English language schools should suspend recruitment, Department says

‘Currently too many unknowns and concerns to support any resumption of recruitment activity’

English language schools should suspend the recruitment of international students until 2021, the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science has recommended.

In a three-page letter sent to language school representative groups as part of talks regarding the sector’s reopening, the Department said it would welcome “a voluntary moratorium” which would put a stop to the enrolling of new international students to English language schools in Ireland.

A particular date in 2021 was not specified.

The Department wrote: “There are currently too many unknowns and concerns to support any resumption of recruitment activity which would result in new International ELE (English Language Education) students entering the State.”

The Department cited “substantial concerns” regarding the sector’s capacity to manage the safety of new students. In particular, it questioned schools’ ability to ensure appropriate accommodation for quarantine upon arrival and for the duration of students’ stay, to ensure students are capable of supporting themselves without State supports, and that the necessary standards of educational provision will be in place.

The Department said its concern was shared by the Department of Health.

However, the Department said language schools should return to classroom lessons “without delay” in compliance with public health advice to meet the needs of students already in Ireland who must attend an education institution to receive immigration permission in order to remain in the country.

Most language schools have switched to online teaching during the pandemic. However, in the letter, the Department said it had received many complaints regarding the quality of online classes as well as the treatment of students.

It cited complaints including, “deep dissatisfaction with the standard of online classes where they have been provided, a lack of support for students struggling to access these services and the non-refund of fees for students receiving a reduced service from their provider”.

The Department suggested that online delivery of classes for students already in the country should only be used as “a contingency measure”, in circumstances where the Government restricts such activities in the interest of public health.

The ELE sector in Ireland is unregulated and run by private companies.

The Qualifications and Quality Assurance (Education and Training) (Amendment) Act 2019 was enacted to provide regulation to the ELE sector through the introduction of the “International Education Mark” (IEM), which only providers that meet robust quality assurance procedures would be allowed to use.

However, this regulation has yet to be implemented.

A spokesperson for the Department of Higher and Further Education said it was now “working with QQI (Quality and Qualifications Ireland) on the necessary precursors, as set out in the Act, to the full implementation of the IEM…which will set standards for ELE providers.”

Ian Brangan, director of ActualiseELT, a management, training and consultancy company, and owner of a new English language school which has yet to open due to Covid restrictions, said he regrets that all ELE schools were being “tarred with the same brush”. He said this was largely caused by lack of regulation for which he criticised the Department.

“I think we are all shocked with the position of the Department in that it contrasts hugely with the help they are giving universities to facilitate new students coming into the country,” he said.

“Excellent [ELE]schools with costly premises and quality assurance schemes are being judged on hearsay criticism online of the unregulated sector.”

In response to the Government’s recommendations for the sector, Ciarán Gallagher, spokesman for Unite the Union’s ELT branch, said: “It looks very bleak for the industry.

“For teachers it probably means lay-offs and redundancies on quite a large scale.”

He added: “A more inclusive industry that recognises teachers as ‘stakeholders’ and that our input is vital is the only way forward,” he added.

Founder of English Language Students Union (ELSU) Ireland and Unite Student Liaison Officer, Fiachra Ó Luain, said ELSU students welcomed the Department’s recommendations in the letter and its “change of tone with school owners”.

“Justice will not be done until a significant visa extension of at least a year is offered to the students still present in the country and refunds offered to all those thousands of students who had to leave without being able to complete their courses,” Mr Ó Luain said.

The letter was sent from the Department to an organisation representing English language schools Progressive College Network (PCN), as well as Marketing English in Ireland (MEI) and Independent Language Schools Group (ILSG) on August 18th.

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