“A student’s main question when asking us about Ireland now is ‘Is the school going to close?’ and ‘What guarantee can you give us?’”
Graham Gilligan, Managing Director of Welcome Ireland, writes about how Ireland’s recent spate of private colleges has eroded trust in the market and how the Irish government can work to rebuild trust among prospective international students.
Many people will now be familiar with images from Ireland of shocked students and teachers milling outside a locked college door with a note pinned by management announcing an overnight closure. Students may have paid up to €6,000 for a course which they had barely or not even started. Teachers may have had salaries withheld for weeks, even months.
Ten private colleges, mainly catering to English language students, closed in a period from April to November 2014. 2015 began in similar vein, with the Dublin-based A2Z School of English shutting its doors abruptly last month.
These stories have reverberated throughout the industry, damaging the country’s reputation as a leading destination to learn English. Potential students who were considering work and study in Ireland are very cautious and have now started to look at other ‘safer’ options such as the UK, Malta, the US and Canada.
“Potential students who were considering study in Ireland are very cautious and have started to look at other ‘safer’ options such as the UK, Malta, the US and Canada”
A large question mark
Once, when observing that a school had ACELS (Irish government) accreditation, the student felt at ease and believed that recognition from the government was a sufficient barometer for gauging the trustworthiness of a school. Unfortunately, some of the ‘rogue’ schools that closed down had also had ACELS accreditation, along with professional websites and high-quality brochures. Eden College, the biggest to close, even employed Ireland’s former Minister for Education, Batt O’Keeffe as its president.
“Eden College, the biggest to close, even employed Ireland’s former Minister for Education as its president”
Because of these recent events, ACELS recognition now does not have any relevancy as it is quite obvious that it does not guarantee quality in all departments of a school, only the academic department at best. This leaves a large question mark over what can be done to instil trust in potential students wishing to work and study in Ireland and how they can feel safe investing in an English language course.
A new government policy, currently on hold for revisions following a High Court challenge, was set to restrict English language study visas to courses accredited by ACELS. The series of closures prompted a move bring in the new Interim List of Eligible Programmes (ILEP), even as some colleges continued to await the outcome of their ACELS applications. This could have had the effect of offering some clarity in the marketplace to non-EU students by weeding out ‘rogue’ schools whose business model was based on low-cost, low-quality one year academic programmes mostly aimed at South American students. However, genuine schools were also feeling the effects of this ‘one size fits all’ approach and the current policy limbo offers only uncertainty. Potential students cannot easily assess what Ireland can offer or which schools they can trust and which they cannot.
An on-going and fundamental problem is a lack of regulation and transparency. This results in some schools operating with little or no regulation and the ability to accept course fees with no concrete refund policy or learner protection. There is still no official system in place to assure potential students who want to work and study in Ireland that if a school closes down or their visa is refused, their money will be safe.
“An on-going and fundamental problem is a lack of regulation and transparency”
From an agent point of view there are major distinctions between ‘rogue’ schools and trustworthy EFL colleges in Ireland, but unfortunately it can be difficult to convince a student who is quite understandably wary of all colleges. As an agency that regularly sends students to work and study in Ireland, Welcome Ireland has seen a considerable drop in inquiries and a student’s main question when asking us about Ireland now is “Is the school going to close?” and ” What guarantee can you give us?”
Unfortunately, a large number of ‘rogue’ and visa scam schools still operate. In several cases, they have been quick to re-employ key staff behind the closed schools, though some continue to work in the industry using ‘adjusted’ versions of their names and other means of obscuring their histories.
Such schools may now have an irreparable reputation in such countries as Venezuela and Brazil, but now we see expansive promotional and recruitment campaigns in Europe with flashy websites and low prices aimed at undercutting quality schools but still offering sub-quality courses in questionable premises.
“Such schools may now have an irreparable reputation in such countries as Venezuela and Brazil”
More recently, some schools have also been aggressively targeting Nepalese and Pakistani students for such courses as business management, nursing and accounting. These courses generate more in the short run, potentially allowing a school to ‘haemorrhage’ as much money as possible before closing. Courses may be marketed and promoted before they even exist.
Most people in the industry are aware of these schools and campaigns from such bodies as the Irish Council for International Students (ICOS) are doing a fantastic job to advise students to check a school’s credentials and base their choice on pending reforms and prospective inclusion on the ILEP list. However, more needs to be done from the government to offer guarantees to potential students.
It has been recently reported that there has been a 10% increase in incoming students to Ireland but the future still remains cautious.
An anticipated government ‘quality mark’ for colleges – the International Education Mark – is planned for roll-out from 2016. In the meantime, a government-sponsored or third-party ‘escrow system’ might be the best option to rebuild trust. This would mean that the student could transfer payment for a course to a secure third party or government body with necessary documentation being provided such as proof of payment. The student will then be able to apply for the visa and if granted, the money can then be forwarded to the school, possibly on a drip-feed, month-by-month system, instead of all funds being transferred. If the visa is refused or the school closes down, the money goes directly back to the student, allowing them a means to continue their studies in another English language school.
“In the meantime, a government-sponsored or third-party ‘escrow system’ might be the best option to rebuild trust”
Colleges themselves also need to adapt, develop innovative search engine optimisation (SEO) strategies and be consistent in their marketing and brand campaigns to differentiate themselves from rogue schools. Colleges must also emphasise their strengths such as facilities, range of nationalities, academic departments and generate positive ‘word of mouth’ through testimonials and blogs.
For students who want to work and study in Ireland, only with such steps will they feel confident in the system and choose Ireland as their destination of choice.