The Bill is a timely and important tranche of legislation to protect the reputation of all aspects of higher education in this country. It also protects the students whose families often make extensive efforts to provide English language and other third level education, including students from outside the European Economic Area.
As colleagues have mentioned, the protection of teachers or workers in the sector is vital. From looking at the Bill it seems the Minister of State has not included any additional sections in that regard. People will recall the collapse of Grafton College Dublin and the way people were left without wages and so on. That only happened a few months ago.
Last Saturday, The Guardian published its annual rating of approximately 80 British universities. The University of St Andrews in Scotland beat the University Oxford to second place. The University of Cambridge was first. I looked out for the position of my alma mater, the University of London. The analysis for The Guardian focused keenly on the experiences of students and the quality of teaching. I am not aware of a similar annual study of Irish third level institutions. Given this legislation that is perhaps an area where we need to look not only in terms of rating institutions but the overall quality of the work they do.
The British and Irish colleges all depend on large numbers of international students for significant income. They provide international students as well as our native students with a quality education that must be the hallmark of third and fourth level training.
The acute need for the Bill emerged following a decision by the High Court in 2015. The High Court held that QQI, established under the 2012 Act, did not have statutory powers to operate the accreditation and co-ordination of English language services scheme. The background to the High Court case was the well-publicised closure of several schools that offered diploma-type awards to international students. In the period from the spring of 2014 to early 2015 approximately 16 schools closed. We saw students marching in different parts of the city and throughout the country to highlight the amount of money that they and their families had spent on trying to get an education. In her judgment in 2015 Ms Justice Baker noted that students from outside the EEA could obtain a stamp 2 visa permitting them to remain in the State for 12 months. This involved studying part-time for six months and a further six-month period for full-time work. The judgment mentions and details poor standards and attendance records from some schools and a perception that some students were in fact economic migrants mainly interested in seeking work. Some went on to seek stamp 4 and full residency status in Ireland. All of us in the Chamber have experience of representing these students over the years, some of whom have acquired Irish citizenship. Ms Justice Baker pointed out the particular role that these schools have played in this area.
Under section 61 of the 2012 Act, Quality and Qualifications Ireland has powers to award the international education mark, a mark that can be displayed by an education provider to show that the college or school complies with standards, procedures and practices mandated by QQI. Section 25 of this Bill rightly expands and clarifies the powers of QQI to introduce and award the IEM. QQI has published the code of practice for provision of programmes of education and training to international learners. Section 25 will now put this code of practice for education providers on a full statutory footing. This is to be welcomed. Under section 25, QQI may also establish and publish different codes of practice for different relevant or linked providers or for groups of providers as well as for different classes of programmes. This is also welcome.
Just as in the UK, Irish higher education has derived considerable income from the teaching of international students, as my colleagues who spoke earlier have mentioned. An excellent Bills digest for this Bill was prepared by the Oireachtas Library and Research Service. It references the Central Statistics Office data on how the direct output of English language training in private and HEA-funded institutes was worth approximately €800 million in 2014-15. Further output effects of the sector produce an additional €800 million. This brings the figure in total to approximately €1.6 billion. It is Government policy to try to develop value in this sector to approximately €2 billion worth of net benefit to the economy by the coming academic year.
A core principle underlying the development is the protection of enrolled learners – the students themselves.
Section 65 of the 2012 Act made arrangements for QQI to protect these students where an education provider is unable to deliver a programme. Hopefully, this provision will be greatly strengthened by section 25 and the other sections of the Bill before us, including sections 27 and 28, and by the creation of the learner protection fund in particular. Section 29 replaces section 66 of the 2012 Act, and provides that in the event of a college programme default, the learner protection fund may be used by QQI to defray costs of completion of the enrolled learner programme, defray payment of fees for transfer onto another similar programme with a different provider or pay a refund to the enrolled learner. That section, and the creation of this fund, are very welcome.
Over the past decade or so, there has been an explosion of online services providing essays and reports for third-level student assignments, which Deputy Jan O’Sullivan referred to as well. Section 15, or the new section 43A of the 2012 Act, will attempt to address this development of what is effectively online cheating through crimes of impersonation and other attempts to cheat and unfairly manipulate exams. The new section 43A of the principal Act makes it an offence to provide or advertise cheating services, including undertaking assignments for an enrolled learner, sitting an examination in the enrolled learner’s place or providing answers for an exam without authorisation from an examiner. A number of studies have been carried out into contract cheating at third level, as the Bills digest tells us. Many show that jurisdictions like the UK, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the US have criminal legislation in place, but the laws have not been very effective so far. Some of the problems with implementing these types of laws are the international nature of contract cheating due to the Internet, and the fact that plagiarism may be difficult to prove or is sometimes regarded as a moral transgression, rather than fraud or a criminal act. The new section 43A provided for in section 15 of this Bill seems well justified and hopefully will be a basis for preventing some of this behaviour.
Section 36 of the Bill, which gives institutes of technology their own award-making powers, is also very welcome. However, doctoral awards are excluded from that provision. I did not hear the Minister of State’s introductory speech but I wonder on what is that exclusion based. My own belief, and that of many others, is that all citizens are entitled to third level education and that all of our key universities, technological universities and institutes should have full degree awarding powers.
The reforms encompassed by this Bill are timely. The events of four or five years ago, which led to the closure of colleges and the mistreatment of at least 3,000 mostly non-EEA students were totally unacceptable. Between 2010 and 2015, the number of those students in Ireland increased by almost 60% to around 33,000, with about 106,000 students in English language training institutions specifically. Deputy Lahart mentioned that if Brexit were to go ahead, which seems more likely now, we would be the only English-speaking country in the European Union. That is excluding the Netherlands, where English is more or less a second language, but we would be the only native English speakers. Hopefully, the measures before us will give QQI all the necessary powers to police and invigilate this sector, and any remaining problems with the Bill will be addressed by further presentations or on Committee Stage.