Ireland announces international education reforms

26 May, 2015

The Irish government has approved a new series of reforms aimed at protecting Ireland’s international education sector, including restricting the list of schools eligible to recruit non-EU students, making learner protection mandatory and reducing the holiday-period work rights on student visas.

Credit: Shutterstock / Rob Wilson

Announced by the Minister for Education and Skills, Jan O’Sullivan, and the Minister for Justice and Equality, Frances Fitzgerald, yesterday, the measures are the government’s response to a successful high court challenge earlier this year by two colleges to previously tabled interim laws that were due to take effect in January.

“Ireland’s international education sector is founded on the quality of Irish higher education and our strong track record in delivering quality-assured English language programmes to overseas students. That sector must be driven by quality in the areas of programme delivery, student experience and governance. This can only happen when that part of the sector that has manifestly failed to perform in this manner has ceased or fundamentally reformed its practice,” Minister O’Sullivan said. Over 15 colleges have ceased trading since the beginning of last year.

“These new regulations, when fully implemented, will ensure that overarching and comprehensive immigration and quality assurance processes are in place for the delivery of international education in the state and will significantly contribute to maintaining and enhancing Ireland’s reputation as a high-quality destination for international students.”

Under the new arrangements, further education and vocational programmes will be removed for the eligible programme list for student immigration from June 1. In higher education, only programmes accredited by Irish awarding bodies or those accredited by EU universities will be accepted.

In the English language sector, a new eligible list will come into effect from October 1, featuring school accredited by Acels and other institutions that can demonstrate they have reached an acceptable standard to the Justice Ministry.

A number of other measures to protect students, including compulsory learner protection arrangements along with a separate account facility to safeguard student advance payments, were announced by the ministers. All institutions will also have to comply with a declaration of ownership, shadow directors, physical infrastructure and teaching capacity.

The Justice Ministry published a statement earlier in the month urging students to check that their chosen college has learner protection in place until the regulation becomes compulsory.

Language school association Marketing English in Ireland (MEI) welcomed the broad aims to clean up the sector. CEO, David O’Grady, said, “The learner or student is the centre of all education and MEI strives to ensure that quality is what defines the experience of the international learner in our schools. MEI has had Learner Protection at the centre of our policy (and practice) for years. This has been on a voluntary basis and we welcome that the government now plans to make it obligatory for all language school providers. Naturally, the rogue operators, many of whom have closed in recent times, did not have Learner Protection for their students and 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.”

He continued, “As far as we are concerned in MEI, these new measures can’t come in quickly enough. Rule changes to do with clarity about the school and college ownership, clarification about the need for the language courses to be accredited in Ireland or by an EU university are steps in the right direction.”

However, new measures that will effectively restrict the amount of full-time work that can be undertaken by language students will impact on business for genuine schools, said O’Grady.

The standard 12-month immigration permission for a student attending a 25-week English language programme will be reduced to eight months from October. Students will be allowed a maximum of three such permissions. The ministerial statement said that no tuition time would be lost, but said the current situation was “no longer tenable” and was regarded as “contributing to some of the problems in the sector”.

“The curtailing of the length of time international students can take for holiday leave deprives MEI of a competitive edge we have had in the marketplace. From this very difficult marketplace MEI brought in almost 100,000 students in 2014. MEI schools never exploited this concession of holiday leave and are now having to see it greatly reduced as the price for eliminating rogue operators,” said O’Grady.

Brazil is comfortably MEI’s largest market for adult students by student weeks, and a number of Brazilian agents have reported to StudyTravel Magazine that Ireland’s more generous work rights for language students are a key factor in the country’s growing market share.

He added that MEI shared the overall vision of the government in eliminating rogue operators and the desire to make Ireland a leader in the provision of high quality education for international students.

In the first half of this year, the International Education Academy, Carlyle Institute, Modern Educational Centre and A2Z School of English, which had a centre in Dublin as well as two in the UK, have closed.

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