Loose rules no longer suit as economy slides
WHEN the Celtic Tiger was roaring, it suited everybody to bring in overseas students in their tens of thousands.
The economy needed them to work in service jobs and officialdom did not worry too much if their attendance record in college was poor.
We were not alone in this, as the UK was adapting the exact same 'laissez-faire' approach. Weak regulations in both countries allowed dodgy operators to run colleges that were little more than visa factories.
It was easy to get started, although that's about to change. All they had to do was get courses listed on the internationalisation register prepared by the Department of Education.
Most of the courses attract awards from well known bodies such as the universities, institutes of technology, HETAC/FETAC, and City & Guilds.
But some are from little-known awarding bodies based mainly in the UK. The standards of a number of these courses in Ireland leave a lot to be desired.
Once the courses are listed on the register, the colleges can sign up students from outside Europe who are then entitled to work here for 20 hours a week during term, and twice that outside term.
Agents touting for business in some countries sold the courses on the basis that enrolment automatically mean a study and therefore work visa. (EU students don't need visas as they have freedom of movement.)
The Department of Education can look for further information once courses are approved but has done so in too few cases.
But in mid 2008, it de-listed Medway College in Dublin, causing huge problems for dozens of students from the island of Mauritus, many of whom openly admitted they came here for no other reason but to work.
In addition, the Garda National Immigration Bureau makes occasional spot-checks to ensure the overseas students are meeting minimum attendance requirements.
Clearly some are not as Justice Minister Dermot Ahern confirmed when he revealed the non-attendance of students at three of these rogue colleges.
The Bureau has other priorities such as bogus marriages and illegal immigration while the Department of Education has not always given this area the priority it deserves but is at last getting.
It's not enough to clamp down on rogue operations -- much greater attention has to be focused on winning a bigger share of the overseas market.
At present, we earn €900m from international students, but we should be doing much better.
Other countries with less to offer are racing ahead in this market and we have a long way before we catch up -- never mind overtake -- them.