English language schools turning away students

More than 200 English Language Education (ELE) providers in State, according to Department of Education

English language schools nationwide are being forced to turn away thousands of overseas students due to the accommodation crisis.

It is estimated that there are in excess of 200 English Language Education (ELE) providers spread between larger scale, year-round providers and those that operate on a shorter, seasonal basis according to the Department of Higher Education.

The sector is largely ran by privately owned providers and is worth approximately €130 million annually to the Irish economy.

Kilkenny city, which is normally packed throughout the summer months with overseas language students, has seen numbers drop by 40 per cent.

Isha McDonald, the director of the highly respected Mackdonald Language Academy in Kilkenny, which is open year round, said her school has not taken in the normal number of students, “and that was even, prior to the Covid-19 pandemic hitting due to issues around accommodation”.

“Covid-19 has not helped both with accommodation provider and student fears and of course the war in Ukraine. Obviously many of our students from Russia and Ukraine haven’t returned.”

Ms McDonald’s sentiments are backed even more acutely by Kieron Mahon, Director of Active Language Learning based in Dún Laoghaire, Co Dublin for 35 years. The school which hosts more than 600 students annually said the industry is experiencing what he sees as a “perfect storm” thanks to Brexit.

“Brexit has really created the perfect storm I believe. Students who saw the UK as the place to study and learn English are now faced with having to get visas which is turning many away and all that business was being pushed Ireland’s way,” explained Mr Mahon.

“But then the Covid-19 pandemic hit and everyone knows what happened for the past two years as a result. Now as that situation is easing the sector is faced with an accommodation crisis.

“Overseas students travelling here are worth €130 m to the Irish economy. We estimate that 36 hands or industries benefit from students travelling here to study English, be it from taxi drivers, shops, cafés etc. We have received no guidance from any Government department, not even from the Department of Tourism and Culture.”

Mr Mahon has estimated that “hundreds of students” have had to be turned away from his school due to the dearth of accommodation. The school has had students from all over the world including Nigeria, Brazil, Turkey, China and mainland Europe.

His school along with Griffith College, Dorset College, Swan Training Institute on Grafton Street, the International School of English (ISE) on Camden Street Galway Language Institute, are collaborating in efforts to help students who want to study here find accommodation and feel secure in the quality of tuition provided.

“This is a beautiful industry to work in and we are trying our best to help it flourish in the correct ways but there is no Governmental support or a dedicated section within any department. The sector is being shackled as a result,” continued Mr Mahon.

“Overseas students travelling here are worth €130 mi llion to the Irish economy. We estimate that 36 hands or industries benefit from students travelling here to study English, be it from taxi drivers, shops, cafés etc. We have received no guidance from any Government department, not even from the Department of Tourism and Culture.”

Rhys Fitzpatrick from the Galway English Academy believes “the Government isn’t doing enough to help the sector accommodation wise. Students just can’t get accommodation in Galway centre and they are having to look further out in the county. A couple of students were quoted €2,800 for a three-bedroom house in Knocknacarra which is five kilometres from the centre. Even hostels are becoming too expensive.”

Mr Fitzpatrick pointed out that there is “no such thing as cheap accommodation anymore” while Richard McMullen director of Waterford-based EFL Ireland added: “This is year is much tougher than previous year when it comes to securing host homes at roughly 40 per cent less than the usual.

“The main factors are fallout from Covid restrictions with pent up demand for summer holidays followed by inflation — which has some people thinking they can’t afford to drive and feed a student.”

Mr McMullen along with the other Language Schools spoken to did not see Ukraine refugees seeking refuge here as a factor in the crisis — they viewed it as the country’s obligation to help accommodate them.

“The Ukrainian refugees need space and the housing crisis also means there are fewer spare rooms in many homes too. Younger couples who are the ideal hosts, also have less space in their newer homes as an extra room is no longer an affordable option for many.

“The only way to help the situation now is to deal with the inflation the government can control.”

Government departmental support and guidance for the sector when it comes to issues around accommodation for overseas students is in limbo as neither the Department of Higher Education nor the Department of Housing claim they provide assistance.

A Department of Higher Education spokesperson said: “The Department would have no role in respect of accommodation for ELE students and we have not been contacted by sectoral representatives seeking any supports in this regard.

“This would primarily be a matter for (the) Department of Housing as it relates to the supply of private rental accommodation and protections that are in place for renters at present.”

While a Department of Housing spokesperson added: “We don’t have responsibility or regulate English language schools. Anybody, including students who are renting a private property enjoy the same protections as anybody else under the Residential Tenancies Act.”