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Ireland implements student immigration and quality assurance reforms

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • Ireland moved this week to formally implement long-planned reforms to its student immigration system
  • Included in the new measures confirmed on 20 January 2016 was an updated list of approved Irish providers: the Interim List of Education Providers, or ILEP
  • International students are only eligible to receive student visas to attend institutions included on the ILEP

Over the course of 2015, the Irish government began to introduce a number of reforms in its student immigration system, with the goal of strengthening quality assurance in recruitment and programme provision for international students.

The latest chapter in this process unfolded this week when the government officially implemented a number of new measures on 20 January 2016. A main feature of the reforms has been the introduction of the Interim List of Education Providers (ILEP), and an updated version of the ILEP was published on 20 January as well.

The significance of this is that international students can only receive student visas to attend institutions listed on the ILEP. “The fact that a provider and courses are listed on the ILEP means that in accordance with Ireland’s student immigration policy, attendance at that college in respect of one of their listed full time courses on the ILEP is an eligible purpose for a non-European Economic Area national coming to Ireland,” notes an accompanying government statement.

The ILEP replaces a previous government list called the Internationalisation Register and will in turn eventually give way 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 now reportedly due to be rolled out over 2016.

For the moment, the government anticipates an ongoing cycle of updates for the ILEP with the next version of the list due to be published on 28 April 2016.

This week’s updated ILEP joins several other reforms, including restrictions on the number of hours international students may work as well as a reduction in the number of months a non-EEA student may hold a student visa.

The impetus for reform

In 2014 and 2015, Ireland’s international education sector was shaken when as many as 17 private colleges, catering mainly to students from outside the European Economic Area, closed their doors, leaving students out of pocket and unable to complete their courses.

The school closures turned a spotlight on the sector as a whole and a government investigation further revealed that a small proportion of colleges were operating as little more than “visa factories,” allowing non-genuine students a loophole in the immigration system.

In short order, the government introduced new regulations (on 1 January 2015) standardising the amount of time international students are permitted to work while on student visas: 40 hours per week during the months of May, June, July, and August and from 15 December to 15 January, and 20 hours a week during the rest of the year.

In addition, it announced other quality assurance measures, originally intended for implementation between June and October 2015 but ultimately delayed until this month. The main hold-up was the introduction of the ILEP list, which meant that a large number of providers and programmes had to be reviewed for inclusion.

The publication of an updated ILEP was further hindered by a court challenge brought by two schools contesting the terms for inclusion on the list. The Irish High Court ruled in their favour, and the government was obliged to modify its system for designating approved schools and institutions.

Irish educators have welcomed the reforms, and indeed have had some time to prepare due to their delayed implementation. “The industry, students, schools and agents, have been aware of the impending changes and regulations since they were first published and as such had been working towards the original October 2015 deadline,” says Colm O’Byrne, the director of ATC Language Schools. “I think that what it does for everyone connected to the industry in Ireland is provide certainty and clarity, students, agents, and schools will all know where they stand.”

Student visa terms reduced

In the past, non-EEA students were permitted to hold visas for a one-year term; this term has now been reduced to eight months.

Moreover, English-language courses eligible for student visas must be of at least six months’ duration and offer at least 15 hours of class per week. Under the previous scheme, students could study for six months and then stay on in Ireland for a further six months to work or travel. With the new shorter term in place, students may now only remain in Ireland for two months following a six-month programme of study.

As was the case previously, international students enrolled for English language study are allowed three visa permissions in total.

Accreditation and student protection strengthened

It used to be that Irish language schools were not required to seek accreditation from the main Irish accrediting body, Accreditation and Coordination of English Language Services (ACELS). Under the new regulations, however, immigration officials will no longer recognise schools that are not accredited by ACELS or that (alternately) have proven to the government that they have passed a quality assurance process comparable to the ACELS scheme.

Beyond that, schools with non-EEA students must also agree to additional reporting and oversight requirements to prove they are operating in good faith and according to ACELS standards. In addition, schools will be required to have transparent student protection policies in place in the event a school has to close. “All private providers will be required to provide documentary evidence verifying the mode and adequacy of their learner protection arrangements,” says the government’s regulatory statement. “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.”

Indeed, many observers agree there is a real prospect of further closures as the new quality assurance requirements for the ILEP take hold. “I do think there will be more closures, maybe about five or six from what I have heard anecdotally,” Marketing English in Ireland Chief Executive David O’Grady commented recently to The Independent.

“In my opinion, the immediate effects will be the closure of a number of schools which have failed to be included on the new ILEP list,” agrees Graham Gilligan of Welcome Ireland, an educational consultancy that helps international students find work and study programmes in Ireland. “In a more positive light, these new regulations should provide greater confidence for students buying courses on the new list, secure refunds in the case of visa refusal, transparency in the ownership of colleges, and a new quality standard.”

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