There is evidence of immigration abuse among a minority writes Niall Murray
On September 2, ministers Jan O’Sullivan and Frances Fitzgerald promised regulations by January to bring to an end a string of closures at colleges catering for non-EU students.
But the closure of three more in recent weeks has brought to 15 the number of such colleges to shut their doors in little over a year.
The efforts of the Departments of Education and Justice were somewhat hampered by a High Court decision in mid-January that effectively told them their plan to restrict student visa eligibility to those on courses with a certain accreditation was unfair.
However, while plans by those departments to bring new reform proposals to Cabinet in two weeks were promised yesterday, there are wider questions about why the situation has been allowed to continue.
As the Department of Education rightly pointed out in a statement, the vast majority of private providers of English language training in this country operate to a high standard. However, as the department also said, the recent closures of some private colleges have highlighted a number of concerning practices within certain parts of the sector.
“Issues have arisen regarding the governance of a number of these colleges, with evidence of immigration abuse on the part of a minority of providers and students,” a department statement said. “These practices can have very serious implications for students genuinely arriving in Ireland to improve their English skills.”
But such practices were seemingly only acted on by an immigration services crackdown a year ago after issues highlighted in the media about compliance with visa regulations.
In some cases, students were registered at colleges to qualify for student visas but attended few, if any, of the classes required under the terms of those visas.
The clampdown that followed from April 2014 saw many colleges removed from the list of institutions whose courses were eligible for such visas, turning off their cashflow and leading to abrupt closures.
The Taskforce on Students Affected by the Closure of Private Colleges, which was created in June last year, was set out as a Government effort to tackle the problem — but questions must be answered as to why it was only this crisis which led it to act.
In the meantime, thousands more students have been hit by the loss of fees and the disruption to education for those who were here for genuine study reasons. Their stories have hardly changed in the 12 months since the issue first emerged, with many of those marching Dublin having paid fees of at least €1,000 each in advance, only to arrive in Ireland as the college was closing down.
With the support of the Irish Council for International Students, a key priority for them is the introduction of a system of protection for student fees. Such a scheme would require course providers to keep students’ fees and deposits in a secure account, separate from their main business and available to be returned to students in the event of a closure.
The Department of Education statement promising reforms says that the department will, among other things, improve protection for learners.
But any such changes, if and when they take effect, will probably offer little consolation to thousands of international students who have already lost out.
Sinn Féin education spokesman Jonathan O’Brien said this is not a new problem and the Government can not continue to allow ‘cowboy language schools’ operate in this manner.
“If [the Government] are going to continue to operate the myth that Ireland is one of the greatest places to study English, they have a responsibility to ensure that this is true,” he said.
The need for proper protection of students who have paid fees to defunct colleges was the subject of a protest march in Dublin yesterday.
More than 100 people turned out to voice anger at what they call the continuing lack of action by Government departments or agencies to regulate the international education sector.
Since plans for regulations were announced last September by Education Minister Jan O’Sullivan and Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald, a number of colleges have closed. The latest were three that ceased operations in Dublin in the last month, affecting around 2,500 students, with strong fears for the immediate future of another in the capital.
Many of those affected were among the protestors who marched from Quality and Qualifications Ireland to the Department of Justice’s Irish Naturalisation & Immigration Service and to the Dáil. They carried signs showing the amounts they had paid, most in the range of €1,000 to €2,000. Some protesters’ colleges had closed before their courses had even started.
Teachers and other staff also took part in the protest, supported by the Irish Council for International Students (ICOS), which said they are calling for Government support in the form of robust regulation of the sector and protection of student fees.
“There has been no clear response from the Irish authorities to the growing crisis, which has gained fresh momentum in recent weeks with another spate of closures,” said ICOS director Sheila Power.
“International students have sustained huge financial losses from a year of college closures. There can be little surprise that both students and staff are taking to the streets again to call for urgent action.”
The Department of Education said a package of reforms it and the Department of Justice are proposing to the student immigration system for international education will be brought to the Cabinet in the next two weeks.
“These reforms will drive a restructuring in the sector which will improve the overall quality of offering to international students, improve protection for learners, enhance Ireland’s reputation, and diminish negative impacts on the Irish labour market and social protection costs, strongly in line with the goals of Ireland’s international education strategy,” a department spokesperson said.
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