English-language school reform welcomed

Revised Government plans to protect foreign students and halt the closure of rogue English-language school operators have been welcomed by student and private college groups.

The regulatory proposals by Education Minister Jan O’Sullivan and Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald would require advance fee payments to be ringfenced in special accounts, and greater transparency around the ownership and facilities of colleges.

Since April 2014, 17 colleges have shut and left hundreds of students with the prospect of no return of fees or advance payments, many who had not yet secured visas to study in Ireland when the colleges closed.

The Irish Council for International Students (ICOS) said those it works with need to feel absolutely confident their money will be kept secure from the moment it is paid.

“Time is fast running out for rogue operators but it will be important that everything possible is done to keep students safe until reforms are fully in place. Similarly, students who have been recently displaced and who may have no current immigration permission also need sympathetic attention and ICOS hopes to work with the authorities on these issues,” said director Sheila Power.

Ms Power said there had been generous scope to work here while on student visas, but cutting the duration of student visas from a year to eight months for those taking six-month courses may lead some to choose other countries.

Ms Fitzgerald said there had been blatant abuses of our immigration system and the Government is working to ensure “visa factories” and the people who run them have no place in Irish education. “It is clear that there have been businesses operating in this sector who were solely interested in facilitating immigration and not in providing quality education,” she said.

The new plan follows a successful legal challenge earlier this year to regulations announced last autumn, which would have seen only non-EU students at a restricted list of colleges eligible for visas to study here.

Only higher education programmes accredited by Irish awarding bodies or EU universities with comparable assurance standards will now be included on a list of courses eligible for student immigration. Providers of English-language courses will have to reach an acceptable standard by October 1.

Marketing English in Ireland (MEI), representing 52 colleges, welcomed the measures as necessary to get rid of ‘rogue operators’ who it said exploit immigration, employment and taxation regulations, abuse international students and damage the regulated sector’s reputation.

“When these unscrupulous operators closed their doors and ran away with the students’ money, MEI facilitated these displaced students while working alongside the Government and other agencies,” said MEI chief executive David O’Grady.

The recently-formed Private College Network said its members hold insurance policies guaranteeing student protection in the event of closure, and it is confident they can comply with all the new requirements.

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