Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Seanad Éireann díospóireacht -
Tuesday, 6 Jul 1999

Vol. 160 No. 4

Qualifications (Education and Training) Bill, 1999 [ Seanad Bill amended by the Dáil ] : Report and Final Stages.

This is a Seanad Bill which has been amended by the Dáil. In accordance with Standing Order 103, it is deemed to have passed its First, Second and Third Stages in the Seanad and is placed on the Order Paper for Report Stage. On the question that the Bill be received for final consideration, the Minister may explain the purpose of the amendments made by the Dáil and this is looked upon as the report of the Dáil amendments to the Seanad. The only matter, therefore, that may be discussed is the amendments made by the Dáil. For the convenience of Senators I have arranged for the printing and circulation to them of those amendments.

Question proposed: "That the Bill be received for final consideration."

As Members are aware, they may speak only once on this question.

I welcome the Minister for Education and Science to the House.

Is pribhléid dom bheith anseo chun labhairt ar an mBille tábhachtach seo. I am delighted to be returning to the House with the Qualifications (Education and Training) Bill, 1999.

We discussed the Bill in some detail in the House in March and April and many very constructive amendments were made to it as a result. The Bill has now been fully considered by Dáil Éireann and I am returning to the House to seek support for it. Members have before them the list of amendments which have been made to the Bill. Rather than take Members through the amendments one by one, I would like to summarise the extent of the improvements that have been made to the Bill and give some background to the rationale involved.

Broadly, I suggest the extent of the amendments can be summarised under some generic themes: development of the objectives of the Bill and the qualifications authority; broadening the membership provisions; strengthening the international dimension of the Bill; strengthening the consultative dimension of the operation of the Bill; ensuring existing arrangements for co-operation between various providers and certifying bodies are built upon; ensuring the full availability of appropriate information about the operation of the new bodies and providers; development of the provisions relating to the protection of learners; and some technical amendments.

A number of amendments to section 4 concerning the objects of the Bill were made on Committee Stage in the Dáil. There was a general feeling that the objects of the Bill could be extended to state more broadly the aims of the Bill as a whole and to be more inclusive of the different types of learning that are under way in our society. Specifically, the amendments include referring directly to the concept of lifelong learning in object (e); referring to the key role of research, adult and continuing education and training and employment in object (f) and referring in object (j) to the need to have full regard to the traditions of providers of education and training. I consider the Bill now strongly reflects the views of both Houses in relation to the objects and these objects can now inform the work of all of those bodies involved in the new arrangements that are to be developed.

There was also much debate in the Dáil on the objects of the National Qualifications Authority of Ireland which are set out in section 7. In general it was felt that the objects of the authority need to be clear and succinct to reflect the desire of the Oireachtas that the authority be clearly focused. There was one amendment to the second object to ensure that the authority has a clear mandate to promote the improvement of the standards of the awards of the two awarding councils, the Dublin Institute of Technology and universities which may be established under section 9 of the Universities Act, 1997.

The membership provisions were the subject of detailed consideration in Dáil Éireann, as they were in this House. Members will recall that I indicated in the House that I would further consider the question of gender equity on the qualifications authority and the two awarding councils. Given the nature of the membership of the bodies outlined in the relevant sections, it is not possible to ensure a precise quota system. However, the Dáil supported an amendment which introduced a new section, section 66, which addresses the issue of gender equity across the three new bodies and effectively provides for a balanced representation as between men and women. Under the amendment, where a body has a number of nominees between the three bodies that are to be set up the body must nominate in a balanced way between men and women. There are already provisions in place in relation to nominations to each of the bodies by each individual organisation.

In relation to the nomination of members to each of the new bodies that are to be set up, the Dáil made one amendment for each of the bodies. In relation to the qualifications authority there was a strong feeling that there was a need to ensure that the third strand of social partnership had a voice on the authority and it was agreed that one of the Minister's nominees must in his or her opinion be representative of voluntary and community organisations.

In relation to the Further Education and Training Awards Council, there was a strong view that the membership should be expanded to include a nominee of FÁS on the council and this was agreed. In relation to the Higher Education and Training Awards Council, there was a general feeling that, while it was vital that the recognised institutions of the council have a strong voice on the council, there should be some voice for other providers of education and training. Accordingly, an amendment was agreed that one of the Minister's nominees to the higher council should be representative of providers other than the recognised institutions. Accordingly, an amendment was agreed that one of the Minister's nominees to the higher council should be representative of providers other than the recognised institutions.

There was much discussion in Dáil Éireann on the need for the National Qualifications Authority to be up to date on international best practice. 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 qualification 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 provisions of the Bill is that the standard for Irish awards is set 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 function of the authority to have an international liaison role will ensure this.

Specifically, amendments were agreed to require the authority and the two new councils to keep informed in this regard. Putting the requirement on the bodies that they be informed of international developments will, in turn, inform the performance of their functions.

It is also the case that each of the new bodies must include at least one person who has a special international knowledge and experience related to the performance of their functions. The Bill, as published, had set out that this would be a requirement where it was practicable. On further consideration of the issue, however, it was agreed to make this an absolute requirement.

It was a strong view of this House that the performance of the functions of the new bodies must be undertaken in partnership with existing providers of education and training. Dáil Éireann shared that view while stressing the need for the bodies, and in particular the authority, to have the final say.

The Dáil made an amendment effectively to extend the list of bodies which the National Qualifications Authority may consult in carrying out its functions. There was nothing to preclude this but there was a strong feeling that the provisions of the Bill should be more explicit in this way.

There has been much discussion on the need for a partnership approach to the implementation of many of the provisions of the Bill. An important aspect of the functions of the National Qualifications Authority will be its role in setting out procedures for the implementation of arrangements for access, transfer and progression. Building on the importance of partnership, the Dáil made a further amendment to subsection (3)(d) of section 8 that the authority shall consider any views expressed by the bodies concerned in relation to the procedures for access, transfer and progression which it is to determine. That is very much in line with sentiments expressed in this House about the determination of these procedures.

There was also a strong feeling in the Dáil that the two awarding councils should consult with providers in the performance of their functions. Amendments in this regard were made.

It is an important function of each of the three bodies to be set up under this Bill that they inform themselves of the relevant needs of business and industry. Amendments made in the Dáil provide, inter alia, that when informing themselves of the education and training needs of industry, the professions and the public service, the respective awarding council shall consult with the authority. The aim in this regard is to ensure that the respective roles of the new bodies are clear. Amendments were also made to refer specifically to the tourism industry in this regard.

There were also a number of further amendments in the Bill to underpin the consultative approach to the operation of the Bill. In section 24, the Minister may only designate an educational and training institution as a recognised institution of the higher council with the agreement of the institution concerned and having consulted with the recognised institutions. This measure effectively ensures that an institution cannot be designated a recognised institution without its consent.

In section 31, the academic council of a recognised institution is now included among those to be consulted in the preparation of a charter by a recognised institution.

In section 52, in relation to the transference of existing NCEA staff to the new bodies and in the secondment of staff as provided for in the Bill, the Minister will consult fully before making any orders or directions. The Minister must inform the person or employee concerned, and any recognised trade union or staff association concerned, of such intended transfer or secondment and the Minister shall consider any representations made to him or her in this regard within a specified timeframe. In the case of all such employees, they shall not receive less remuneration or less beneficial terms and conditions of service than previously enjoyed.

In section 8, policies established by the Minister under subsection (3) must now also be put by notice in writing to the authority following an amendment made by the Dáil.

There was some discussion on the role of each of the awarding bodies in the certification or recognition of the existing knowledge, skill or competence of learners. It was clear that learners may also approach the new awarding councils directly to seek certification or recognition for their existing knowledge, skill or competence. The issue was raised that it was not clear in the provisions of the Bill that one of the awarding bodies could seek the assistance of a provider in this regard. Amendments agreed in the Dáil clearly set out that either of the awarding bodies may seek the assistance of relevant providers in this regard.

Further amendments were included to effectively allow for the continuance of arrangements made or entered into by recognised institutions under section 5(1)(b) of the Regional Technical Colleges Act, 1992, for a period of up to five years, with the agreement of the authority and the respective awarding council. Section 5(1)(b) of the Regional Technical Colleges Act allowed the then Regional Technical Colleges enter various arrangements for the making of awards. A similar provision is in place for awards of the NCEA, NCVA, FÁS, NTCB and Teagasc allowing for a transition period of five years.

Further amendments to the Bill provide for instances where one provider organises or procures education and training which is provided in whole or in part by another provider. Examples of this would be apprenticeship, for which FÁS has a clear statutory responsibility and which is provided in part by institutes of technology. Other examples are craft courses which are provided in the institutes and organised at a national level by CERT.

Under the amendments the main provider, organiser or procurer must consult with the other provider when seeking validation for a programme of education and training. Furthermore, amendments set out that relevant quality assurance procedures must be agreed between the two providers. This issue is also relevant to the possible delegation of authority to certain providers to make awards – FÁS, CERT and Teagasc in relation to further education and training awards and recognised institutions in relation to higher education and training awards.

Under the amendments, providers who provide, organise or procure a programme which is provided in whole or in part by another provider must consult with that other provider in advance of seeking the delegation. Furthermore, when the conditions are being set for delegation, the awarding council must have regard to any arrangements for organising and procuring programmes that the provider seeking delegated authority has.

In general these amendments are aimed at achieving effective consultation and co-operation between respective providers where areas of responsibility overlap. Such consultation and co-operation are, I believe, both central and vital for the effective operation of the entire education and training system. There were also some amendments relating to procedures for quality assurance. In the case of providers with programmes validated by either of the two awarding councils, or providers which have authority delegated to make awards, these must be agreed with the relevant awarding council. In the case of the Dublin Institute of Technology or a new university established under section 9 of the Universities Act, the procedures are to be agreed with the authority.

The amendments set out that a provider shall have regard to existing quality assurance arrangements, where these are applicable, in devising the new procedures required under the Bill. This recognises that many providers already have quality assurance systems in place and that these are relevant to one of the principal aims of the Bill, which is to continue and build upon existing best practice.

The issue of the role of the existing universities was also debated in detail in the Seanad. The Dáil agreed to amendments to provide that an existing university shall, without prejudice to its objects and functions under the Universities Act, co-operate and assist the authority in carrying out its functions and to advise it as regards the exercise of its functions under section 8 of the Bill in so far as these relate to a university. I believe that these amendments further clarify the relationship between the existing universities and the authority as provided for in the Bill.

There was much debate on Committee Stage in the Dáil on the right of the bodies to be set up to get information relevant to the performance of their functions. In particular, all Deputies highlighted the issue of information on completion rates. On Report Stage in the Dáil it was agreed to specifically refer to completion rates in the information that may be sought by the councils or the authority and to define completion rates in a broad way.

Furthermore. the issue of the provision of information by any of the new bodies to be set up under the Bill to the Houses of the Oireachtas was discussed on Committee Stage and amendments were agreed on Report Stage to ensure that the Houses could seek appropriate information.

Amendments were also agreed requiring the policies and criteria of both councils in relation to validation and making awards to be published and regularly reviewed. Furthermore, amendments were agreed requiring that the criteria, which each of the two awarding councils shall determine for the reviews leading to the delegation of authority, be published. The development of provisions for the protection of learners was also raised. It is very important in this Bill that the issue of protection of learners be addressed. This is a pressing matter for learners in the commercial education and training sector. The aim of the provisions in the Bill is to provide a measure of protection for learners who avail of education and training provided by bodies established on a commercial, profit-making basis.

I indicated in the Seanad that I would be open to any constructive suggestions for amendments in a way that would ensure that the interests of learners with awards made by the new awarding bodies in private commercial institutions are protected. I further indicated that I looked forward to returning to this House to discuss this issue further.

The amended Part VII of the Bill provides that in order to achieve certification from the two awarding councils, commercial profit-making providers will be required to have in place arrangements to ensure that learners can be provided with the education and training service which they have paid for or, if this is not possible, that the learners can be refunded moneys paid.

The nature of the arrangements is to be agreed between the commercial institutions and the awarding bodies. Given that the most important issue is that the learner is enabled to complete a programme, the Bill provides that this is the preferable option. Otherwise, a refund of the most recently paid fees would be made. In addition, and without prejudice to the obligations of the providers, the two awarding councils will be obliged to make efforts to find replacement provision for learners who suffer from such an insolvency.

It must be borne in mind that these commercial providers are not obliged to have their provision certified by the two awarding councils. These protections will also apply for learners in private commercial colleges where validation of a programme is withdrawn.

There were also a number of technical amendments to the Bill. In relation to the review process leading to the delegation of authority to make awards which is set out in sections 19 and 29, the review process will be twofold. Initially, the body which is seeking delegated authority will conduct an internal review. Where the council and the authority are satisfied with such a review, further evaluation shall ensue by persons with relevant knowledge and experience. The intent of this provision is to ensure that independent assessment and evaluation is an integral part of the process of delegating authority to make awards. A report on the findings of these evaluations shall be published.

However, on careful examination of the provisions, it was not clear from the provisions of section 19(4) and section 29(4) that the initial evaluation is a self-evaluation by the body which is seeking the delegated authority, as was clearly my intention, building on the existing process under way in the interim review group chaired by Professor Dervilla Donnelly. Therefore, the Dáil agreed to amendments to make this clear in sections 19 and 29.

There were some technical amendments to sections 39 and 42 allowing for greater flexibility in the timescale when reviewing the effectiveness of quality assurance procedures in the Dublin Institute of Technology and any new universities that may be established under section 9 of the Universities Act.

There were also some amendments relating to the review role of each of the two new councils, after a programme is validated. Amendments were agreed to make this role explicit in sections 16 and 26.

The Dáil also agreed to amendments to provide that the maximum period of time that an interim chief executive could be in place in any of the bodies would be three years. The Dáil further tightened up the wording of section 51(3).

There was also a technical amendment to a collective citation. This amendment arises because of the Regional Technical Colleges (Amendment) Bill, 1999, which was passed by the Houses before this Bill. As a result of the amendment the collective citation will cover that Bill, relevant parts of this Bill and the other Regional Technical College Acts.

This Bill, which has now been considered in detail by both Houses, creates an enabling rather than a prescriptive framework which is concerned with promoting the quality of provision and mobility of learners of all kinds. 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 look forward to further discussion with Senators of the amendments made by Dáil Éireann and I anticipate their further support for this important Bill.

Will the Minister explain the thinking behind amendment No. 37 to section 13 which proposes to delete the words "education and training institutions" and substitute "educational or training institutions"? Does the amendment give a more prominent role to VTOS and Youthreach, as I proposed on Committee Stage?

The amendment was necessary to ensure consistency with the terminology used earlier in the Bill. Youthreach comes predominantly under the aegis of second level certification, although students attending Youthreach could access programmes provided under the Further Education and Training Awards Council. The Senator may be assured that it is the intention of the Bill to cover all forms of education and training irrespective of the venue or location or the nature of the awards.

I welcome the Minister's response. I reiterate the importance of Youthreach and such organisations and congratulate them on their great work. Obviously a great deal of time, work and effort has gone into the Bill. I support it and compliment the people concerned. I may raise one or two matters before it is passed, but in general I have no difficulty with it.

I welcome the Minister to the House. It is regrettable that we do not have a longer period in which to examine all the 99 amendments. Obviously, the Bill has been substantially amended in the Dáil. There is not much sense in going through the amendments one by one because we have already dwelt on related elements. I do not intend putting the Minister through that agonising process.

From what the Minister said, it appears the Bill has been strengthened considerably as a result of the teasing out it received in the Dáil in terms of its function in providing quality assurance and access. The international dimension, to which the Minister referred, is interesting. The qualification procedure is being inserted in an international context and the term "as far as practicable" will be deleted, and it will involve a person with international experience.

I also welcome the wider provision for consultation with all the parties and the recognised institutions before they are designated. I am pleased the measure regarding the provision of information and the protection for learners has been strengthened in the commercial sector and that the people concerned will now receive alternative education or a refund. That area certainly requires strengthening.

On the question of social partnership, the third strand is represented. The Minister has taken that on board by providing a representative of the voluntary and the community sectors and a representative of FÁS. That also strengthens the Bill.

We argued about gender equity in this House and the matter also took up some time in the other House. I expect section 66 will provide a reasonable mechanism to deal with that matter.

The provisions regarding co-operation by the providers are particularly important. It is important that there will not be an overlap of activities and that people in each institution know what another institution is providing. I wonder to what extent all the areas will be covered. We bemoaned the fact that the Dublin Institute of Technology, in particular, lost out on the extent of the contribution it made to the quality of apprenticeships, craft work and skills, that there is a severe shortage of such skills, particularly in the building industry and that this area was neglected by the third level institution. Will the Minister comment at some stage on how the apprenticeships will work? Will the role of FÁS be diminished in terms of the third level sector? Will FÁS be the mainstay of provision in that regard? If that is the case, how will the Minister guarantee the quality which was clearly evident in the Dublin Institute of Technology sector, which provided a substantial apprenticeship regime across the board and fine skills? We have made a mistake in the direction we have taken in this regard. We have diminished rather than enhanced the quality of apprenticeships.

The inclusion of completion rates is welcome. We were always concerned about the very high level of non-completion rates in third level insti tutions, particularly in the institutes of technology and regional colleges. It is important that a mechanism exists through which completion rates can be determined in terms of the number of learners who start programmes and drop out of them at some stage. The availability of such information will assist us in improving our policies.

Overall, the amendments made in the Dáil will strengthen the Bill considerably. I welcome the amendments to section 4 in regard to the objects of the Bill and the fact that greater emphasis has been placed on lifelong learning, research, training and employment. The extension of the Bill's remit in this area is very important. The strengthening of provisions in regard to qualifications, consultation, gender and overall objectives is certainly beneficial. We will be delighted to approve the amendments.

I thank Senators for their contributions. I already referred to a number of points raised by Senator McDonagh. I agree with Senator Costello's comments on the Bill's refinement and improvement as it went through both Houses. In terms of apprenticeships, the provisions in the Bill will enhance co-operation between providers. There has always been a strong relationship between FÁS and the institutes of technology on apprenticeship training. The Bill enhances considerably the question of apprenticeships in that, for the first time ever, we are creating a qualifications framework into which apprentices, having completed their apprenticeships, can feed, proceed into other sectors or further enhance their awards. The framework will result in a clear recognition of what apprentices' awards constitute in relation to all other awards and levels of awards.

Nothing will change in terms of the manner in which apprenticeship training is organised as a result of this Bill. We have doubled the number of apprenticeships over the past 18 months. There has been a significant increase in provision across the board in many institutes throughout the country. A significant apprenticeship programme is in place in the Dublin Institute of Technology, although there are certain physical constraints. We are seeking ways to expand the Dublin Institute of Technology's accommodation. We have always made it clear to the Dublin Institute of Technology, as it has to us, that apprenticeship is viewed as an integral part of the college's activities. The Bill is very important in that respect in that it seeks to retain the binary system in Irish higher education and reinforce the concept of multi-level provision in terms of apprenticeship, certificate, diploma and degree awards.

The technological sector must continue to provide multi-level awards for the benefit of learners, industry and the wider economic needs of society. In many ways, the Bill underpins that concept of multi-level provision within a binary context. It also facilitates, as does the Universities Act, colleges attaining higher status. However, as they move forward, colleges must retain a commit ment to multi-level provision and to their original mission statements. I have been particularly consistent in that regard in my dealings with the institutes of technology and the technological sector in general. It is extremely important that people celebrate what they are doing, rather than try to be like other people. I am not suggesting that is still happening but there was a tendency for it to happen in the past.

The key point about this Bill is that learners will benefit more than the providers and that is as it should be. It is important that international best practices are explicitly outlined in the Bill, although the attainment of such practices was always implicit. On the issue of consultation between the Minister and the authority in terms of policy, Senators expressed the view that consultation should take place. We accepted an amendment on that and proceeded to state that the Minister must always notify the authority in writing of policies as they are established from time to time.

I agree with all the issues raised by Senator Costello in terms of the provisions on lifelong learning and completion rates. Four institutes of technology already provide information on completion rates and have undertaken surveys in that regard. We want all third level institutions to do that. The Higher Education Authority is currently undertaking a survey with the universities and the institutes of technology in an attempt to get a proper read on retention rates in first, second and third years of degree programmes. It is important that we receive information on an annual basis on the number of students who are proceeding through the system and the number dropping out of third level. We must identify the reasons for the drop-out and develop interventions to address them. For the first time ever, funding has been set aside to enable institutes of technology and universities to improve their retention rates. That may involve providing resources for mentoring and additional tutorials, particularly in first year, to assist students through the difficult transition from second to third level education.

Question put and agreed to.
Question proposed: "That the Bill do now pass."

We are always delighted to initiate legislation, such as this Bill, in this House. A considerable number of changes were made to the Bill before it left the Seanad. As the Minister stated, Senators' recommendations were taken on board when the Bill was being dealt with in the other House. The manner in which this Bill is going through the House this morning reveals the high esteem in which the Minister and his officials are held by Senators.

I concur with Senator Fitzgerald's comments. We are proud that the Bill was initiated in this House and we have a great deal of respect for, and confidence in, the Minister. This is very important legislation that will have a major and constructive impact on training and education. We had a great deal of discussion on Second and Committee Stages. Today, we are merely finalising the Bill. As an adult education organiser, I am very pleased with the Bill. I commend the Minister and his officials.

I, too, compliment the Minister and his staff on the production of this fine legislation. It is very important that we have quality assurance in further and higher level education and that a framework is put in place to ensure that. I compliment the Minister on his willingness to take on board Members' suggestions, his openness in discussing matters and his considerable knowledge of the issues involved. I also compliment his officials on a job well done.

I thank Senators for their kind comments. I always look forward to initiating Bills in this House and I certainly enjoyed the discussion on this one. I thank Senators for facilitating me at all times in the passage and progression of legislation which I have brought before the House and for their informed and constructive comments. I thank them and the Acting Chairman for their co-operation. I also thank my officials who have laboured long and hard on this Bill. We are relieved that it has been passed. I can think of many more people in Marlborough Street who are particularly relieved that it has been passed by both Houses of the Oireachtas.

On behalf of the Chair, I thank the Minister and his officials.

Question put and agreed to.