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Seanad Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 29 Apr 2009

Vol. 195 No. 3

Adjournment Matters.

Visa Applications.

My Adjournment matter relates to the international English language teaching sector. I requested the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform to outline the way in which he will provide for a more efficient and easier visa system for students wishing to choose Ireland as a base for studying the English language. This is deemed essential in view of the loss of serious revenues to the Irish economy when compared with the UK, Australia and New Zealand in this sector. Ireland earns €500 million per year in revenue from this sector while Australia earns €6 billion, New Zealand, €4 billion and our nearest neighbour, the UK, €12 billion. The main reason for this loss of revenue to Ireland is due to the visa system overseen by the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform. It is inflexible, cumbersome and does not address the industry's needs.

With the current visa system a negative image of Ireland is being projected by the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform. While the Departments of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Foreign Affairs, and Education and Science seek to invite international students to Ireland, the perception among the English language teaching sector is that coming to Ireland to study is too difficult and students, as a result, do not bother applying. To outline some of the facts, we refuse almost 38% of applicants from China whereas the UK refuses just 7%. For Turkey, a country with a population of 80 million, many of whom wish to study English, we refuse 46% of applicants whereas the UK refuses just 11%. For Taiwan, we refuse 30% of applicants whereas the UK refuses just 1%. For Vietnam, while we are dying to adopt their babies, we refuse 58% of applicants for foreign language studies whereas the UK refuses just 15%. The visa system needs to be examined urgently.

The second problem is processing times. The UK, Australia and New Zealand commit to giving decisions within particular timeframes and produce figures to prove it which are accessible on the Internet. The Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform provides no such figures. Anecdotally, visas can take between four weeks and 14 months. The Minister of State should reflect on this point. A student may be in a hurry to apply to learn English but if it could take up to 14 months, the student would miss the whole study year. In Ireland, the processing times vary so much that it is frequently impossible to explain to clients how there can be such a variation.

The third problem is the lack of co-operation with the English language training and education sector. For the past year, a review of student immigration procedures has been conducted by the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform. There has been absolutely no consultation of any kind with English language training schools or with the education sector regarding this review. How can a beneficial system be implemented if the major stakeholders are ignored?

With regard to how this problem could be fixed, other countries such as the UK, Australia and New Zealand have a co-ordinated and consistent policy which has been led by politicians, not officials. We rely too much on our permanent Civil Service. In the UK, the Prime Minister's initiative forced the visa officials to co-operate with other government departments. The Australian Government made a decision in the late 1980s to market Australia as an international education destination, with fantastic results. Visa officials in those countries are in regular contact with the educational sector to smooth and streamline the service.

In Ireland, there is a lack of political will and too much influence of the permanent government — the Civil Service. There needs to be a clear, unambiguous policy statement from the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform regarding the value of the role of the English language training sector and how the Department will work with the international education sector to help develop that sector.

At a time like this, we must consider the revenue we are losing and how the current visa system is affecting the English language training sector. We estimate that the English language training industry, combined with the international education sector, could be worth €4 billion a year to Ireland. As it stands, it is worth about €500 million so we are losing valuable revenue. Because of the lack of a politically directed coherent and consistent international education policy which would apply across all Departments, we are not realising the potential that is in the sector.

The Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform is not somehow outside the loop in marketing the Ireland brand. Its sloppy administration and high refusal rates create a negative impression of Ireland and make the job of selling Ireland more difficult than it should be. There needs to be an interdepartmental process through which visa decisions can be examined in the light of expressed Government policy. I am keen to hear the Minister of State's response on how we can improve this issue and make Ireland a thriving base for language teaching. We have the teachers, we have the confidence; we just need a way to get the students.

I thank the Senator for her contribution. In the absence of the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, I propose to take this Adjournment debate on his behalf. It should be stated at the outset that the visa process is only one part of the overall immigration regime and many students do not currently require visas to come to Ireland. It is proposed to deal initially with the visa system before commenting briefly on broader picture of non-EEA student migration to Ireland, of which the English language sector is a subset.

The fundamental purpose of immigration laws generally, of which visas are a part, is to regulate and control the entry of non-nationals to the State. By way of SI 657 of 2006, nationals of certain countries are required to be in possession of a visa before travelling to Ireland. It should be borne in mind that the granting of a visa is, in effect, only a form of pre-entry clearance. The visa does not automatically confer permission to enter or remain in the state. This permission is given by an immigration officer, who has the authority to grant or deny admission.

Excuse me, is a copy of the Minister of State's speech available?

I do not have a copy of the speech but I can undertake to circulate it to the Senator at the earliest possible time.

On a point of information, the speech should be available as a matter of courtesy to the Senator.

There is no requirement for that.

It is not good enough.

This is not Senator Buttimer's Adjournment matter. There is no requirement. The Minister of State should continue.

In addition, nationals of several non-EEA countries are not visa required. However, in common with their visa required counterparts, they must register with the Garda National Immigration Bureau, GNIB, if they intend to stay in the State for more than three months. Thus, all non-EEA students intending to remain in Ireland for longer than three months are required to be registered with the GNIB.

With regard to making applications for student visas, including visas for the purpose of studying English, the Irish Naturalisation and Immigration Service, INIS, has had in place for a number of years on its website detailed and comprehensive information and guidance on all aspects of student visas. Telephone helplines and e-mail help facilities are also provided.

In general terms, the principal criteria applied in deciding whether to grant a visa are that the prospective students should have enrolled in a privately funded, full-time course of study entailing at least 15 hours' physical attendance per week, should have paid college and tuition fees in advance and should provide evidence of sufficient funds to fully support themselves during the proposed stay in the State. They should be in a position to satisfy the visa officer that the visa is for the purpose stated in the application and that the applicant will return home at the end of the course of studies. To assist with routine living expenses, quite generous allowance is made for the student to work part-time.

In terms of the efficiency and effectiveness of the system for visa processing, INIS is not aware of any undue delay in the processing of applications for student visas.

My goodness. It is from four to 14 months.

Straightforward study visa applications are processed comfortably within the timeframe outlined in the guidelines provided to prospective students. It is the view of the Minister that the consideration and processing of student visa applications, including prospective English language students, is in line with international best practice and is comparable with the policies and practices of other jurisdictions. In common with all types of visa applications, the student visa application is considered on its own individual merits, the onus resting with the applicant to satisfy the Minister as to why the visa should be granted and that the conditions attaching to the visa and any subsequent permission will be adhered to.

The Minister is aware that certain aspects of student migration from outside the EEA have given rise to concern in recent years. In the past a minority of traders in this sector have operated in a manner that is not appropriate. There are also concerns that some of the student population is composed of people who are essentially economic migrants. Senators will also be aware of commitments in Towards 2016 in the area of student work permits and greater regulation in the language sector.

The Minister has directed his Department to review the current system for non-EEA student migration. The purpose of the review is twofold. First, it is generally accepted that there is a need for greater regulation in this area and the review is addressing this requirement. Second, it will draw up proposals for a more coherent approach to student migration consistent with Ireland's general immigration policy and with the Government's other policy objectives. In this context, the importance of promoting Ireland's image as a centre of educational excellence is crucial and this must, of course, be balanced with the Minister's responsibility to ensure the integrity of the State's immigration system and the protection of its social and economic interests.

The review will be completed in the near future. The ultimate objective is to put in place an updated, comprehensive, well-regulated and transparent system of student migration for the future.

I apologise to the Senator for not having a copy of my speech available.

With respect, that response shows the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform is clearly in denial about the current situation. The Minister of State must be surprised at the refusal rates and the length of processing time. Will the Minister of State give a commitment on behalf of the Minister to address the current ineffective visa system that is blocking so many students from coming here?

I visited India for St. Patrick's Day and met many of the agents who try to provide students for Ireland. They expressed their frustrations along similar lines, namely, that Ireland is a very difficult country for which to get student visas. The Minister recognises this and is carrying out a review on that basis. I will undertake to raise this matter because it was brought to my attention while I was in India.

As the Senator said, it is fairly clear there is a big market. Ireland has a great reputation for English language training and we have the infrastructure, including the built infrastructure, to provide English language studies, especially in the summer. The point is well made and I will raise it with the Minister.

When do we expect the review?

The reply stated it would be done in the near future, as opposed to the distant future.