Ireland’s minister for justice and equality, Charlie Flanagan, announced the measures in an effort to help those students whose studies were disrupted by the pandemic.
“We will continue to keep the situation under active review as matters evolve”
“I understand and recognise the difficulties that the Covid-19 pandemic has had on all immigrants, and in particular our international student population,” said Flanagan in a statement.
“I’m therefore pleased to be able to announce these new measures to support students which I hope will provide some welcome assurance and certainty for the coming months.
“We will continue to keep the situation under active review as matters evolve in our national response to the Covid-19 pandemic,” he added.
Covid-19 has caused significant financial problems for Ireland’s ELT and higher education sectors, and news of the government’s decision has been welcomed by stakeholders.
The new measures mean that language students with current, valid permission who are still in Ireland and who have completed the maximum two years permitted as a language student, but due to Covid-19 are unable to return home, may remain as students until the end of the year.
Under current rules, international language students are allowed to study for a maximum of two years on a Stamp 2 permission, and students may work in casual employment for a maximum of 20 hours per week during the school term and 40 hours per week during holidays.
An essential condition to the visa extension is that they re-enrol in an online course of study for the remainder of the year.
The Irish government has also announced that English language students who left Ireland before completion of their studies due to coronavirus may return and resume their studies.
The duration of their absence will not count towards the two years maximum period of English language study allowed.
While the government has said that students must enrol in online classes, stakeholders in the sector have said there is a risk that schools may go out of business without assistance.
The Irish Council for International Students has also expressed concerns with the fact students are ‘mandated’ to study online, claiming that some online classes are “not fit for purpose”.
“There is a real danger of a series of closures, effectively wiping out our industry”
Marketing English in Ireland, the representative body for the majority of language schools in the country, has estimated that the decrease in revenue for the industry as a whole for 2020 will be in the region of 80%.
Advocacy groups for ELT schools in Ireland such as the Progressive College Network, have called on the government to support the sector, and have proposed measures to counter the financial problems caused by Covid-19.
Additionally, MEI has released a recovery plan for the English Language Industry in Ireland. Key points include requests for a €50m fund for language schools and wage subsidy schemes as well as tax relief packages.
“In the absence of continued support from the government a significant number of schools will not be able to reopen their doors in September,” MEI said in a statement.
“There is a real danger of a series of closures, effectively wiping out our industry, leaving many thousands of in-country students in limbo and devastating knock-on effects to the wider tourism services sector.”
PCN has also proposed a set of measures which include a government-backed, €80m loan scheme for the sector as well as commercial rates relief.
“We’re looking at how this storm can be weathered,” PCN chairman David Russell told The PIE News.
“If the government set some of those elements in place, that is going to allow businesses to survive these dark days – and make no mistake, dark days are ahead.”
Ongoing pressure on language schools includes requests for refunds from students who had their face to face classes cut short due to lockdown, according to PCN’s Russell.
Students have also expressed dissatisfaction with online learning, with a survey conducted by ICOS showing that just 13% of English language students were satisfied with the online classes they are being provided by their school.
“Make no mistake, dark days are ahead”
Sarah Lennon, executive director of ICOS, said she welcomed the government’s new measures but explained that there were still concerns.
“Students will presumably have to pay again for further classes [under the new rules], despite the classes they paid for not being completed fully or being completed online,” she told The PIE.
Lennon said that Ireland has a strong reputation for the quality of its education and English language experience and it is “essential” to that reputation that classes delivered are fit for standard.
“ICOS has written to our ministers for Justice and Higher Education to request that quality standards for the online delivery of classes be introduced so as to guarantee students a decent level of education for the money they are spending,” she added.