The strange case of Citywest, 750 Saudi students and the disputed contract


There was much fanfare when a new college, Citywest Institute of Education, unveiled ambitious plans last month to bring 750 Saudi students to Dublin. But the Saudi ministry for higher education deny all knowledge of the deal. What’s going on?

THE DRAMATIC ANNOUNCEMENT two weeks ago surprised many in education circles. Colourful property developer Jim Mansfield rolled out an ambitious vision: 750 Saudi Arabian students – 600 men and 150 women plus chaperones – would travel shortly to Mansfield’s newly established Citywest Institute of Education. The Mansfield Group claimed 293 new posts, 100 of them in teaching, will be created.

In all, the deal would generate an eye-catching €250 million over six-and-a-half years.

According to the group, the Saudi students will be housed in the empty apartments on the grounds of Citywest; they will “undertake English language and preparatory third-level courses at the purpose-built campus at Citywest”. The institute will be housed in a former shopping complex.

The Mansfield Group has applied to South Dublin County Council for planning permission to change the intended use of the buildings. A decision is due on March 25th. A letter sent to South Dublin County Council’s planning department in support of the application states: “The first Citywest College contract is with Saudi Arabia, brokered at Government level and is supported by third-level institutions.” However, a spokesperson for the Department of Education and Science stated that it is “not involved in bringing the project here”.

There is also a marked note of scepticism about the plans in education circles. Mansfield’s institute wrote to the Irish university presidents before Christmas, offering its services as a provider of university foundation courses for students at their institutions. The response to these letters was lacklustre. “We would never rely on an institute with no track record in education to prepare our students for university,” says one third-level insider.

That said, the involvement of the County of Dublin VEC – subcontracted to deliver the education to the students – did give the project some gravitas. The VEC has undeniable experience in delivering English and integration education courses to overseas students. However, no contracts have been signed even though the recruitment process has begun. The VEC will not comment on the controversy.

Government sources are worried that the isolated nature of the Citywest Institute of Education – students will live, eat and sleep on the Citywest campus – runs counter to Ireland’s policy on international students which is based on integration.

Indeed, the students themselves are going to be funded by the King Abdullah Scholarship Programme (Kasp). “Kasp itself has an ethos of openness and integration,” says a third-level source. “The whole point of it is for young Saudis to travel and to mix and integrate with other cultures. Citywest Institute of Education aims to do exactly the opposite. What’s the point of them being in Ireland? They could be in Dubai for that experience.”

There are currently 247 Kasp students studying in Ireland. It may be that Kasp student numbers are set to increase but few seem to know anything about it. The Department of Justice has received no communication about visas for these (the Mansfield) students so far.

“Normally I would expect a flurry of activity,” says Sheila Power, director of the Irish Council for International Students. “Two institutions had smaller groups of Saudi students and they would have spoken to us with regard to preparation and so on. That would be the context in which we would hear about something like this but, really, we don’t know anything about it.”

Prof Ghazy Almakky, the Saudi cultural attaché in London, supervises all of the Kasp students who come to study in the UK and Ireland. “I am aware of some students coming over in the next few months, but I am not aware of this ,” he says. “Nor am I aware of the contract that they are saying has been signed. I am the one who should know really.”

Last week, a statement appeared on the website of the Saudi ministry for higher education in which undersecretary of the ministry of higher education for scholarship, Dr Abdullah Al Mosa, denied the existence of any contract. “The claim that 750 students are going to study English at Mansfield Group’s Citywest institute is far from real,” he said, pointing out that the Mansfield institute is not accredited by the ministry and the ministry does not have a contract with the Mansfield Group.

As to what is actually going on, Sean Whelan, CEO of the Mansfield Group, is declining to comment for now.

The situation is a worrying one for those in education in Ireland. “There might be money in it in the short term but, really, I think we’ll end up losing out in the long term if the Saudi-Irish education relationship is damaged,” says one university insider.

WHO IS Jim Mansfield?

MANSFIELD, NOW aged 70, has always been an ambitious and somewhat unorthodox figure on the Dublin property scene. Worth an estimated €193 million according to the Sunday Times rich list, he made his fortune through canny land investments and property developments.

He bought Citywest for an estimated £1 million in 1994 and famously began building an enormous conference centre which was refused planning permission in 2004. A legal battle continued for a number of years before Mansfield was eventually granted retention by An Bord Pleanála four years later.

A similar dispute surrounded his Weston aerodrome which he began to modernise without getting full planning permission. Again he applied for retention in 2005.

Mansfield again hit the headlines in 2006 when police in Belgium found €7 million worth of heroin about to be loaded onto a plane that was bound for Weston. Mansfield had no idea that his plane and aerodrome was being used for smuggling drugs.