Ex-minister's move into poorly-regulated sector raised eyebrows
Published 24/05/2014 | 02:30
Former education minister Batt O'Keeffe raised eyebrows in education circles when it emerged he was getting involved in a private school catering for international students from outside the European Economic Area (EEA).
It is a world where caution is needed. Alongside the many fine schools in this sector there are others that do not measure up, either in terms of providing quality education or adhering to rules attached to the issuing of visas.
The visas are required by many international students, from regions such as South America and Asia, who come to study in Ireland.
It is a poorly-regulated area – one where not enough attention has been paid to ensuring that appearance on an international register of courses – which is administered by Department of Education – provides an assurance of State-backed quality.
The rules for English language courses – on which many of these students enrol – state that if students are on the register, they may obtain a visa allowing them to work for 20 hours a week.
This is conditional on them attending classes for a minimum of 15 hours a week, 25 weeks of the year. The work concession rises to 40 hours a week during holidays.
The ability to work is an obvious attraction – one not offered to students attending similar courses in the UK.
Some schools are accredited by the Accreditation and Co-ordination of English Language Services (ACELS) committee of Quality and Qualifications Ireland (QQI), which also operates under the umbrella of the Department of Education.
ACELs applies strict standards, including a cap of 15 on student numbers in each class. Adherence to the ACELs rules is also required in order to become a member of the umbrella group, Marketing English in Ireland.
However, there are other English language courses on the register, accredited by different agencies, where the same quality assurance is not necessarily enforced.
Class numbers can be much larger, with poor and unregulated attendance, allowing those who are so-minded to spend more time working. It also allows those colleges to undercut others living by stricter rules.
Eden College – of which Mr O'Keeffe was president and chairman of the board of management during 2013 – had ACELS accreditation, but lost it after QQI inspections late last year. It lost its appeal against the decision.
Subsequently, the Irish Naturalisation and Immigration Service (INIS) suspended the issuing of visas and residence permissions to non-EEA nationals seeking to enrol as new students in Eden and a number other colleges.
Eden and four other colleges have since closed.
Mr O'Keeffe resigned his positions at Eden in March.