The Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science sent a three-page letter, seen by The Irish Times, to language school representative groups as part of talks regarding the sector’s reopening. 

“There are currently too many unknowns and concerns to support any resumption of recruitment activity”

According to a media report, the department said it would welcome “a voluntary moratorium” in which schools stopped recruiting new international students. 

“There are currently too many unknowns and concerns to support any resumption of recruitment activity which would result in new International English Language Education students entering the State,” the department said in the letter, which had been sent to the Progressive College Network, Marketing English in Ireland and Independent Language Schools Group on August 18.

Concerns cited were around whether the sector is able to manage the safety of new students who enter the country and whether necessary standards of education provision will be in place. 

Specifically, the government questioned if schools will be able to ensure appropriate accommodation for those who need to quarantine once they arrive in Ireland – the fear being that students might need to rely on the state for help if adequate accommodation was not available. 

During the pandemic, language schools in Ireland have moved online to continue offering classes to students.

But despite such efforts, the department said it had received many complaints regarding the quality of online classes as well as the treatment of students.

“[There has been] deep dissatisfaction with the standard of online classes where they have been provided, a lack of support for students struggling to access these services and the non-refund of fees for students receiving a reduced service from their provider,” the letter continued. 

However, stakeholders have responded to the government’s letter saying that it was received with “universal disappointment and frustration” throughout Ireland’s ELT industry. 

In their response seen by The PIE News, PCN, MEI and ILSG told the department that they have not committed to a voluntary moratorium. 

“We identified a number of issues that would require clarification and engagement before such a moratorium might be feasible,” the associations wrote.

In response to concerns about accommodation, the associations said that they are confident that the overall standard of accommodation offered by ELT organisations in Ireland is “very high”.

“Indeed, it is one of our main selling points that differentiates us internationally,” the response read.

“There is obviously no legal requirement, however, for students to stay in school or university accommodation for the duration of their time in Ireland.

“Long term students, in particular, often prefer to source their own accommodation after an initial period in the country.”

In terms of online provision, the associations said that schools had been asked to switch from a traditional teaching model to online delivery with little to no notice. 

“The time, resources, and expertise required to develop a fully online teaching model is enormous.

“As voluntary associations, we came together and quickly developed best practice guidelines to assist our members to deliver online courses,” the responding letter read.

David Russell, chairman of the PCN told The PIE that student satisfaction with online provision had been high in a survey that his organisation conducted. 

“We moved online and obviously, it was new to everybody. Yes, there were teething problems, I’ll be the first to admit that,he said. 

But within the PCN, we’ve been doing a survey of all of our students in relation to their online provision… the last one we did was back in July, and it was overwhelmingly positive,” he added. 

Russell explained that the examples of poor online provision cited in the department’s letter were not representative of the sector as a whole. 

Our position is clear. As far as we’re concerned, we’re offering a quality service and some of the issues that [the government] is talking about in the letter occurs in a very small group of schools.

“They are now trying to tar everybody with the same brush,” he said.

The associations explained that they are not in a position to monitor or assess the quality of individual school performances. 

MEI, ILSG and PCN are voluntary associations and not regulatory bodies. This means that we do not have the legal authority to inspect schools, impose standards or enforce regulations / protocols. 

“As such, we are at a loss in how to respond to many of your exhortations for us to police the sector,” the associations wrote in their response.

“We are at a loss in how to respond to many of your exhortations for us to police the sector”

The associations highlighted the fact that Ireland’s ELT sector is the only one in the world which does not have a functioning regulatory framework.

A proposed framework, the International Education Mark, has been in the pipeline for several years.

“The sector has been waiting for over 18 months to see the IEM’s associated codes of practice and key quality standards and to get a timeframe for its implementation,” the letter continued.

“Ultimately, the implementation of the IEM is the only solution to the perceived problems raised by the department. 

“It is in your hands. Until such time as we see a timeframe from [Quality and Qualifications Ireland] for the implementation of the IEM our frustrations and yours will continue,” it added.

Earlier this year The PIE reported that the numbers of students coming to English language schools in Ireland could drop by 120,000 this year as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

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