I thank the Senators for their contributions and consideration of the Bill. I have made notes of the points made and anything that has not been satisfactorily discussed can be on Committee Stage. I hope to be back in the House next month for Committee Stage and I will present a number of technical amendments.
I thank Senator Power for the support of the Fianna Fáil Party. I recognise that this Bill originated with a Fianna Fáil Minister some years ago and we are now building on that work on which there is broad consensus.
The issue of quality assurance and the role of students is very important. I have said elsewhere that I regard the involvement of students in modern day terms as having three phases. The first phase was in the 1960s when we were out on the street, barely tolerated and regarded as pups, and which resulted in confrontation. As John Hume famously said, the trick about street politics is knowing when to come in off the street. The begrudging recognition — which varies in different colleges — of the need for student representation, is more or less given under duress rather than as a right of place.
I refer to the appointment by the Minister of the day to the boards of the universities of, not so much a token student, but a lone student, in the case where everybody needs a seconder on a board for support. I take the point made that bringing students in from the street and putting them on the board and then ignoring them is not desirable. I have asked USI and IFUT to provide representation on the student appeals board under the student support legislation which has been enacted. I regard the third stage of student engagement as being the quality assurance. Students are partners in the education system to which they contribute and they are entitled to good service. The occupation of the school of architecture in UCD in which I played a role, along with others, was about that very point. We were not doing it for fun. We were in danger of losing the international recognition which was tantamount to an international degree in those days, pre-Bologna process and pre-everything else, with the consequence that we would have less earning power and that our degree would not be recognised abroad, in the case where half of the college's 30 students used to emigrate out of choice in order to gain experience or out of necessity if the economy was not going well.
Students are the direct consumers and have a role to play in ensuring excellence in standards and this point was made by Senator Barrett. Among the younger generation of academics there is a recognition that students are partners in the education process and not subjects within it.
Senator Barrett referred also to policies on access and transfers. This is an important point. Currently, one third of entrants into the university system are not coming through the points system which is the traditional route for second-level students. This varies from college to college and from place to place but the likelihood is that as access programmes are advanced — Trinity College probably led the way as regards access programmes — and improved, one will see a diversity and an increase in the non-secondary school route into college. I do not believe one can have a knowledge economy without a knowledge society and such a society requires the availability of lifelong learning.
As regards the international dimension, I supported the previous Administration's policy and we have built on it. We regard the international student body not just as a cash cow, because this attitude would be very damaging from all points of view and we would not get away with such an attitude. There are three reasons for actively progressing the internationalisation of our university structures. Ireland is a very homogenous society and the cohort of people in the university system is a social minority. It is important to include people from different backgrounds and cultures. The learning abilities of some of the international students show up some of our own students in an unfavourable light. The introduction of international students at either undergraduate or postgraduate level, raises the game for everybody.
International lecturers and participants are also to be welcomed. Yesterday in his address, to which Senator Bacik referred, the Provost of Trinity College, Professor Prendergast, said that half the staff in Trinity College is composed of people from countries from all over the world. Education itself has been internationalised. The Internet has facilitated collaboration and the exchange of academic papers. For those reasons I will be taking up the points made.
There has been an improvement in the issuing of visas by the Department of Justice and Equality to allow foreign students to attend university. I am informed there is a speedy recognition of visas at a percentage rate of 92%. Senator D'Arcy is correct that the experience is not universal. One can speculate on the reason but the experience of Indian and Nepalese students in obtaining visas is different from that of the Chinese students. This will need to be investigated.
I welcome Senator D'Arcy back to the House. He spoke about the large number of students and the potential for internationalisation, in particular, in the development of the sector for learning English as a foreign language. We aim to deal with any of the barriers to this sector, in so far as is possible. I was very taken with his reference to universities no longer being like those in Brideshead Revisited. I do not know what Senator D’Arcy does with his teddy bear but I never had one. He also spoke about the necessity to use best international practice to raise the standard of Irish universities and I support this view.
Senator Zappone made a number of points and I will try to refer to all of them if possible. Those points I do not deal with can be discussed on Committee Stage. She spoke about the Hyland report and the issue of duplication of courses. There has been an extraordinary inflation in the system. I did not realise until I became Minister for Education and Science that the State Examinations Commission sets the leaving certificate papers and provides for their examination while the Department, through the NCCA, sets the syllabus. However, the CAO is a privately-owned company, owned by seven universities. It allows other institutions to use its services but the CAO has effectively, through its joint owners, added to the system. The number and range of alternative courses has increased 300%. This has then allowed colleges to privately boast that they are in the top league because their courses need 500 points for entry. This also forces young people to make career choices at a very early stage. I received an e-mail today from a guidance counsellor and maths and chemistry teacher, who pointed out that approximately 10% of people starting fifth year actually know what they want to do or have a clear idea of what to study. When they fill up the CAO forms the following year, at age 17, they are being asked to make a choice between law with German or law with Sanskrit but they may want to simply to get into that space rather than commit to something specific.
Years ago, the UCD school of engineering — the old college of science is now part of Government Buildings — offered a generic general foundation course in the first year. People got a flavour of the course and could then opt for specialisation into civil, construction, mechanical, chemical or electric engineering. If we consider the paper published earlier today by the Irish Universities Association as a contribution to tomorrow's conference, we may be seeing a change and a response to the paper that Professor Hyland spoke about.
We already discussed access and second-chance education, including recognition of prior learning. I know Senator Barrett was concerned about the impact on the university sector or even one particular university. The purpose of this legislation is to examine the entire third level sector, which was not possible before, although there was a general recognition that we needed one body. There are savings to be achieved and the process has been ongoing for some time. To answer the Senator's question, there is now a designated CEO, who has been there for some time. There will not be the kinds of costs for termination of salaries spoken about by Senator Ó Clochartaigh.
Senator Zappone spoke about the importance of progression for all learners and recognition, in particular, of the needs of adult learners. I have spoken to people with a third level qualification in this respect and as Senator Moran indicated, in going back to college after 20 years one may find it a very different place. Making an allowance for somebody in this respect is something of which to be conscious.
The parity of esteem between further and higher education is critical. This country was riven with academic snobbery in the teaching profession, for example. When somebody applied to a training college years ago, the famous term was the "call to training" when that person was accepted. Secondary school teachers, who had a university degree, tended to look down their nose at people who did not have a degree. That informed relationships between various unions and also had an extraordinary impact on the relationship at second level between vocational education on the one hand — or in the techs, to give them a generic name — and in secondary schools. Fortunately, we have moved on.
Part of the consequence, however, was that when training colleges became colleges of education attached to universities, the Teaching Council discovered that there was an assumption that they were part of the university experience. The reality is that the Teaching Council did a recent consultancy report on Mary Immaculate College in Limerick where there was a feeling that the college was teaching subjects at an academic level that would never be appropriate for a primary school experience. There was far too little emphasis on pedagogical skills. That has come up in some of the other contributions, which I will refer to later.
Senator Zappone also referred to the security of a college opening and providing a course on a commercial basis but subsequently going out of business. In these cases students' fees are lost. From my experience of the building industry — the travel agency business is a similar sector — we could probably deal with that best with a bond. If a course goes belly up there could be a financial provision to compensate people damaged by that act. I would be open to considering such a feature.
I have already referred to the points made by Senator Mary Moran. I will return to this House with legislative proposals to give effect to SOLAS, which has an Irish name as a full title. The relationship of this piece of legislation to the new authority, SOLAS, will provide for the first time a structured authority in the higher and further education space. To use a shorthand description, which might be dangerous, it will become the equivalent in the further education sector of the Higher Education Authority in the university sector and for institutes of technology. When the two pieces of legislation are in place we will have a solid piece of infrastructure, in educational terms, in that space. After that it will be a case of getting on with the business of providing education and ensuring outcomes are positive.
Senator Bacik referred to the speech by the Provost of Trinity College. Trinity is still the best known university. It is 419 years old and one of the oldest universities in Europe. It is well known internationally. I recall the angst coming from the city centre in 1999, when the university legislation was going through. Many of the prophets who foresaw the end of civilisation as it was known have been reasonably surprised at how that Armageddon did not arrive in the manner suggested by some.
We must get the balance right in that there is a necessity for some oversight of an independent institution while allowing for the autonomy of that institution to flourish. With a venerable institution like Trinity College as opposed to Dublin City University or the University of Limerick, which are less than 40 years old, there is a different tradition and sensitivities may be stronger. I say to Senators Bacik and Barrett that whatever was embedded in the culture on Marlborough Street to which they referred, or the attitude of the Higher Education Authority, which deals more directly with universities, that is certainly not my intention.
If practices or attitudes are evident of which I am unaware, the Senators can let me know. By the same token, when certain specific instructions and requirements attached to funding are conveyed to those institutions, we expect at minimum those conditions would be adhered to. There should be an honest dialogue if there are difficulties in adhering to the conditions as it is in none of our interests to have misapprehension or misunderstanding in either direction. I hope that will not happen and I do not intend to compound the issue in a difficult or counter-productive fashion.
Senator Bacik also raised the question of how section 31 will work and we will probably discuss this in more detail on Committee Stage. There was also a question concerning bogus colleges. The word "university" is protected here and permission must be given to use the description. Some colleges have put their addresses on websites and offered courses intimating that the institution is a university; at the time a few years ago I hoped the Department would take a more proactive line than it did. In one case discussions have been initiated and action will be taken. We must protect the reputation of our seven universities, the DITs and other colleges in the third level sector.
There was a question on membership of the board, and Senator Barrett mentioned increases in bureaucracy in the management of universities. In some respects that is a matter for universities. I know how strident the Senator has been in the past and respect that point of view. The absence of academics on the Hunt report is something I regretted.
I am perhaps wrongly quoted but I am responsible for that myself because I said that the Hunt report was the only report we had. This was at its launch in January 2011 in the convention centre. It took a long time to put together. It stalled in the system for three or four months because the junior partner in the previous Government could not agree to some components of it. Like all reports, it is the veritable curate's egg. The last thing I wanted to do was to find fault with its contents and then look for a new report. I wanted to go with pieces in it without necessarily accepting all of its recommendations and get on with the job of reforming, modernising and improving the third level sector. The academic input into this is important. The Senator used an interesting phrase when he described the culture of the university as "collegiate rather than managerial". We might explore what is meant by that on Committee Stage.
I have the power under the Bill to appoint board members. In a previous Ministry I had the opportunity to appoint a full board de novo and I appointed a team with different skills and voices representing a balanced overview of the area they looked after. In this instance, the board will cover the entire sector and, therefore, I would like to appoint people with a knowledge of different aspects of the third level sector. The reason I am not nominating stakeholders is, for example, if the Irish Universities Association nominates someone, the person will feel he or she has to represent the views of that organisation. If people have a knowledge of the sector but are appointed in their own right, they will not necessarily be beholden to the university sector or the sectors they come from. I hope to reflect the entire spectrum of the education system and that students, administrators, staff and academics will be able to recognise a kindred spirit or somebody who at least understands their role in the higher education system. I assure the House no thought has been given to the composition of the board.
I look forward to amendments from Senators on Committee Stage. I will examine the question of court cases and the autonomy of the CAO and why we want those powers.
Senators Keane and Zappone referred to the application of prior learning and how that would be recognised and to the savings that will be generated by these proposals. Senator Ó Domhnaill welcomed the decision in which I took an active part to retain the NUI. A key element in the internationalisation strategy for Irish education is a college with a national reputation. We are dealing with parts of the world, for example, the Middle East, which are quite statist in their approach. The Royal College of Surgeons of Ireland is recognised and validated by the NUI. The NUI provides a benchmark, quality and comfort that we should not jettison because it no longer applies in the way it did in 1909 when colleges were established.
The cost of third level education for parents with a number of children in college was also referred to by Senator Ó Domhnaill. My first thought was that it was unfortunate that each student found a course in three different universities when he recounted his clinic case. This is a problem but parents make extraordinary sacrifices to give their children an education. I recall when I was struggling years ago as an architectural student, trying to get my head around the periodic table, my father saying to me that I should keep studying and not give up because no matter how difficult I would find it, no bank or recession or economic downturn can take away my qualification. Very few of his generation had gone to third level college and his advice is apposite now. A qualification is costly and how it is paid for is secondary. Third level education costs money and how we, as a society, fund it is a secondary issue but part and parcel of the difficulty, according to the Provost of Trinity College, Dr. Prendergast, is the ratio of academic staff to students has deteriorated in the academic sphere. This is one of the criteria measured by the QS world university rankings and other agencies and we have to be conscious of its impact.
I thank all the Members for their contributions. I look forward to Committee Stage.