The Irish government has announced plans to proceed this year with major reforms to the country’s student immigration system. As many as ten private colleges closed in Ireland in 2014, displacing more than 3,000 students (mainly from outside the European Economic Area) and raising concerns about “rogue” education providers.
Several more schools have closed in the first half of 2015 and those “providers of concern” were found to have a number of characteristics in common:
- They primarily enrolled non-European Economic Area (EEA) students;
- The fees they charged were “unsustainably low” and “clearly inadequate to provide for the delivery of a high-quality programme;”
- Their programmes were not accredited within Ireland;
- They operated without adequate learner protection arrangements, and, in particular, without any provisions to protect students financially in the event of school closure.
In response, the government released a special policy statement in September 2014 highlighting that “most of the sector in Ireland is of high repute and quality… However, there are a small but active group of providers for which education is not the priority, but which instead primarily seek to use education as a cover to facilitate access to the labour market.”
The government statement sets out a series of reforms in three areas:
- The process by which education providers in Ireland are determined to be eligible to receive international students (that is, the approved institutions that international students can receive a student visa to attend);
- An enhanced inspection and compliance regime for student immigration;
- Changes to the operation of the “work concession,” the policy under which international students are permitted to pursue paid employment during their studies in Ireland.
All reforms were initially scheduled for implementation on 1 January 2015. The changes to the work concession did come into force at that point, with the effect of standardising the periods during which international students are able to undertake full-time work.
Students are now only permitted to work 40 hours per week during the months of May, June, July, and August and from 15 December to 15 January. At all other times of the year, students are permitted to work up to 20 hours per week.
The remaining planned reforms were delayed by a court challenge from two colleges that contested the terms for inclusion on the approved list of providers. The court ruled in their favour, and the government was in turn required to modify its system for designating approved schools and institutions. This new system is now in place and the balance of the reforms will now be implemented between 1 June 2015 and 1 October 2015.
These provisions are set out in a second government policy paper issued on 25 May 2015 by Minister for Education and Skills Jan O’Sullivan and Minister for Justice and Equality Frances Fitzgerald. “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,” said Minister O’Sullivan.
“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 and will significantly contribute to maintaining and enhancing Ireland’s reputation as a high quality destination for international students.”
The Interim List of Eligible Programmes (ILEP)
Up until now, education providers in Ireland were deemed eligible to receive international students by virtue of their inclusion on a government list called the Internationalisation Register.
This system will now be replaced by the Interim List of Eligible Programmes (ILEP), which will in turn give way next year to a permanent quality assurance scheme, the International Education Mark (IEM). The IEM was originally proposed as part of Ireland’s International Education Strategy 2010 – 2015 and is due to be fully rolled out over 2016.
Until then, international students will only be able to receive student visas to attend institutions listed on the ILEP, with this interim measure implemented in two phases.
The first phase of implementation came into effect on 1 June 2015 and included the following measures:
- All further education and vocational education and training programmes were removed from the list of eligible programmes;
- Only higher education programmes accredited by Irish awarding bodies remain on the list of eligible programmes;
- Some EU-accredited higher education programmes remain on the list temporarily, but must go through an application process to demonstrate that they “meet quality assurance standards comparable to those of Irish accredited programmes.”
During this first phase of ILEP implementation, all English language programmes currently on the Internationalisation Register will remain eligible to receive international students. However, as of 1 October 2015, all such programmes must also comply with one of the following requirements:
- They must be recognised by the Accreditation and Coordination of English Language Services (ACELS), the national QA (quality assurance) body in Ireland for English language training providers; or
- They must demonstrate to the government that they have passed a QA process comparable to the ACELS accreditation scheme; or
- They must be recognised by a separate application and QA process established by the government for purposes of ILEP inclusion.
“As far as we are concerned, these new measures can’t come in quick enough,” said Marketing English in Ireland CEO David O’Grady. “Rule changes to do with clarity about 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.”
Minister Fitzgerald added, “Retaining the status quo is simply not an option. We are working to ensure that ‘visa factories’ and the people who run them have no place in Irish education.”
Compliance reporting and consumer protection
In addition to the ILEP provisions, the new government policy provides for stronger compliance and oversight measures for Irish education providers.
For one, what has been a standard 12-month visa period for English language students will now be reduced to eight months as of 1 October 2015. Students will still be permitted two renewals, for a total of three eight-month periods of language study.
For another, all ILEP-registered providers will have to comply with additional reporting and oversight requirements “including a clear declaration of ownership, shadow directors, physical infrastructure and teaching capacity.”
Finally, additional provisions for student protection will also be mandatory for all private-sector providers as of 1 October 2015. Subject to government approval, “These arrangements may consist of an agreement between a group of providers that they will, in the event of closure of one of their number, make available to the affected students replacement courses free of charge or, alternatively, some form of insurance or bond arrangement with a financial institution that would refund the student with, as a minimum, the cost of the unused part of the course for which they had paid.”
“Marketing English in Ireland shares the overall vision of the Government and of the respective state agencies in this regard as it is also our desire to make Ireland a leader in the provision of high quality education for international students,” says Mr O’Grady. “The experience of the student is at the heart of all education. The dereliction of this objective by these rogue operators has damaged everyone.”