The Irish government has now introduced the long-awaited legislation on educational quality and standards. The Qualifications and Quality Assurance (Education and Training) Bill 2011, which has the purpose of amalgamating a number of public agencies and taking over the functions of the Irish Universities Quality Board, has now been published.
The original impetus for this legislation, signalled by the last Fianna Fáil-led government, was a budgetary one, and was part of the decision to rationalise the public service agency landscape. In this particular instance the idea was that all those agencies dealing with quality and standards in post-secondary education should be brought under one umbrella. This intention was first announced in 2008, so the implementation has not proceeded at what one might call a good pace. However, the Fine Gael/Labour coalition has continued with the plan, though one original intention – to dissolve that National University of Ireland – was dropped. So we are now to have a new agency, to be called the Qualifications and Quality Assurance Authority of Ireland (QQAAI, perhaps not the finest acronym one might wish for). As an aside, this continues the practice in Ireland of naming such agencies an ‘Authority’, which suggests a particular, and maybe rather outdated, directive approach to public service.
One concern that might have existed about the proposed legislative framework was that by mixing the quality assurance process of the university sector with quality and standards in other educational bodies, the autonomy of the university system and its particular ethos and mission might be compromised. The Bill may reassure in that respect, at least in so far as there is special provision throughout for what are described as ‘previously established universities’. These will continue to operate their own quality assurance processes, subject however to obligations of consultation with and information provided to the new Authority (section 28).
So are there still points of concern? Possibly. One would be that the system will be run by an agency which will not primarily be concerned with universities, and which may either not have the resources to focus on them sufficiently, or may find it easier to apply assumptions more appropriate to non-university bodies. The latter risk may be augmented by the uncertainty as to what will happen to the existing staff of the IUQB, which is not technically being merged into the new body. Another concern is that the new Authority, under the proposed statutory provisions, may possibly be under pressure to operate in a rather bureaucratic way.
The proof of this particular pudding will certainly be in the eating. It will be important to ascertain how the QQAAI will work in practice. One promising aspect at least is that its chief executive will be Dr Padraig Walsh, formerly of DCU and most recently the chief executive of the IUQB. His influence on the culture of the new body may ensure that it operates in a way that respects university autonomy and encourages a positive approach to quality assurance and enhancement.