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with the opening of a visa office in Beijing and the deployment of five visa officers, most of the applications were out of date.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.