Recent Closures of English Language Schools: Discussion (Continued)

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Joint Committee on Education and Social Protection Debate

First Page Previous Page Page of 13 Next Page Last Page

(Speaker Continuing)

[Mr. Dave Moore:] The affected students come from a range of countries, from South Korea to Malawi, and include students pursuing further education and degree programmes.

It is widely acknowledged, including by the Minister for Education and Skills, that there has been a lack of regulation of private colleges for some time. Plans to add a new quality assurance framework were announced in 2009 but are still under consultation. This has meant the proliferation of small, private colleges has continued for a number of years with inadequate oversight. Around 270 are listed as running approved programmes on the quality and qualifications, QQI, internationalisation register. Inclusion on that register confers the ability to recruit students that require study visas. Many schools on the list meet high standards but many others have owners whose motives, ethics and activities are highly questionable. All of the closed schools were listed as running approved programmes on the international register when they closed their doors.

None of the colleges were closed down by the authorities, though some were under investigation. In each case the owners packed up and left students high and dry. The Minister for Education and Skills has acknowledged that more colleges are expected to close and ICOS agrees. This is not the first time several private colleges closed in a single year but this situation is unique in the sheer extent of student displacement and the lack of preparedness exposed.

Many of the students involved have left their home countries for the first time and have been left uncertain and worried about their future studies. They have suffered consequential financial hardship and some students from Venezuela lost access to their Government's currency exchange programme that allowed them draw down funds for living costs and course fees. Many students are anxious to keep their visas in order as their immigration permission may have expired before there was a solution on the issue of emergency renewal. Several students lost part-time jobs as a result of this. Students have been left without insurance for medical emergencies because premiums were not paid by colleges. Students are generally expressing a sense of losing precious time they will never get back. They feel they have been defrauded by college owners who have walked away with their money and this is one of the most hurtful aspects. They feel bewilderment at the fact that it appears the authorities have done nothing.

The majority of the hundreds of students displaced were English language students. At the moment their situations vary and their positions are inequitable. Many have given up on Ireland and returned home early while some have attained places at other language schools at little or no charge. The circumstances are akin to a lottery. Others, who have seen no clear sign of a solution from the authorities, have felt forced to spend significant additional money on new courses. In several cases, even at Government-accredited colleges, the new courses have been turned down for visa purposes leaving the students stuck and deflated. Many English language students have simply been waiting in the hope of a solution because they lack the resources to do anything else.

The measures announced yesterday essentially say students should pay again for what they have already bought and this is not a fair solution for them. Only students of Eden College, which was formerly accredited by the Government and the Advisory Council for English Language Schools, ACELS, and was a member of the MEI language schools group, are covered by any arrangements on protection for learners. These arrangements are being applied restrictively so that only students who physically attended classes in 2013 are eligible to transfer at no fee. Students who bought courses in 2013, while Eden College was still accredited by ACELS, and in early 2014, while it was still listed on the MEI website, have been told they are not protected. This runs counter to the expectations of students. Many of them chose courses because they understood ACELS accreditation meant quality and protection.

There is a major problem for the credibility of learner protection. Students are expected to pay up-front for courses to obtain visas but do not receive up-front protection if their chosen college folds before they see the inside of a classroom. Learner protection that can evaporate is no protection at all. Eden College students who heard the offer made by MEI on Monday are extremely unhappy.

Alongside yesterday's announcement was the welcome launch of a new student task force information website but many urgent questions asked by students are not answered. There is a long way to go to answer those questions and ICOS has been hampered by the unclear answers to questions thus far. Students want the Irish authorities to show a human face and ICOS has articulated this for them. They want people to come out from behind e-mail addresses to speak to them about their concerns but this has not happened enough. There have been too many public statements referring to students with suspicion and too few with compassion as this situation is not of their making. On "Morning Ireland" a few hours ago the Minister said if there are hardship issues we will look at them. There is no "if". Many students are in acute situations and need support well beyond the limit of a small, non-profit organisation.

ICOS has been thoroughly supportive of the principle of the quality mark system and has actively participated in consultations on the initiative. However, if the private college sector is to be cleaned up and to shift from poorly regulated to well regulated the process must be very well managed. We must ensure the fallout from recent college closures is not a foretaste of further distress and displacement of students. Plans and resources must be put in place to protect students who may be victims of the failure of a college to meet the required standards. Robust learner protection arrangements and a proper support framework, including hardship provisions, are crucial in finding a way forward.

Senator Marie-Louise O'Donnell: Information on Marie-Louise O'Donnell Zoom on Marie-Louise O'Donnell I think what has happened to these students is disgraceful. This may be the greatest swindle I have come across in some time. Delegates from the Department of Education and Skills will come before the committee after the current witnesses and I will have much to say to them. I do not think this issue has received the incisive exposure in the press that it should. Members of the press should follow this story to its centre.

How long has ICOS been in existence?

Mr. Dave Moore: Since 1970.

Senator Marie-Louise O'Donnell: Information on Marie-Louise O'Donnell Zoom on Marie-Louise O'Donnell Where is the organisation based?

Mr. Dave Moore: Morehampton Road in Donnybrook.

Senator Marie-Louise O'Donnell: Information on Marie-Louise O'Donnell Zoom on Marie-Louise O'Donnell How is ICOS funded?

Mr. Dave Moore: Our members are, predominantly, educational institutions that pay subscriptions. Most of our funding relates to a specific programme, the Irish Aid fellowship.

Senator Marie-Louise O'Donnell: Information on Marie-Louise O'Donnell Zoom on Marie-Louise O'Donnell International students do not pay a stipend to ICOS.

Mr. Dave Moore: That is correct.

Chairman: Information on Joanna Tuffy Zoom on Joanna Tuffy Does the organisation receive State funding or funding from the Department of Education and Skills?

Mr. Dave Moore: No.

Senator Marie-Louise O'Donnell: Information on Marie-Louise O'Donnell Zoom on Marie-Louise O'Donnell ICOS does not get State funding.

Mr. Dave Moore: ICOS is predominantly funded through the subscriptions of member colleges. It also receives training income relating to cultural awareness. A funding stream is firewalled within the organisation's structure for a specific scholarship programme.

Senator Marie-Louise O'Donnell: Information on Marie-Louise O'Donnell Zoom on Marie-Louise O'Donnell Were any of the colleges involved in this issue members of ICOS?

Mr. Dave Moore: No.

Senator Marie-Louise O'Donnell: Information on Marie-Louise O'Donnell Zoom on Marie-Louise O'Donnell Do any other international colleges, such as International House, make payments to ICOS?

Mr. Dave Moore: Language schools are not members of ICOS. Most of the member colleges are third-level institutions.

Senator Marie-Louise O'Donnell: Information on Marie-Louise O'Donnell Zoom on Marie-Louise O'Donnell How do international students access and make use of the services of ICOS?

Mr. Dave Moore: People tend to come to us in times of crisis.

Senator Marie-Louise O'Donnell: Information on Marie-Louise O'Donnell Zoom on Marie-Louise O'Donnell How and when did ICOS come to know of the lack of regulation in this area? Some of these colleges have played fast and loose.

Mr. Dave Moore: We have been aware of the matter for many years because students came to us with consequential problems relating to their colleges.

Senator Marie-Louise O'Donnell: Information on Marie-Louise O'Donnell Zoom on Marie-Louise O'Donnell What did ICOS do about the issue? Exactly how long was it aware of the problem?

Mr. Dave Moore: I have been with ICOS for five years and for that entire time-----

Senator Marie-Louise O'Donnell: Information on Marie-Louise O'Donnell Zoom on Marie-Louise O'Donnell So for the last five years ICOS was aware of the issue that has recently come to our attention.


Last Updated: 06/03/2015 04:03:06 PM First Page Previous Page Page of 13 Next Page Last Page