Displaced English language students still in limbo
Only a fraction of students whose English course was halted have been enrolled on new courses
Eden College students: Patrick Kashanga, Malawi; Bruno Francio, Brazil; Neo Odirile, Botswana; Innocent Kwerani, Malawi; Eduardo Cardoso, Brazil. Photograph: Dave Meehan
Hundreds of international students remain in limbo following the sudden closure of three schools providing English language courses in Dublin. It looks bad for a Government that has stated its intention to build Ireland’s reputation as a global education hub.
In an attempt to help the sector save face, the Irish Naturalisation Immigration Service (INIS) is making efforts to have displaced students placed in other schools but only a tiny fraction have been enrolled on new courses to date.
INIS representatives met a group of students to discuss their concerns this week, and offered assurances that their current visa status would not be affected. Their status as students, however, remains unclear.
According to the professional body representing the sector, Marketing English in Ireland (MEI ), which has been in operation since 1993, our international reputation was damaged before the current crisis, with key markets effectively closed to Ireland due to the irregular activities of a significant number of language schools.
David O’Grady of MEI represents 55 English language schools. An independent audit showed his members’ activities were worth €300 million to the Irish economy last year.
By his estimate, MEI members provide about 40 per cent of the courses listed on the Internationalisation Register. Students enrolled on these registered courses may apply for a Stamp 2 visa which allows them to work here as well as study. Approximately 30,000 of these visas are issued every year, although that number climbed this year to 35,000.
O’Grady says he can vouch for the way his members issue visas because they are all regulated and inspected by ACELS (Accreditation and Coordination of English Language Services).
Among the other 60 per cent, he says, there is some “murky” activity.
The Stamp 2 visa was introduced under the last government to help meet employer needs in the services industries in particular, and to bolster Ireland’s profile as an education destination for global students.
O’Grady claims the sector’s reputation has suffered gradual erosion over the last six or seven years due to the growing presence of language school operators who are are not committed educators, but are simply cashing in on demand for the Stamp 2 visa.
He says some schools offer English language courses at such a low price that quality providers cannot compete with them. However, he says, these schools have neither the capacity nor the resources to handle the number of students they enrol.
“They offer underpriced courses based on a tacit agreement that students can come to Ireland and work here, but not attend classes. Several potential markets for Ireland, chiefly Brazil, Venezuela and Korea, have been damaged by this practice. Because these schools market low-cost courses in these countries, Ireland has come to be seen as a low grade immigrant destination rather than a high quality education destination. There are many high quality schools here but, in Brazil and Venezuela at least, the market is more or less closed to us.”
Prior to the closure of Eden College, the Irish Business School and Kavanagh College, all three had courses listed on the Internationalisation Register, which meant that students enrolled on them could avail of the Stamp 2 visa and were allowed to work in Ireland for 20 hours a week while studying and 40 hours a week during holiday periods, provided they meet a minimum class attendance rate of 80 per cent.
Three other schools have had their visa-granting rights suspended by the Department of Justice following allegations that they may have falsified attendance records to allow students to avail of the Stamp 2 permit.
Dave Moore of the Irish Council for International Students (ICOS) says his organisation is now dealing with queries from 700 affected students. He says he will “not be surprised” if more English language schools close down.
“It’s widely known that there is scope for people running a school to meet a request from a student to provide documentation that would pass muster with authorities without attendance,” he says. “There are concerns about any number of additional small private colleges. We wouldn’t want to scaremonger but we are in a state of preparedness for more groups of students finding themselves in this situation.”
In relation to the 700 who have contacted ICOS, Moore said that INIS has committed to finding alternative programmes for these students but to date only a few have been placed.
“We are working with students who are weeks away from finishing the second year of a programme and they’ll have nothing to show for it.”
Moore says that while INIS is making some efforts for students, there is a lack of urgency at Government level. He is helping affected students to mobilise and put pressure on the authorities. A group met INIS last Monday and were given assurances that their visas would be honoured, but on the education side, there has been very little movement.
“There needs to be a sense of urgency and that needs to be communicated – it’s not currently visible to the students. IBS students have now missed a two weeks of classes and they want to see a path forward. They want to study.”
If the authorities are to protect quality language tuition services and the millions of euro they’re worth to the Irish economy, they need to cut out the rot without killing the patient. The Department of Justice says that “robust” reform is on the way.
“INIS officials, along with their counterparts in the education sector, have been reviewing the potential for broad-based robust reforms in recent months,” said a spokesperson for the department.
“A set of policy proposals are in the process of being finalised [that] will address issues such as colleges using academic programmes accredited by overseas bodies, the work concession for international students and the standards that will apply to the International Education Mark.”
MEI warns against abolishing the Stamp 2 visa altogether. “We are a small nation competing against much larger English language nations and the visa has given us an edge,” says O’Grady.
“What we need is to raise the bar so high for courses to get on to the Internationalisation Register that only those with a real focus on education can get through.”