critical responsibilities are the provision of access, transfer and progression. All students must be given equal access to higher education, the right to transfer within the higher education system and to progress to higher courses. Existing universities are not required to make these provisions. They are exempted from the core of education. I do not understand why the universities would not welcome such a development.

The Minister has not dealt with the issue. Some institutions are expected to be accountable for the delivery of a vital aspect of education and others are not.

Question, "That the words proposed to be deleted stand", put and declared carried.
Amendment declared lost.
Bill reported with amendment and received for final consideration.
Question proposed: "That the Bill do now pass."

I thank the Minister, the Minister of State and their officials for the open way in which they have approached the Bill. When it was published there was not much discussion. It came into being quietly. The fact that the Department did not introduce it with a fanfare led to a suspicion on the part of some that the Minister would not welcome a debate. That was not the case.

I opposed the early taking of Committee Stage because I had received representations that more time was needed to look at the Bill. Issues of major concern have been raised on which the Government has outlined its thinking. A number of issues have, however, been left wide open, including the question of bonding. It is open to the main players to make suggestions on how it can be tackled.

This has been an important debate. We have not, however, seen the last of the Bill. Many of the questions raised will be raised again in the Dáil. I thank the Minister, the Minister of State and their officials for the courteous and open way they have conducted the debate. This is important and good legislation. There is no difficulty with the principles involved. I look forward to the Bill returning to the Seanad with a number of the amendments that were not accepted during the debate.

I thank the Minister, the Minister of State and the staff of the Department for the work they put into the Bill. All aspects have been teased out comprehensively. We have worthwhile legislation as a result. As Senator Manning said, it introduces a new concept. It was a little daunting initially until we understood what exactly was involved. I thank the Minister and Minister of State for allaying our fears and apprehensions and for being open in dealing with the Bill. The Seanad is to be congratulated for teasing out the problems. I hope the public is aware of this and that there will be a successful outcome in the other House.

I thank the Minister, the Minister of State and their officials for the open way in which they have addressed the Bill. In a recent radio interview about his time as Minister, Deputy Michael D. Higgins said it was his wish that Bills should not be rigid on being introduced. That is an important comment. While I am sorry that the Minister did not accept any of my amendments relating to the Dublin Institute of Technology and the universities, I am glad he has said that before the Bill is presented in the other House, where he may not meet women as agreeable and as kind as Senator Ormonde and I, more thought will be given to the important questions of bonding, about which Senator Manning and I spoke last night, and gender equity in the various authorities being established.

The Senator failed to mention Senator Manning and me, two agreeable and kind males. I thank the Minister, the Minister of State and their officials for producing such fine legislation and for the open and courteous manner in which they have dealt with it in the House. Their responses to the various issues raised have been informative. That is as it should be. When I was first elected to the House ten years ago it was virtually impossible to have an amendment accepted, even in principle. The position has changed considerably.

The content of the Bill is extremely important in terms of quality assurance in further and higher education. Further education, an area in which there have been enormous developments, has not received the attention it merits. It is extremely important that the Further Education and Training Awards Council and the Higher Education and Training Awards Council are established on a statutory basis.

This is good legisation. My only complaint is that we may have to return to it as it is not as egalitarian as we would like. There is a fear that we may end up with a two-tier system. The legislation, however, is extremely welcome in the sense that it will provide a statutory awards framework.

I thank Senators for the constructive way in which they have approached the Bill and for the changes they have persuaded us to make. They will undoubtedly improve it. That is the primary function of Parliament.

The main issues of progression, accreditation, etc. have been the subject of much discussion in the public domain, in newspaper articles, radio programmes and so on, arising from the deliberations of Teastas. I received a huge number of representations following the publication of the Green Paper on adult education last November. This legislation has been flagged for some time. We have moved to deal with the matter in a comprehensive way. I thank Senators for recommending what I regard as eminently sensible changes.

I am conscious of the strength of the representations made on how we propose to deal with the issue of bonding in the Bill. If constructive alternative suggestions are made, the Government will give them sympathetic consideration as it wishes to deal with the issue as comprehensively as possible.

I thank Senators for their constructive contributions and look forward to the Bill being put on the Statute Book at the earliest possible opportunity.

Question put and agreed to.

An Leas-Chathaoirleach

When is it proposed to sit again?

Next Wednesday at 2.30 p.m.