The Department of Justice has been accused of failing to keep proper oversight on English language schools as up to 10 Mongolian students face losses of more than €5,000 each in fees paid upfront to a Dublin college.
They look unlikely to be refunded after paying the equivalent of almost two years' salary in Mongolia to attend English language courses at Grafton College, which went into liquidation on Monday.
The Irish Examiner sent a message to Mr Rehman, the secretary and a director of the company that owns Grafton College, offering him an opportunity to comment or explain the situation. But RTÉ News reported today that Mr Rehman has told it that “the money was spent”.
Because students from Mongolia need a visa to come here to study, five of the 10 are out of pocket. Another five are awaiting decisions on their applications, but one who paid fees in advance will be able to attend one of the other colleges that is part of a learner protection scheme run by umbrella organisation Marketing English in Ireland (MEI).
The recruitment agency in Mongolia which worked to help Grafton College bring students to Dublin told RTÉ News that the fees of €5,315 are worth almost two years’ salary, as the typical monthly salary there is €250.
MEI chief executive, David O’Grady, said his organisation is responsible only for meeting the education requirements if a school closes. But, he said, the Department of Education and the Department of Justice have inspectorates who can go around to schools and ask questions about the running of English language schools.
Under their regulations, he said, colleges should have a separate account to hold advance fees of students who need a visa to study in Ireland, and return it to them if they do not get a visa.
“The Department of Justice has put in place a regulatory scheme. It’s not a lack of regulation, it’s a lack of implementation of the regulations,” Mr O’Grady said.
The Department Justice told the Irish Examiner that if there is any question of alleged misuse of student fees, or other corporate responsibilities, the matter should be reported to gardaí or the Director of Corporate Enforcement.
The department said its Irish Naturalisation and Immigration Service (INIS) will work with MEI on issues arising from Grafton College's closure, including on those visa-required students who were scheduled to travel to Ireland in the coming weeks to commence their studies. A spokesperson said INIS and officials from the Department of Education and Quality and Qualifications Ireland (QQI) will meet with MEI shortly to discuss the wider issues it has raised.
"Educational institutions on the Interim List of Eligible Programmes (ILEP) are subject to random joint inspection, which includes officials from INIS, QQI and the Garda National Immigration Bureau. Grafton College was inspected in February 2018," the Department of Justice said.
Almost 40 students from other countries like Brazil, Mexico and Ecuador had also paid fees in advance. But as they do not require a student visa to come to Ireland, they can attend courses at another college under MEI’s learner protection scheme, along with the 468 students who were already on courses at Grafton when it closed.
Minister of State Mary Mitchell O’Connor said it is disgraceful that the college’s 30-plus staff have been left without last month’s wages so close to Christmas. She was speaking in a Seanad discussion of the situation on Wednesday, during committee stage of a bill that seeks to increase regulation of the sector.
The minister has also promised to appoint a mediator to help develop a registered employment agreement that offers greater protections to staff in the English language education sector.
Fianna Fáil education spokesman, Thomas Byrne, said today that issues facing teachers and students are “simply unacceptable.” He said the minister needs to urgently clarify what oversights are in place after details emerged of the advance fees being spent on unknown purposes.
“"We have long prided ourselves on welcoming students from all over the world and for them to be treated in this way is simply shocking. This is an embarrassment for Ireland on the international stage,” he said.
"There is clearly a need for greater implementation of regulations in relation to fees and supports for teachers and staff,” Mr Byrne said.