I am pleased to introduce the Education (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2014. Its main purposes are to provide for the authorisation by the Minister of the use of the description "university" by a high quality education provider for specified purposes outside the State; to amend the Student Support Act 2011 to ensure the Minister has the power to prescribe post-leaving certificate, PLC, courses for the purposes of the student grants scheme; and to amend the Education Act 1998 to provide for a refusal of access to specified information that would enable the compilation of comparative information on relative school performance in terms of students' academic achievement.
I will address the legal framework for the use of the description "university". The Universities Act 1997 provides the legal framework for the operation and establishment of universities in Ireland. As part of this framework, a legal limitation on the use of the title "university" lies in section 52 of the Act. This section provides that, with the exception of the seven universities listed in the Act and any educational institution or facility established and described as a university before the end of July 1996, no person can use the word "university" to describe an educational institution or facility.
As for the rationale for this change, the programme for Government contains a commitment to "encourage more international students to study here and to create new jobs in the sector", with the particular aim of doubling the number of students from priority and emerging markets outside the European Union. In support of this aim, the international education strategy is being implemented to put in place the necessary policies and actions to support the development of internationally oriented, globally competitive higher educational institutions within Ireland. However, global competition for higher education is high. Increasing access to online information for students and their families, coupled with international marketing and recruitment campaigns, means that a growing number of educational institutions have international recognition worldwide. International recognition of the quality of the educational institution and the qualifications on offer is a key issue in attracting students to study in Ireland. Greater efforts are required at national and institutional level to enhance awareness of the national brand and promote understanding of what Irish institutions offer to prospective international students and partners in simple terms that are understood worldwide. In this context, it has become clear that the limitations prescribed by the Universities Act need to be re-examined. The use of section 52 does not serve to decide an application by an Irish institution that needs to convey the level and quality of its education abroad to an international audience. The Bill is required to put in place an applications process for an Irish institution to use the description "university" to convey the level and quality of its education.
It is, of course, of paramount importance to Ireland's internationalisation effort that the quality and reputation of our higher educational institutions remain fully intact. We are rightly proud to be leaders in Europe in terms of quality and the qualifications architecture put in place by legislation that I had the honour to introduce in the House just over two years ago. I will protect and enhance that reputation. The Bill ensures this opportunity will only be open to the highest quality providers. A provider's application to make awards to doctoral level will only be permissible where these awards are recognised in the national framework of qualifications. These strict criteria have been included to ensure a provider authorised to use the title for the specified purposes is offering education at a level recognised under the framework to be comparable to that offered by universities. In practice, these criteria mean that a qualifying provider will be subject to external quality assurance by Quality and Qualifications Ireland, QQI. A provider that applies must also have a strong internationalisation mission as its core focus and its ability to contribute to Ireland's strategic position on internationalisation is being constrained by a lack of understanding outside Ireland of its status. For this reason, an applicant provider must already have 40% of its registered student body in Ireland as non-EU students.
Supporting the export activities of our leading internationally oriented institutions also contributes to the Government's job creation agenda. International evidence indicates that high quality international education supports job creation and retention. The international education sector is a priority sector under An Action Plan for Jobs. Employment is created and supported through tuition fee income in educational institutions and student expenditure in the economy which boosts domestic demand. Estimates of the impact of international education on the economy usually range from approximately €800 million to €1 billion.
With this Bill I am also amending the Student Support Act. It is a short technical amendment clarifying the description of PLC courses under the Act. The provision of grants for students participating in further and higher education is provided for by way of secondary legislation through an annual scheme of grants and a set of regulations governed by the 2011 Act. The Act allows me to prescribe through regulation approved courses provided by approved institutions. Currently, an approved institution in the further education sector is one that receives a grant out of moneys provided by the Oireachtas, pursuant to a scheme administered by the Minister, for the provision of a PLC course. Following the transfer of the administration of these courses to SOLAS after its establishment this day last year, for clarity I propose to remove the current reference to PLC courses as being "pursuant to a scheme administered by the Minister". This will be addressed by way of a simple technical amendment.
Turning to the amendment of section 53 of the Education Act 1998, that section gives the Minister of the day the necessary powers to prevent the release of assessment and examination data held by bodies under the aegis of the Department of Education and Skills. Successive Governments have been of the view that access to such data would permit the creation and publication of crude league tables. Such tables would have the potential, particularly as they would not be contextualised, to be damaging to students, schools and the system as a whole. I support that view. While I also support the Freedom of Information Bill 2013 which significantly extends the range of public bodies that will come under the ambit of freedom of information provisions, it is necessary for section 53 to be amended to ensure the long-standing protection of examination and assessment data remains in place and that the issue of crude and distorting league tables does not arise. Within the spirit of the freedom of information legislation under consideration, however, I am taking a focused approach to amending section 53. The proposed amendment provides for the Minister for Education and Skills, in consultation with the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, to regulate prescription of access to the examination and assessment data held by specific listed bodies. Providing for regulation in this way gives flexibility by allowing the list of specific bodies to be amended by way of statutory instrument. The proposed regulations will only prescribe a limited list of public bodies such as the education and training boards, ETBs, ETB schools, ETB education and training facilities, the Education Research Centre and the National Council for Special Education, all of which hold examination and assessment information in the course of carrying out their functions. The amendment will also ensure the prohibition will apply only where it is necessary. Prescribed public bodies provided for in the amendment that currently release or share assessment and examination data with other public bodies for the purposes of research will continue to be able to do so, subject to ministerial approval or direction. Also, the existing provision that permits higher educational institutions such as universities and institutes of technology to release such information on the schools their student in-take attended will be maintained.
I turn to the Bill's key measures and main provisions, as set out in 11 sections.
The principal purpose of sections 2 to 5 is to provide the following: the authorisation of the use of the description "university" in limited circumstances outside the State for specified purposes; for review of the authorisation by an tÚdarás; for withdrawal of the authorisation by the Minister on the grounds that it is not being used for the specified purposes or that the provider no longer fulfils the qualifying criteria for application; and for an appeals board to hear appeals relating either to a Minister's decision to refuse to grant an authorisation or a decision to withdraw an authorisation.
The intent of the legislation, as drafted, is to strongly restrict eligibility on quality grounds and mission focus for this authorisation. Eligibility is restricted to the following: providers who are authorised under Irish law to make their own awards; providers who have doctoral degrees recognised through the National Framework of Qualifications; providers who have 40% of their student body enrolled in Ireland who are non-EU citizens and lawfully resident in the State primarily for education and training; and it excludes those with delegated authority to make awards such as institutes of technology and, potentially, private higher education institutions in the future.
The use of the title is also restricted in its geographical application and in the purposes for which it can be used. Use of the title is restricted to outside of the State and for the following purposes: to market programmes of education and training provided by the authorised provider, or research services of the authorised provider; and to enter into an arrangement with any person outside the State for the purposes of participating in a collaborative project relating to the provision of programmes of education and training, or research services.
Section 6 provides for an amendment to the Universities Act 1997 and will amend section 52 to ensure that an authorised provider, under this Act, is exempted from the prohibition on the use of the title in the Universities Act.
Section 7 provides for a refusal of access to specified information through an amendment of section 53 of the Education Act 1998, as amended by section 5 of the Education (Miscellaneous Provision) Act 2007.
The Education Act is amended by the substitution of a new section 53 which confers on public bodies, within the meaning of the Freedom of Information Act 1997, prescribed in regulations made by the Minister following consultation with the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, the necessary powers to refuse access to information which would enable the compilation of information in relation to the comparative performance of schools in respect of the academic achievement of their students or learners.
Section 8 amends section 7 of the Student Support Act 2011. It will reflect the Department's decision to transfer the administration of the PLC scheme to SOLAS on the basis of its general functions relating to further education and training under section 7(1) of the Further Education and Training Act 2013. This change will remove the reference in the legislation to PLC courses as "pursuant to a scheme administered by the Minister" in section 7 of the Student Support Act, thus ensuring clarity regarding the basis for prescribing PLC courses for the purposes of the student grant scheme.
Section 9 provides for the service of documents. Section 10 provides for the expenses of the Minister in the administration of the Act to be sanctioned and paid. Section 11 sets out the Short Title, collective citations and commencement provisions.
In conclusion, this Bill is an important step in promoting Ireland's ambitions for internationalisation and for the protection of the educational interests of our children. I hope that Senators will agree that this is an important and vital piece of legislation. I look forward to listening to the views of the Senators today and to further debate as the Bill progresses through the Houses of the Oireachtas. I commend the Bill to the House.