I am pleased to bring the Qualifications and Quality Assurance (Education and Training) (Amendment) Bill 2018 before the Seanad. The Bill proposes to amend the Qualifications and Quality Assurance (Education and Training) Act 2012 which established Quality and Qualifications Ireland, QQI, as the national agency responsible for external quality assurance and qualification across the further and higher education sectors. The main purpose of the Bill is to further empower QQI as a regulator of quality and strengthen the agency's role in ensuring high standards across Ireland's education system. This important legislation will enable QQI to realise its potential, facilitate the introduction of deferred policies and clarify, strengthen and make more efficient the operation of existing policies.
I highlight for the House six key provisions of the Bill. The first relates to the listing of awarded bodies. The Bill will enable the expansion of the range of awards included in the national framework of qualifications, NFQ, by giving QQI explicit authority to list awarding bodies and include their qualifications in the framework. Qualifications such as those awarded by professional and international awarding bodies are offered by providers in Ireland, but currently they are unable to access the NFQ. The Bill addresses this issue by establishing a pathway for awarding bodies and their associated providers to engage with QQI to have their awards included in the framework, while also ensuring the quality standards of the NFQ are upheld.
The second key provision relates to the examination of the bona fides and financial capacity of providers. As part of strengthening QQI's quality assurance procedures, the Bill seeks to provide a legal basis for QQI to examine the bona fides and financial capacity of the providers with which it engages. This will enable it to assess a provider's capacity to provide programmes of education and training consistent with the quality assurance processes and procedures required by the 2012 Act. To conduct this assessment, QQI will be further empowered by means of statutory instrument to establish criteria addressing key issues such as legal personality, ownership and the corporate governance arrangements of providers. In addition, it will be empowered to examine whether adequate financial resources are in place to ensure the viability of these businesses.
The third key provision relates to the international education mark, IEM, which will be introduced on the enactment of the Bill. The IEM forms part of Ireland's international education strategy which aims to foster and strengthen Ireland's reputation as a destination of choice for international students. The IEM will serve as a crucial tool for Ireland's educational providers in underpinning the quality of our educational offerings. To obtain the IEM, providers will have to demonstrate compliance with key criteria and practices covering protections for enrolled learners, recruitment and admission, information provision, student welfare, cultural awareness and academic support provisions. Once it is in place, only providers authorised to use the IEM will be eligible to recruit international students. The Bill provides for variants of the IEM to reflect and respond to the demands of different types of educational provision. At the outset, there will be two initial forms of the IEM, one of which will apply to the higher education sector and other to the English language education sector.
The fourth key provision relates to the protection of enrolled learners. The Bill aims to provide for a more robust national scheme for the protection of enrolled learners, PEL. PEL will come into effect in circumstances where a provider ceases to offer a programme or trade. It is intended to ensure learners who commence a programme can be confident that they will be facilitated to complete the programme or, as a lesser alternative, receive a refund of fees paid should such an event occur. The current arrangements for PEL as required under the 2012 Act have fallen short of their objective and are no longer fit for purpose. The Bill proposes to replace the existing measures with the establishment of a learner protection fund. The fund will provide QQI with the necessary resources to manage PEL events. Should a provider cease to provide a programme, where necessary, the fund will be used by QQI to fund the teaching out of the original programme where possible; fund the payment of fees for the transfer of an enrolled leaner to a similar programme of another provider, or, where circumstances dictate, provide for a refund of fees to the learner. Those providers, the programmes of which are covered by the fund, would be required to pay an annual charge to QQI for PEL. The fund will be fully resourced by these charges. The level of the fee is intended to be as affordable as possible to avoid any undue imposition on providers and students, while also avoiding any risk transfer to the Exchequer. The precise details of the fund will be agreed following further consultation with stakeholders.
The fifth key provision of the Bill relates to the prosecution of cheating services. The Bill will provide QQI with powers to prosecute the provision or advertising of essay mills and other forms of academic cheating. Essay mills are services which supply to learners, in whole or in part, assignments which are required to be completed as part of a programme of education and training. These services are principally advertised online and have been a growing phenomenon in recent years. Such services present a challenge to the academic integrity of programmes and awards within the remit of QQI. The creation of offences for the provision and advertisement of these services will serve to prohibit the practice and make the services more difficult to access.
The sixth key provision relates to the awarding powers of institutes of technology. Currently, all institutes of technology, with the exception of the Dublin Institute of Technology, have delegated authority from QQI to make awards from level 6 to level 9 of the national framework of qualifications. By contrast, the universities, the Dublin Institute of Technology, DIT, and the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, RCSI, are designated awarding bodies, which means that they are self-awarding bodies. There is, therefore, a legislative difference in the relationship between QQI and the universities and the institutes of technology, respectively. The Bill addresses the legislative difference by providing for amendments to the Regional Technical Colleges Act 1992 to grant award-making powers, with the exception of doctoral awards, to all institutes of technology.
This will put the institutes of technology on an equal footing with the designated awarding bodies with which they are expected to establish regional and thematic clusters, as per the goals of the National Strategy for Higher Education to 2030. It will create a single, coherent quality assurance and qualifications space among public higher education institutions.
Having set out the policy context underpinning the development of the Bill, I will now turn to its contents. It comprises 36 sections divided into three Parts. Part 1 comprises sections 1 and 2 which contain standard provisions on the Short Title and commencement and provide a definition for use in the Act.
Part 2 comprises sections 3 to 34, inclusive, which address amendments to the Qualifications and Quality Assurance (Education and Training) Act 2012. Section 3 provides for amendments to section 2 of the principal Act which introduce new definitions and revise existing definitions under the 2012 Act. Section 4 amends the functions of Quality and Qualifications Ireland and includes specific statutory functions for the inclusion of awards within the national framework of qualifications and the listing of awarding bodies. Section 5 provides for the specific legislative function for QQI to share relevant information with other State bodies including the Higher Education Authority and SOLAS. Section 6 amends section 27 of the principal Act to provide for the periodic review and updating by QQI of quality assurance guidelines and for the issuance of different guidelines for different types of programmes, including for the new category of listed awarding bodies. Section 7 amends section 28 of the principal Act and contains provisions to clarify the scope of quality assurance procedures established by providers having regard to the guidelines issued by QQI. Section 8, as I have outlined, provides QQI with statutory powers to evaluate the bona fides and financial capacity of providers. Section 9 contains provisions to allow QQI to impose certain conditions on an education and training provider the quality assurance procedures of which it has approved.
Sections 10, 12 and 23 require QQI to consult SOLAS when conducting reviews of further education and training procedures. This runs parallel to existing provisions in the 2012 Act for consultation with the Higher Education Authority in respect of higher education institutions. Sections 11 and 17 provide for certain occasions when QQI can withdraw approval of quality assurance procedures and programme validation without conducting a review. Section 13 amends section 43 of the principal Act to provide a legal basis for the inclusion of awards made by designated awarding bodies, namely, the seven universities, Dublin Institute of Technology and the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, in the national framework of qualifications. It further provides for QQI to establish policies and criteria for awards to be included within the framework and for the establishment of different policies and criteria for different awards and different awarding bodies. Section 14 provides QQI with powers to prosecute the provision or advertising of essay mills and other forms of academic cheating.
Section 15 provides necessary amendments to facilitate the extension of the awarding powers of institutes of technology to include awards up to level 9 on the national framework of qualifications. As a result, institutes of technology will be required to apply for QQI validation for doctoral degree level awards only. Sections 16 and 34 amend sections 45 and 84 of the principal Act, respectively, to provide that QQI validation for all education and training programmes is time limited. Sections 18 and 22 contain provisions to authorise QQI to list awarding bodies and to include their qualifications in the national framework of qualifications. Section 18 provides for a transitional period of five years to facilitate existing arrangements between certain providers, such as institutes of technology and education and training boards, and awarding bodies other than QQI. Section 19 provides a technical clarification that learners seeking access to recognition of prior learning processes should apply in the first instance to an education and training provider rather than to QQI.
Section 20 provides for QQI to examine the suitability of a provider’s quality assurance procedures in the context of determining a provider’s request for delegated authority. It also provides for QQI to define a class of programmes for the purposes of delegating authority to enable a more focused approach to delegating authority where it is warranted. Section 21 amends section 53 of the principal Act to reflect the revisions to the national scheme for the protection of enrolled learners. Sections 24 to 26, inclusive, contain provisions to facilitate the introduction of the international education mark. Sections 27 to 30, inclusive, provide for the introduction of a new national scheme for the protection of enrolled learners, the related regulations, and for the establishment, governance and operation by QQI of the protection of enrolled learners fund.
Section 31 amends the obligations on a provider to inform enrolled learners of recognition of the award within the national framework of qualifications to refer instead to inclusion in the framework. This would allow for an associated provider of a listed awarding body to align with these statutory obligations. Section 32 provides for an exemption for the listing of junior certificate, leaving certificate and other post-primary programmes and awards from QQI’s database of awards. It was not the intention when making provisions for this database in the 2012 Act that those awards would be included. Section 33 amends section 80 of the principal Act to provide a legal basis for QQI to charge fees for certain existing services such as periodic quality reviews and for new functions contained in the Bill such as the assessment of applications to become a listed awarding body.
Part 3 comprises sections 35 and 36 which address amendments to other Acts. Section 35 amends the Regional Technical Colleges Act 1992 to provide for the granting of award-making powers, with the exception of doctoral awards, to all institutes of technology. Provisions are also included to strengthen the independent control of the academic councils of the institutes of technology to bring them into line with those of the designated awarding bodies. The autonomy of the academic decision making of the academic council and its independence from the governing authority is necessary to support its awarding powers. Section 36 provides for references to awards recognised within the national framework of qualifications in other Acts to be construed as awards included in the framework.
The Bill is an important step to underpin the quality agenda in Irish higher and further education.
The amendments that are being proposed will make QQI a stronger and more responsive regulator and will facilitate the introduction of key policy measures such as the international education mark and the learner protection fund. I hope Senators will agree that this is an important Bill. I look forward to listening to their views today and to debating this Bill further as it progresses through the Oireachtas. I commend it to the House.