Under Ireland’s current rules language schools are able to reopen, however they are not able enrol new overseas students.
“As anybody who works in the English language sector knows, our primary clients are international students”
David Russell, chairperson of the Progressive College Network, told The PIE News that these rules are putting pressure on schools that might ultimately result in businesses closing down.
“Back on July 19, the Department of Further Education told us that basically if we want to open our classrooms, we can do so as long as it’s safe for our students and staff.
“But they also said that if we wanted to remain online, we can remain online. We were also asked to inform the Department of Justice in relation to what our plans were in relation to reopening,” he said.
However, Russell said that schools were told by the department that while they can reopen classrooms, they cannot recruit students from abroad.
“As anybody who works in the English language sector knows, our primary clients are international students. So basically what they’re saying is that we can reopen, but we can only reopen for the students who are currently in the country, which is absolutely ridiculous.”
He explained that language school students are only entitled to stay in Ireland for a limited number of visa extensions, which means that every English language school in the country is now competing for the same “ever dwindling” number of students.
“The government keeps making these wonderful declarations that Ireland is open and the restrictions are being eased.
“But it seems that this amazing reopening and easing of restrictions is for everybody, but not for the ELE sector.
“We have specifically been told that we’re not allowed to recruit students from abroad. There’s been numerous statements from minister Harris and his department,” he added.
“We’d be happy with a phased reopening plan. We just need more clarity”
Frustration around the rules were echoed by David O’Grady, CEO of MEI, an association of 66 regulated English Language Schools in Ireland.
“Agents and groups keep calling, asking me when are we restarting. They don’t get why a tourist can come to Ireland, but they can’t confirm a booking for an overseas student,” O’Grady told The Irish Examiner.
“There can be a time lag of three to five months between us being out in the market and recruiting new students. We’d be happy with a phased reopening plan.”
MEI added that it hoped the Taoiseach’s statement on August 31 would offer more clarity. The announcement largely revealed measures that would come into place in September and October rather than any easing of travel restrictions.
“The sector supports thousands of jobs,” O’Grady added.
O’Grady explained to The Irish Examiner that in contrast to the ELT sector, universities are set to host full capacity lectures (up to 500 students in an auditorium) from September.
“Without evidence or data to back it up, language students have been singled out as somehow being a greater risk than university students, or tourists,” he said.
“School closures are the elephant in the room that nobody really wants to talk about”
The job security of language teachers could now be in serious jeopardy according to Russell. While there are government support measures in place, he argued that they will not be enough to keep people in employment.
“There’s definitely going to be a reduction in staff numbers despite what the schools want… as your student body drops, obviously you need fewer teachers,” he said.
Prior to the pandemic, NED Training centre, which Russell runs, had up to 600 students a day. However he explained that this number has dropped to between 230 and 240 students and so fewer teachers are needed.
The worst case scenario might involve schools closing according to Russell. “That’s the elephant in the room that nobody really wants to talk about,” he said.
“It’s obviously a worst case scenario and nobody wants to even consider it. Because on July 19, schools were told that they can reopen and so of course, schools have started to reopen.
“Now, if you have a scenario where there are no students coming into the country, I don’t think you need to be a brain surgeon to figure out what’s going to start happening,” Russell added.