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Tuesday, 30 May 2006

MEI-RELSA: Presentation.

The second item on the agenda is a discussion with MEI-RELSA regarding visas for non-EU students and the EFL industry. MEI-RELSA is an association of 56 English language schools offering language courses at more than 120 locations around the country. I welcome Ms Bid O'Connor, chairperson of the board of MEI-RELSA; Mr. Brian Burns, director, and Mr.Justin Quinn, board member. I also welcome officials from the immigration department of the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform who are present in the Visitors Gallery.

Before we commence, I advise that whereas Members of the Houses enjoy absolute privilege in respect of utterances made in committee, witnesses do not enjoy such privilege. Accordingly, caution should be exercised, particularly with regard to references of a personal nature. I invite Ms O'Connor to make the presentation.

Ms Bid O’Connor

I thank the Chairman and members of the joint committee for allowing us this time today. This paper is being presented by Marketing English in Ireland — Recognised English Language Schools Association, otherwise known as MEI-RELSA, an association which represents the majority of English language schools approved by the Department of Education and Science. I am its chairperson and a language school administrator. My colleagues are Mr. Justin Quinn, an English language school owner and board member of MEI-RELSA, and Mr. Brian Burns, director of MEI-RELSA.

A report was made to this committee by MEI-RELSA in 2002. It is my brief today to update the committee on that report and give a summary of the situation which, I regret to say, has continued to seriously deteriorate in the past four years and has now cost the industry and the economy approximately €1 million.

The EFL, English as a foreign language, industry is not a new business, fashioned to take advantage of the relatively recent influx of non-English speakers into Ireland, but an industry born in the early 1960s when a trend developed worldwide to travel for education and self-improvement. Since the early 1960s the English language sector has developed and now offers a highly respected and sophisticated product, delivering quality English language courses to more than 12 million overseas visitors of all nationalities, including leading foreign politicians and their families, and many respected individuals from the academic world. Many of the schools founded in the 1960s continue in the industry today but now struggle with the burden of what appears to be a negative directive from the Department of Foreign Affairs regarding the issuance of visas to non-EEA nationals. It is to highlight this situation that I am here today.

In 2002 the critical problem facing the sector was slow visa processing and long delays in the visa approval process. At the time a six-month backlog of visa applications had built up in Beijing. By the time the problem was addressed in 2003, with the opening of a visa office in Beijing and the deployment of five visa officers, most of the applications were out of date. However, far from improving matters, since the Beijing visa office opened, the majority of visa applicants have been refused. Exact statistics are not available to us but the experience of our members is consistent, with most schools reporting a 100% drop in numbers from China since 2003. The experience of visa refusals of applicants from other countries can be added to that of China. Member schools no longer receive applications from China, Russia and the Middle East, much to the delight of our competitors in the United Kingdom, the USA, Australia, New Zealand and Canada. These countries have a simple visa process which takes approximately two weeks. They also have a very high approval rate. Needless to say, they continue to receive increasing numbers of visa applications from all the countries whose students are refused entry to Ireland. For example, it is virtually impossible for a student from Turkey to get a student visa for Ireland. However, the United Kingdom lists students from Turkey as one of the top five student nationalities, with more than 32,000 Turkish students annually. In fact, the number of students from Turkey exceeds that from any EU country but they are not permitted to come to Ireland. That is but one example.

MEI-RELSA was founded in 1988 with the help of Fáilte Ireland, then Bord Fáilte, in an effort to drive the English language industry forward. Fáilte Ireland has part funded our association since that date and given us much support in accessing foreign markets. It recognises the contribution the English language sector makes to the economy, in raising awareness of Ireland and the quality service provided and economically through the revenue that flows directly into the economy, which has been conservatively estimated at approximately €350 million annually.

The sector has also been supported by Enterprise Ireland, which funded many overseas trade missions with a view to recruiting students for English language and third level courses. All of these missions were led by our political leaders, including the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste and the President, Mrs. MacAleese, and the message was that foreign students were welcome in Ireland. In the past four years these missions, with a strong education delegation, travelled to Mexico, Russia, China, India, the Middle East, Korea and Japan. Encouraged by Enterprise Ireland and our political leaders, the English language sector invested a large proportion of its marketing funds in these countries, only to find that visas were not being issued for them. Apparently, Government policy now dictates that language students from many of these countries are no longer welcome in Ireland. The sector is dealing with the inevitable fall-out from such a negative image of Ireland, a far cry from Ireland of the welcomes.

MEI-RELSA member schools are vetted, approved and continuously assessed by the Department of Education and Science through ACELS, the Advisory Council for English Language Schools. Our standards are high, our courses wide-ranging and constantly changing to meet market needs, while our personnel are highly qualified and specifically trained in teaching English as a foreign language. We can confidently compete in the world market with every other English speaking country offering language courses but we cannot compete if our own Departments hinder us with constantly changing visa application procedures, unclear guidelines and a general lack of encouragement for the sector.

Of all the niche markets promoted and supported by Fáilte Ireland, the English language sector is the outright leader. Its contribution to the economy is greater than that of fishing, golfing, sailing and horse-riding. Revenue from our language courses goes straight into the economy, making an immediate impact. For example, a €900 payment for a two-week course would be disbursed as follows: €360 to the host family for accommodation; €275 for tuition and academic costs paid out in salaries, textbooks, etc.; €75 for ground transport costs; €100 on organised excursions; €90 for operating costs and profits. The benefit to the local economy is enormous. In the Bray area alone, it is estimated that the four language schools operating there inject approximately €5 million annually into the economy via host families, retail outlets and leisure spending. The English language sector is an important local industry in any area in which we operate but we are being frustrated and thwarted by the absence of a cohesive long-term Government policy on visas.

Our problems are as follows. We do not have confidence to market outside the EEA owing to the highly fraught visa situation. Having invested heavily in non-EEA markets, we now find ourselves with an increased cost base but smaller and decreasing student numbers. Currently, our member schools are unable to recruit students from established markets such as China, the Middle East and Russia owing to the number of visa refusals. We are also unable to target many other markets such as Libya, a country that has recently reopened diplomatic and trading links with the United States and the United Kingdom but whose students continue to be refused visas for this country, although they are warmly welcomed elsewhere. Many of these countries' potential students are advised by educational agents in their home countries not to consider Ireland because of the unclear and ever-changing visa issuance policy and the length of time it takes to get a response to an application. Our hard-earned reputation as a language-learning destination is suffering badly and will not be easily won back. Some schools have been unable to continue in operation and have closed, with a consequent loss of jobs and revenue. Other member schools have put teachers on shorter hours and reduced their number of classes. Our competitors thrive on the back of our difficulties and we feel we can only look on helplessly because of the Government's apparent ignorance or indifference to our plight. A solution can be found and I hope that by addressing the members of this committee we can bring it about. The committee must assist us in getting clear, unambiguous, stable visa guidelines to be enforced without prejudice; a positive approach to the EFL industry by all involved and co-operation between Departments to remove any unapproved school from the industry.

We must be allowed to grow our business, invest in marketing where it will show results and know when we market that the guidelines for visa issuance will be adhered to and will not change. Visas must be available to bona fide students within a reasonable timeframe. We also need to be assured that the goalposts will not be moved in an ad hoc manner without consultation and that all officials involved in the visa process will be fully briefed.

MEI-RELSA members absolutely support regulation in our sector and our members will do whatever is necessary to ensure they operate to the highest standards. We greatly welcome the register of approved schools of the Department of Education and Science but ask that no school excluded from that register receive visas. We urgently seek a coherent, co-ordinated visa issuance policy across all Departments, including Education and Science, Foreign Affairs, Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Enterprise, Trade and Employment and Arts, Sport and Tourism.

It is our belief that English language learning has had, and will continue to have, a pivotal and increasingly important role to play at every level in third level education, including academic, pedagogical, financial and socio-cultural. It is the wish of our members to co-operate fully with all Departments to stabilise our sector and help us realise the enormous potential inherent within it.

We ask the committee to assist us by carrying out a review of the entire visa issuance policy. Unless some effort is made to co-ordinate a fair and transparent visa policy between Departments, our sector will continue to be denied access to those markets we have worked so hard to win.

I thank Ms O'Connor. At the outset I should state that the committee is agreed this is an important industry and one in which a great deal of work has been done over the years. Its regulation creates a challenge for the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, and achieving proper registration and regulation is a challenge for the industry itself.

As far as I understood, and from what Ms O'Connor stated and the background note we received from the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, that work has now been done to a great extent. The problem is that the overall situation Ms O'Connor conveyed appears to be the case, and that if anything, the numbers are decreasing substantially. Having done the homework and gained control of the situation, it appears to be the time to start building them up.

I feel strongly about this because I was involved in the early stages of the industry, particularly in facilitating the embassy in China to clear people and speed the process up. The long-term effect seems to have been to slow it down. The Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform feels that many problems exist with particular areas of China. We must discuss this in detail with the Department.

I thank Ms O'Connor for her clear presentation, which answered some of my questions. I share the view of the Chairman that MEI-RELSA's activities are important for the country and generate a lot of business. However, I have questions because I have come across horror stories, which may have involved unregistered schools, in my part of the world.

My questions relate to the concerns the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform has regarding vetting applications for visas and the security implications of people entering the State. Is the delegation aware of a more restrictive regime since the 11 September attacks and what particular countries have been subjected to stricter regimes?

If MEI-RELSA members support a student's visa application and accept him or her as a student and that student subsequently does not attend classes, is involved in illegal work practices and pinpointed by the Department as someone who should be deported, do MEI-RELSA members consider they have any responsibility to the State in removing that student from the State? The costs to the State are substantial and perhaps it is a reason for the long and cumbersome procedure involved.

I welcome the delegation and the presentation was interesting. The issue crosses several Departments. All four of my children are qualified to teach English as a foreign language, and have used the qualification mainly outside the country. My twin sons have been in China for the past eight months.

A previous delegation made a presentation to the committee on this subject and I remember asking about the extent of teaching English as a foreign language in the country of origin. I understand it is still extremely low. Approximately three initiatives had taken place in all of China at that time. That is a discussion for another day.

The Department of Foreign Affairs transferred its visa functions to the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform. However, it has not relinquished all of its responsibilities regarding issuing visas, although it lodged responsibility for the greater part of the visa process with the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform. The briefing paper we received is from the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform.

It is delegated to that Department.

"Delegated" is the word. I will speak frankly to save time. It all appears to be an enormous mess. An extremely high-profile visit to China took place involving the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste, the President, one third of the Cabinet and several Departments, including Enterprise, Trade and Employment and Education and Science. More than one visit to China has taken place. When I state it is a mess, I really mean it. Statements were made on the value of this to the Irish economy and, as we just heard, Enterprise Ireland was involved. At the same time, people did not work through the process of what was involved.

The strongest briefing we received on any topic for a long time was that we received today from the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform. It makes strong allegations sourced, as is the habit now, in the GNIB and the office in China itself. I worry about how much of the information from the GNIB is accountable, from where we receive it and in what circumstances. I could say a great deal on that issue.

We must clear up the issue of the visa process. The Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform reported abuses in the applications it received in Beijing, including where people admitted forging documents and using false addresses. This will happen. Telling it to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs does not get us very far. The question is how to handle visas in an office such as that in Beijing.

To summarise, people saw the market in China for teaching English as a foreign language and opened the market for Chinese students to come to Ireland without putting in place the necessary infrastructural preparations.

It is clear people saw this as a big and potentially lucrative market. I agree with what was said earlier to the effect that it is being disseminated through several different people. In other words, there is a multiplier effect. It seems that the Department of Education and Science is involved in a new code of practice as regards standards. The Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment is promoting it as a lucrative export for Ireland, the Department of Education and Science is talking about standards and the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform is throwing up its hands in horror and saying that this cannot possibly happen. That is what I mean when I say that this is a mess. I do not believe it is simply a matter of the committee discussing the issues, uncovering more information, etc. The conclusion of the paper from the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform is to almost suggest that this cannot happen. Will the GNIB send representatives to schools to check that foreign students are in attendance and so forth? All this arose previously in London in the United Kingdom. There was a strategy in place in that city to deal with this because there were clearly bogus registrations in dodgy schools that were not so much involved in teaching English as operating a type of racket for getting people into the country. I understand that the matter was dealt with in the UK. Why cannot it be dealt with here?

I also deal with people from abroad and outside the European Union who are in the Irish school system. I refer here to unaccompanied minors. This is totally unrelated to the submission we have received today. Many of those to whom I refer are registered to sit the leaving certificate this year. As soon as they reach 18 years of age, they qualify not only to celebrate completing the leaving certificate but also to be deported because, at that stage, they are eligible for deportation by the issuance of an order by the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform. It is to this that these people can look forward.

Leaving that aside, what we see here are three Government Departments that, according to the briefing document, show no capacity at all to co-operate with each other. I am sorry to tell the Department that it will require very radical change. It will require something beyond the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, for example, as regards the change made in 2005 in respect of the number of hours students could work. There is a qualification to the effect that the amount a person earns must not, effectively, be paying for his or her education and he or she must not rely on it for the enrolment and completion fees relating to the course of study. How is this to be verified? Does the Minister propose to send officials from the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform to China to check on the income of applicants? To me, that sounds unreal. That is one Department, not necessarily transparent, which has set its mind on creating the maximum number of obstacles for anybody visiting the country for educational purposes, based on the suspicion that he or she will want to stay and so forth. I have no doubt that some do stay here.

Other jurisdictions in Europe have tried to resolve this problem. However, it is entirely bad faith to send the President, the Taoiseach and a third of the members of the Cabinet to say that we are entering the richest and most lucrative market in the world and that Ireland will use the teaching of English as a major source of making endless amounts of money. At the same time, there are others who spend every daylight hour ensuring that people do not obtain visas.

I have nothing more to say. There is no point pussyfooting around in the absence of major change. I do not know how the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs can help in this regard, except to say that if the visa function has been delegated to the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, this committee can only send a message to the Taoiseach to try to have matters resolved. I totally appreciate the submission. One cannot stay in the market in the absence of coherent co-operation between the Departments that will enable people to plan their participation and so forth.

The last point I wish to make is that this is not just about money. I know many people who teach English as a foreign language, which involves the quality of the experience that those who come to this country to learn enjoy. Perhaps what must be accepted is that there never will be a perfect system. However, it is possible to get as near as possible to a standard to try to make it happen. At present, the entire general thrust of the exercise is being defeated by what appear to be thinly based suspicions concerning those who are anxious to come here.

I wish the delegation well. If we can be of assistance, it will probably only be by asking the Taoiseach to intervene with the three or four Departments involved to try to arrive at some principle of coherence.

I note from the figures that the situation is getting worse rather than better. In 2004, there were only 2,600 applications with the five largest schools, and a 24% approval rate. In 2005——

I wanted to say to the Chairman that this presentation should not only be made to this committee. It should also be made to the Joint Committee on Justice, Equality, Defence and Women's Rights.

We shall recommend that. In 2005, the figure was down to 600, with a 26% approval rate. Mr. Quinn, from experience, might be able to assist us as regards the situation in the UK. The message we are getting is that Ireland got going relatively early but that the UK market has expanded tremendously and does not have the problems we are experiencing. Does he possess any information in that regard?

Mr. Justin Quinn

I should first like to thank Deputy Michael D. Higgins, who has comprehensively outlined our frustrations as regards how we feel about what is happening.

The difficulty we are experiencing is the fact that Irish education has trail-blazed ahead of everybody else promoting English language training, much of the time in co-operation with Irish Government agencies. We were the first educational grouping to go to China. Nine Irish educational institutes attended an education fair in 1998. There were no UK schools there at the time. We were the first. Since then, we obviously developed a presence in the market. As a result of that presence, "Education Ireland" became very well known. Subsequently, there was a large increase in the number of Chinese students coming to Ireland. As a committee or board, we are fully agreed that during the period in question events occurred that should not have taken place. There were many schools of the type to which Deputy Michael D. Higgins refers, some of them in Ireland. We pointed this out to the Department of Justice Equality and Law Reform and suggested ways in which the matter might have been dealt with. Unfortunately, legislation was not in place to deal with it at the time. The number of applications relating to those wishing to come to Ireland increased to such a degree that the visa office in China was opened up. Subsequently, it was discovered that there were problems with many applications. It has now reached the stage that there are very few applications coming from China. The statistics from the UK indicate that 3.9% of the foreign students there come from China. Last year, more than 700,000 students went to the UK. This means that the figure from China was in the region of 30,000 students for courses relating to English as a foreign language in the UK. As regards a country such as Turkey, which accounts for 5.3% of that figure, none come into Ireland.

Some information I received earlier is relevant to what we are discussing, namely, that Mr. Tony Blair set up a so-called "Prime Minister's initiative" in the UK five years ago in order to increase the influence of Education UK. The idea was that the British Council would promote the third level sector and also English language training, very much along the lines of what has been happening in Ireland. Mr. Gordon Brown's forecast today is that the market could be worth £20 billion to UK economy by 2020. We are losing market share in all these markets every year. Some 5.6% of foreign students in the United Kingdom come from Brazil, 5.3% from Turkey and 3.7% from Taiwan. If Ireland gets ten students from Taiwan, it is lucky.

I had somebody marketing in Taiwan two weeks ago. The person went to the office of Enterprise Ireland and discovered it is no longer allowed to issue the visas. There seems to be some confusion as to whether the Taiwanese will go to Beijing, which they would regard as insulting, as one can imagine. On the question of coming to Ireland, the inference is that the visas are being refused to them because they are Chinese. This, too, is insulting. It is not just a matter of the English language but of third level.

The reasons the agents in Taiwan are being told not to promote Ireland are because it is felt that we do not want Taiwanese here, that we are not interested in them and that they want to come here to work. This is not the case. Over 30,000 Taiwanese students study in the United Kingdom every year. It is not just a question of the English language. People forget that the people we get in will return home to work in factories, study in university at postgraduate level and be the decision-makers of the future. If Ireland is refusing entry to a Taiwanese student on grounds of nationality, it is making a serious mistake for the future.

There was an incident in which a Libyan student was refused entry. He was told by an official that it was because there was a civil war in his country but when he was questioned it was discovered that the official had confused Libya and Liberia. Colonel Gadaffi began an education investment programme worth €1 billion in Libya in 2005. This investment is predominantly directed at the third level sector, including the postgraduate sector. Trinity College has had hundreds of Libyan students over the past ten to 15 years and all were paid for by the Libyan Government. There are approximately 20,000 Libyan students in the United Kingdom, all funded by their Government, which pays for everything. We have not received a Libyan student in nearly two years and the reason given is that they are regarded as a terrorist risk.

Withe regard to Deputy Allen's question on policy in the wake of the events of 11 September 2001, extra security measures have been employed in respect of students from the Middle East. I have schools in the United Kingdom with Libyan, Syrian and Saudi students and this does not seem to bother the United Kingdom, which does not regard the Middle East as a problem area. However, it appears to be regarded as such in Ireland.

I understand we do not have the same number of personnel on the ground as in the United Kingdom and I understand the difficulties, but the events of 11 September 2001 should not have had such an impact. A stricter register is necessary and we need to consider, in co-operation with the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, a way of constructing a better register. We can support the visa applications to the best of our ability but people and policies change. Our real difficulty concerns the obstacles being put in front of us all the time. The goalposts keep moving and we cannot accept applications from countries because we do not know what next week's policy will be.

A question was asked about responsibility for defaulters. In the early stages, people were dropping out of courses and bought certificates at the end of the year.

Does MEI-RELSA Ireland pay the deportation cost if a person it promotes defaults, or does the State have to foot the Bill?

Mr. Quinn

No, we do not pay the costs related to the order. Our association is one of professional English language schools. The process is the same as that which applies when a student is accepted into any of the DITs or universities. To be fair, we have not been asked in the past about their defaulting. The students who come to us pay fairly high fees and attend courses. It is important that all our teachers are very highly qualified university graduates. I have on my staff two barristers, businesspeople and people with postgraduate qualifications, including masters' degrees. Our operation is professional and has been running for 27 years. Today we are being inspected by EAQUALS, the European Association of Quality Language Schools, which includes bodies such as the Goethe-Institut and Alliance Française. These represent the highest level of qualifications attainable.

The students who come to us do so to attend courses. We only once had a student who went missing. This happened because of a family problem and it was reported immediately to the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform.

We do not have an exit policy in Ireland. There is no way of knowing who is leaving the country, one only knows when individuals are coming in. If one leaves Spain, one's passport is scanned on the way out. If a student completes a six-month course with us, we are then finished with him or her and we do not have the power to physically put him or her on a plane. It is not possible for us to know whether he or she has left the country.

The Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform has told us that, up to May of this year, the number of students from outside the European area was 27,200. These would be known and properly registered but there may be others outside this category. Is Mr. Quinn saying the number registered in the United Kingdom in 2005 was 700,000?

Mr. Quinn

That is the global figure.

Mr. Quinn

For example, the Taiwanese represented 3.7% of total students for 2005, and Italians comprised 3.6%. The largest market in Ireland comprises Italians, who make up in excess of 20% of the total. It is obvious that the market in the United Kingdom is much more open to non-EEA students. Many of the students enter the country on short-term courses which cannot be accessed here.

The briefing document supplied to us by the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform contains very serious allegations which would take quite some time to read out. The document refers to Ireland being a soft touch, the existence of false letters from schools in Ireland, a high incidence of abuse pertaining to student visas, well-organised use of false documents, etc. Would it be in order to make the document available to the witnesses?

We can provide the information.

It demands a very considered response from MEI-RELSA. It should be aware of the serious allegations and, if possible, respond to them.

Ms O’Connor

We would be happy to do so. There is an unregulated sector operating in tandem with the regulated sector, of which we are part. If the unregulated sector could be eliminated or curtailed, it would be helpful. It is muddying the water for all of us. The unregulated sector does not operate to the same standards as ours. MEI-RELSA schools do not give letters to students who do not attend classes. The school in which I work, just like all MEI-RELSA schools, completes an attendance list every day. Officials from the GNIB call from time to time to check it and they can see whether students are in class. If a student is missing from class for more than two weeks, we notify the GNIB.

Most students will not go missing from class. I have a large family but would never say my child would never do so. I always cringe when I hear any parent vouching for their children's behaviour in all circumstances. Likewise, a teacher will vouch for students to a certain extent, but they are autonomous adults. If some students go astray, so be it. However, the industry should not be tarnished by the record of one or two recalcitrant students who do not fulfil the letter of the law by attending for study in the designated school. Generally speaking, students attend class, the register is taken and the attendance record is kept rigorously. I think that would be the experience in all MEI-RELSA schools. Non MEI-RELSA schools or non-ACELS accredited schools will not operate in that way. They might have 600 students on the register, but would have classrooms for only 50 students.

Allegations have been made over time from the Beijing office and from areas regarded as poorer areas. There were more problems with the poorer areas. That is common. It is no longer a problem, however, because we are not getting people from China.

We have succeeded in outing everybody. We need to look further, as both Deputies suggested. We must ask the Joint Committee on Justice, Equality, Defence and Women's Rights to look at this issue and discuss it with the Department. We will communicate the findings of the committee to the Department of the Taoiseach. I would be very pleased if the information on the situation in the UK were given to the committee.

The brief from the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform was given in good faith. There are difficulties as set out in the document. May I put a question to Ms O'Connor on communication at senior level between the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform and MEI-RELSA? From the briefing documents we received, there seems to be a non-acceptance of reality on both sides.

Ms O’Connor

The relationship is fairly cordial, but I do not know how effective it is.

Mr. Quinn

When the number of Chinese students coming to Ireland was growing exponentially, we would not disagree that it became very difficult for the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform to monitor and control what was happening. Before the massive growth in student numbers, students registered with professional schools and finished their course. However about seven years ago, an industry of non-approved schools mushroomed and, as Deputy Higgins stated, these schools were similar to the visa factories in operation in the UK. The then board of MEI approached the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform outlining the difficulties affecting its members. The Department tried to deal with the issue. Some schools took legal action and the Department did not have a statutory power to close these non-approved schools. The situation has rebounded on the approved sector. No member of MEI-RELSA would disagree that tighter visa restrictions and controls were necessary, but we need to be informed of changes in visa regulations.

The industry is now in trouble. The number of students has dropped by between 20% to 50% in the past two years. Let me give examples of what is happening. Two months ago the embassy in Russia introduced a system that all documents required for a visa application must be notarised and bank records must be provided. No schools or agents were informed of the new requirements. When a 15 year old wants to come to Ireland for two weeks, a lawyer must now notarise the passport and school report at a cost of €100, as well as the family having to provide six months of bank records. I agree that may be necessary in some cases, but in the case of students, it is going beyond what is required. A Chinese student proposing to come to Ireland must answer 96 questions to get a visa. Students from other non-EU countries must provide bank records for a six to 12 month period, but no account is taken of cultural differences, for example, in Libya, where it is not the culture to put money into a bank.

It is not my intention to give offence but one of the points made in the briefing documents — a report from the Garda National Immigration Board — is that many students, having paid high fees, did not get the level of tuition they expected and discovered that the "school" was just an agency for finding illegal work for them.

It has also been suggested that students taken into private schools ended up in classes in public schools.

Mr. Quinn

First, that is a reference to one college. "Prime Time" did an exposé on that college. Our association, MEI-RELSA was very glad this was done. I am also on the board of the Advisory Council for English Language Schools, as is Mr. Kevin Clarke from the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform. In the past 12 months complaints received from students at that college have echoed what the Deputy stated. Some of these students who were devastated by their experience at that college came to me and I gave them a course at half the normal price because of what had happened to them. I must draw attention to the fact that Enterprise Ireland gave that particular company €160,000 in seed capital and Enterprise Ireland must put up its hands because that crowd was selling something that was not there.

Ms O’Connor

That company was not a member of MEI-RELSA.

May I make two points?

The Advisory Council for English Language Schools, ACELS, was set up to regulate the sector but MEI-RELSA——

Ms O’Connor

MEI-RELSA is a product marketing group. This school was not a member of MEI-RELSA

It is outside that organisation.

If, as in the past, Enterprise Ireland has given seed capital to schools that are corporate entities to come into existence, would it not have made sense, in the long-term interest of the enterprise, to have set up a preliminary induction process for students in the country of origin so that one would be dealing with a stream that was separated from the general visa stream?

I am interested in the figure of 700,000 for the United Kingdom. The British Council is pioneering the Prime Minister's initiatives. The proof of the point I am making in the first part is the role of the British Council and the mechanism that was put in place in the UK to handle the high number of people involved. One would not have 700,000 junior terrorists in Britain, going unnoticed, given the complexion of the present Prime Minister and his Cabinet.

It would be very valuable to compare the British system with the Irish system in terms of dealing with lacunae. I hope that MEI-RELSA will make a submission to the Joint Committee on Justice, Equality, Defence and Women's Rights.

Mr. Quinn

I agree with the Deputy. I admire the Government. Investment in education over the past 25 years has contributed to Ireland's success and is one of the reasons it has developed into a strong economy. Successive Governments have injected major investment into our education system and this has been noticed by other countries.

I will provide an example of what is happening. An Irish Government trade mission visited Taiwan after Christmas, subsequent to which the Taiwanese national press sent people to Ireland. Several of its daily newspapers carried exposés on Dell, Intel, Microsoft, Apple, the Celtic tiger, our education system and extolling the virtues of Ireland as a destination. Following this, the offices of Enterprise Ireland were inundated with requests from people seeking to come to Ireland. However, applications for visas were required to be sent to Beijing but students from the Republic of Taiwan refused to send their personal details to China. I may be wrong, but the information I have received from Taiwan states that the visas were returned to Ireland. As the documentation received was in Chinese, it was very difficult to verify and, as a result, the number of visas granted was small.

The EFL industry differs from others. We deal most of the time with what are known as language travel agents such as Budget Travel and Falcon Holidays, which specialise in language travel and counsel students on what is best for them. The agents in Taiwan who were pushing Ireland as a wonderful destination have since pulled back from doing so as a result of the visa situation. Agents in Russia and China have also stopped selling Ireland for the same reason.

We are losing out to our competitors. For example, a student from Russia can fly from Moscow to Malta and obtain a visa there. I am not suggesting that this is right. However, this is what we are up against. Business from the Russian Federation to Canada increased by 30% in 2005. Business to Ireland from Russia dropped by30%. Canada is also one of our main rivals as an EFL destination. The growth of this industry is being stifled by the current position in terms of visas. In addition, we are feeders for the third level sector. Many of our students, having completed six or 12-week courses, return to Ireland to pursue postgraduate courses or to study in Ireland. In not allowing these people an opportunity to come to Ireland, we are making a rod for our own backs.

I thank the delegation for attending and for its presentation. The joint committee will follow up on this matter with the Taoiseach and will request that the Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Women's Rights consider the matter in so far as it is affected by this. I take it that the members of the delegation would be prepared to meet that committee should it wish to discuss the matter with them. The situation is disappointing. We had great hopes for real development in this area.

Prior to my serving as Minister for Education some years ago, I served as Minister for Social Welfare and introduced second chance education. Most of the members of this committee are keen to develop education in Ireland. It is a pity that growth in this industry is slowing down. As I said earlier, there is no point going back over what problems needed to be addressed. If solutions have not yet been found, then we must look to Enterprise Ireland, the Departments of Justice, Equality and Law Reform and the Taoiseach or MEI-RELSA for a solution. We must progress this industry. The story we have heard today is disappointing. It is through teaching and so on that we can form great relationships with other countries.

I thank the delegation for attending. We will be in touch with its members at a later date.

The joint committee went into private session at 3.45 p.m. and adjourned at 3.55 p.m. until 2.30 p.m. on Tuesday, 13 June 2006.