English language schools in Ireland seeking to recruit non-EEA students are required to have the relevant education programmes listed on the Interim List of Eligible Programmes (ILEP). The ILEP, which is operated and maintained by the Department of Justice and Equality, is a list of education programmes considered to justify the granting of permission to non-EEA students to live and work in Ireland. The regulations governing the operation of the ILEP specify that English language schools must be tax compliant and in good financial standing.
Irish immigration regulations oblige students in certain countries to pay fees to an English language school before they apply for a visa to allow them to come to Ireland to study. These regulations stipulate that schools are obliged to safeguard such payments in a holding account and that they are obliged to return the payments within 20 working days in the case of a visa refusal. I understand that the Department of Justice and Equality is investigating the specific case referred to by the Deputy.
My Department is also taking steps to strengthen regulation of the English language sector. The Qualifications and Quality Assurance (Education and Training) (Amendment) Bill 2018 is currently before the Seanad. The new Bill will establish the International Education Mark (IEM) and a Protection for Enrolled Learners (PEL) Fund.
The IEM is a core component of the Government's policy for the English language sector and will provide a full quality framework for the provision of education to international learners in the future. Only those providers who meet the robust quality assurance procedures of Quality and Qualifications Ireland (QQI) will be allowed to carry the Mark.
Once fully implemented, providers must gain authorisation from QQI to use the IEM in order to be eligible to recruit international students. The IEM is a tool to further enhance and sustain the quality of our education system. It also provides learners, or potential learners, with the necessary confidence that providers with the IEM have been quality assured by QQI.
The Bill also contains provisions to provide QQI with additional statutory powers to examine a provider’s financial sustainability. These provisions will enable QQI to examine the bona fides of a provider in addition to assessing that the provider has the capacity and capability to implement the quality assurance processes and provide programmes of education and training consistent with the requirements of the Act. Providers will have to satisfy QQI in relation to issues such as the legal personality, ownership and corporate governance arrangements in addition to examining that adequate financial resources are in place to ensure the viability of these businesses.
Upon enactment, the Bill will also empower QQI to establish a fund for the protection of enrolled learners (PEL). This fund will be resourced by an annual charge from those providers covered by it. The fund will be used to ‘teach out’ a programme in the event that a provider fails to provide a programme. Should this not be possible, the fund will be used to reimburse students for the most recent fees that have been paid.