Plug the loophole which lets students down
Since the start of this year at least five colleges catering for international students have shut their doors without completing courses and leaving students out of pocket.
This is not a new phenomenon. There is a long history of colleges catering to international students closing unexpectedly. The students affected are rarely Irish, so neither the public nor politicians get particularly exercised. What's different this time is that so many colleges closed so quickly, and that the 2,000-plus students managed to organise and earn considerable attention and sympathy.
The Government adopted an international-education strategy for the 2010-2015 period. One of the strategy's goals was to promote Ireland as an attractive destination for international students.
There is no mechanism to provide alternative courses to the vast majority of these students, and they will return home disappointed that their course was not completed. They won't be good ambassadors for Irish education. This must be regarded as a spectacular setback in the Government's strategy to promote Ireland as a destination for international education.
The disappointed foreign students were all attending colleges recognised by the departments of Justice and Education as meeting criteria for the issue of student visas.
It is arguable that where Government in effect expresses its approval of certain colleges by recognising them for visa purposes, it should take reasonable measures to ensure that those colleges can deliver the courses involved.
It cannot be said that the Department of Education was not alert to the need to protect students. Indeed, the law allows that every provider of courses leading to HETAC/FETAC awards should have arrangements to protect students if the college ceases trading. The measures required by the 1999 Qualifications Act were that a college should either have an insurance bond in place, or alternatively that it should have an arrangement where another college will step in to complete delivery of courses.
Extraordinarily, the student protection provided by this legislation is only required if a college provides courses validated by Irish bodies. This leaves colleges the option to avoid the cost of protection for students by offering courses validated by overseas bodies in the UK and elsewhere. This loophole was exploited by all the colleges that have recently closed, all of whom were providing courses validated by bodies from outside Ireland.
It is astonishing that the Department of Education didn't impose a similar requirement for student protection on colleges recognised for the purpose of issuing student visas. Indeed, the report of the Interdepartmental Working Group on Internationalisation of Irish Education Services recommended in November 2004 that colleges recognised for visa purposes should meet a quality standard, which should include protection for students. That advice was restated in a report to the Tanaiste and Minister for Education and Skills in September 2010. An opportunity to address this issue must surely also have arisen in the context of the 2012 education legislation.
The difficulty of 2,000 foreign students left without their courses could have been entirely avoided if the recommendations made in 2004 and latterly in 2010 had been implemented by the Department of Education. It is astonishing that, even now, no action has been taken to require meaningful learner protection for colleges catering to international students.
More than 9,000 students from outside the EU travel to Ireland every year to study. The majority attend small colleges offering degrees validated from outside Ireland and for which there is no protection if the college becomes insolvent. If a requirement for learner protection is not imposed on the colleges then it is likely that college failures resulting in a loss for students, and a loss of reputation for Ireland, will continue.
Declan de Lacy is head of the corporate recovery department at accountancy firm PKF O'Connor, Leddy & Holmes. On June 30, 2014, he was appointed liquidator of Irish education, business and research institute, which traded as Irish Business School
Sunday Indo Business