Antonio Wilson recalls seeing the Instagram advertisements back home in Brazil. They promised a chance to study English in a “magical musical country” where “a good time is around every bend”, with images of convivial pubs and majestic landscapes.
There was no mention of sky-high rents, lack of accommodation or the soaring cost of living – just that learners were allowed to work part-time on wages far higher than at home.
“They sell the idea that it is all so easy and that there are lots of well-paid jobs and you can enjoy a better standard of living,” says Wilson. “But, often, it’s not; it’s the opposite.”
He lives in a house in Limerick with eight other Brazilian students. It is, he says, like an informal support centre for other students who have run out of money, ended up homeless, or lack food and winter clothes.
“We’ve had students stay with us who’ve been kicked out of their houses by landlords who increased the rent, or they can’t afford to find a place to stay. It might be for a few days or a few weeks,” he says. “We share stories on social media like, ‘this guy needs help’ ... We’re a close community and we have a support network. We try to help each other.”
While for many studying English here is a pathway to a better standard of living, some fall by the wayside. Students have resorted to using foodbanks or accessing supports for homeless people, he says. Mental health problems are all too common among those who can’t cope, he says, and stories of exploitation or overcrowded accommodation are shared regularly on WhatsApp groups.
“They have come for the Irish dream and to get a better life, but it can be a struggle,” he says.
Lucrative for Ireland
These students are some of the estimated 100,000-plus adults who study at English-language schools in a sector worth an estimated €2 billion to the economy.
At least 60,000 are from outside the EU – mostly from Brazil and other South American countries – and are attracted by visa-free travel arrangements and rules which permit students to work 20 hours a week, or 40 hours during holiday periods.
So-called “Stamp 2″ students may stay in Ireland for an eight-month period if they enroll on a six-month English language course and have access to €3,000, or €500 per month. (These rates are due to rise to €4,200 or €700 per month from July 2023).
Students run out of money quickly due to delays getting PPS numbers, for example. This and the limit on working hours forces them into vulnerable and precarious work, where they can be easily exploited.— Fiachra Ó Luain of the English Language Students’ Union
Learners can avail of up to three Stamp 2 immigration permissions – each eight months in duration – or a maximum period of two years.
Many, however, are unprepared for the cost of accommodation and other expenses.
Many students work in precarious or minimum wage roles such as food couriers or take multiple jobs with antisocial hours.
Students and support groups say there is growing evidence that a significant proportion of new arrivals are struggling to make ends meet and falling into poverty.
Fiachra Ó Luain, co-founder of the English Language Students’ Union, says he regularly comes across “ever increasing issues of hunger, homeless, depression and destitution.”
“Students run out of money quickly due to delays getting PPS numbers, for example. This, and the limit on working hours, forces them into vulnerable and precarious work where they can be easily exploited.”
The income level advised by the State for students to get by – €500 a month – is nowhere near enough, Ó Luain says. It is easily swallowed by monthly rent (typically €500-€750 for a shared room), tuition fees (typically €1,500-2,000 per course) and living expenses.
The union estimates that, over a two-year period, a typical student on the minimum wage can legally earn earn about €27,000-€30,000, while living expenses over the same period amount to €50,000.
It is little surprise, says Ó Luain, that stories of overcrowded accommodation or couch surfing are common in order to get by.
Laura Harmon, executive director of the Irish Council for International Students, which promotes the rights and welfare of learners from abroad, said it is easy to understand why many English language students are struggling.
“The Government and English language schools have a responsibility to ensure that students are informed before arrival in Ireland in relation to the cost of living here and the cost of accommodation,” she says.
Vulnerable new arrivals
At the Capuchin Day Centre for homeless people in Dublin’s south inner city, they have got used to seeing English language students queuing up for food.
“We see students from Brazil, Mexico, Peru,” says centre manager Alan Bailey. “It’s a relatively new phenomenon.”
Omar Suarez (32) from Mexico is one of them. He has arrived with a friend after finishing up at his language school for the day.
A qualified dentist, he arrived three months ago to study English. He is struck by the cost of accommodation and works three jobs to get by.
“The minimum salary is much higher here - but accommodation is very expensive, I pay 700 a month to share a room with four others. We’re in bunk beds.”
Rodrigo Domingues Pereira (34) says students are at their most vulnerable when they arrive with very little English.
He was in that position five years ago: he ended up working in a fruit packaging company because he lacked the language skills to get other jobs.
It meant working through the night from 9.30pm until 7am in Co Dublin before racing home and starting classes at 9am. “It was coffee, coffee, coffee all the time, just to stay awake,” he says.
Many other students were not prepared for the cost of living and high rents, he says, so ended up working well outside the 20-hour limit to help make ends meet.
“Many employers just give hours to students according to demand. Some of it is formal, and some of it is informal,” he says.
After progressing with his English he was able to secure better paid jobs in the hospitality sector. He is now studying in higher education and works from home, but sees others struggling.
“I’m lucky with my rent, it is an old contract and is €350 a month. But others are paying €500 or more. Add in the tuition fees and working 20 hours or more, and it is not enough ... It might have been enough six or seven years ago, but now it’s not enough at all ... It’s crazy.”
Another Brazilian student, who came to Ireland in October 2019 as an English language student and now works full-time as healthcare worker, feels the recommended income limits are “absurd”, especially on a part-time job.
“Ireland is a good place to live ... But it is a challenge and sometimes a cruel place as well. The numbers are not right, accommodation, health, money, part-time job or even full time. It’s difficult as full-time, it’s way worse or impossible as part-time. I know all the things that we, Brazilians need to do to be here as a student,” she says.
Domingues Pereira adds that regulation of English language schools is poor, with significant differences in standards across the sector.
The better schools, he says, tend to charge more, operate for longer and have teachers who are better educated, engaged and eager to help.
“They are there to help you understand; they are patient and want to help you ... In the cheaper ones, it’s very different. They don’t have the same patience. They are businesses and don’t really care.”
In theory, English language schools are required to record the attendance of students and show evidence that students are progressing in their studies. In reality, say many, the degree to which this is followed also varies.
The limits of regulation
In theory, the Department of Justice is responsible for regulating and inspecting the English language school sector.
It maintains an “interim” list of eligible programmes for students offered by 88 language schools which are required to meet certain immigration and language criteria.
The list was supposed to be a short-term measure when it was introduced in 2015 following the closure of more than a dozen language schools and questions over the quality of education in some settings.
Eight years later it is still operating.
Most acknowledge that the department has little or no expertise in regulating education standards, which is why there are plans to give this role to Quality and Qualifications Ireland, a State body tasked with regulating quality in education, later this year. This is part of a broader move to introduce an “International Education Mark”.
The Department of Further and Higher Education will play a bigger role in overseeing the sector when these measures come into effect. A spokesman said English language providers will need to comply with new requirements in areas including “information provision, student welfare, cultural awareness and academic support provisions”.
However, any meaningful powers to regulate overseas travel agencies that attract students to Ireland without informing them about the real costs are limited.
Minister Simon Harris told the Dáil recently that this is “principally a private sector activity and a matter of private contract between the parties involved” and his department “does not have a role in these matters”.
When asked if deposit limits are sufficient for overseas learners, a department spokesman said deposit amounts set by the Department of Justice represent “minimum thresholds” and “learners must determine that they will be in a position to adequately support themselves for the duration of their stay in Ireland”.
Giving students more leeway
Will the new system be robust enough to protect the welfare of Stamp 2 students?
Marketing English in Ireland, an association that represents about 70 language schools, says the changes will help protect standards and students. A spokesman said quality language schools welcome better regulation and any measures to tackle those on the fringes of the market who may well be abusing immigration rules.
The Irish Council for International Students says the eight-month residency period allowed for most English language students is insufficient to save up for a new course, apply for permission to remain, pay rent and cover living costs. It says the Government should consider increasing the length of student residency for English language studies to 12 months.
Ó Luain of the English Language Students Union says the limit on working hours needs to be urgently reviewed, along with efforts to boost awareness of students’ rights in their native language. In addition, he says, we need to tackle delays in processing PPS numbers, which can rapidly results in a poverty trap.
As for Wilson, he feels he is one of the luckier ones. He works two jobs and is able to pay his bills, but he sees others who slip through the cracks.
“Our mental health is so vulnerable,” he says. “We work before or after school, we study, we struggle to get by. We pay more than we can afford for accommodation, or share with lots of others ... only because it is better than being on the street.”