- 10 Jun 20
The English language teaching industry in Ireland is facing an unprecedented catharsis, as a result of the impact of Covid-19. Schools, teachers and students have all been very badly hit. So what does the future hold for the different stakeholders? And can Ireland ever get back to a situation where this driver of multi-culturalism can thrive again?
English language students who arrived in Ireland just before the onset of the coronavirus crisis are still deep in crisis.
About a month ago, Hot Press spoke to some of the students and reported on their deep sense of injustice about the situation they found themselves in. Since then, things have changed – though not necessarily for the better. One of our interviewees is back in his home country scrambling to save money to return to Dublin again – perhaps in the winter, if the projected second wave of coronavirus can be averted.
Others have complained about the inferior quality of online classes that they have paid the price of in-person training to attend.
Meanwhile, English language colleges and teachers also face financial devastation – redundancies and layoffs have been common in what was previously a financially lucrative sector. Some schools have gone completely out of business. Hot Press has learned that some teachers are making significantly less than the Government Pandemic Payment would offer, in a week.
This week, a Twitterstorm – a sudden, uniformed surge in activity around a specific topic on Twitter – was organised by students. The purpose was to attract the attention of journalists and politicians to their plight.
Hot Press was tagged in those tweets that included memes and hashtags about the students’ plight. We decided that it was time to revisit our story from earlier in May.
CÉSAR SAYS GOODBYE – FOR NOW
César Castelli, an Argentinian journalist, came to Ireland in pursuit of a better life. That included learning English as a means to enhance his employment prospects in the media industry.
Last month, when we spoke to him, Castelli was on the brink of homelessness. Recently, he faced no other option but to fly home.
“It was impossible to get a job without a [Personal Public Service] PPS number, and it was impossible to live without money,” he said.
Castelli’s course at NED Training Centre in Dublin was ‘frozen’ until November. He is hopeful that he can return to start the programme then. He has paid for the course in full.
“I will try to get back to Ireland in November. I lost all my savings. I have to work harder than before to get back to Dublin again,” he said.
THE STUDENTS SPEAK OUT
A female student from Mexico, who arrived in Dublin just two weeks before the coronavirus-driven lockdown, is now getting what she says is a shambolic online education that cost her €4,000. She too has invested all of her life-savings in studying English in Ireland.
Back in Mexico, the pandemic is swelling. This week, the country’s Deputy Health Minister, Hugo Lopez-Gatell, said that the incidence of Covid-19 had not yet reached its peak.
Going back home is not an option for Mexican students. Since the last time we spoke to the student, she has managed to get an Irish Residency Permit (IRP) card and a bank account. She has a PPSN too with which she has secured a job at the warehouse of a pharmaceutical factory.
“It is hard, but it is not too bad,” she said of her work.
However, class time and work hours often collide, prompting her to choose between paying the bills and improving her English. While rents have dropped as a result of lockdown, Dublin has been one of Europe’s most expensive cities when it comes to accommodation. Young people in particular – foreign students among them – often live in cramped conditions, which now means potential exposure to the coronavirus.
“The online classes started a week after the lockdown,” the student told me. “I couldn’t take the classes for one week because the school forgot to enrol me in the platform. I don’t like online classes. Every week, the school changes the teacher. We have a different teacher every Monday.”
Some teachers are badly prepared when it comes to teaching online; the concept is still alien to many educators.
“On one occasion, we had a teacher that didn’t know how to use the platform. So, we didn’t learn anything that week,” the student told Hot Press.
WORKING HOLIDAY IN A PANDEMIC
Not everyone came here to study English in March. Some young people came with working holiday visas.
Luis, a young Chilean man, is among these. “The working holiday visa is part of an agreement between Chile and Ireland for young people under 30,” he explained.
The working holiday agreement, allows 100 young Chileans to take extended holidays in the country for up to a year, and engage in a profession as an ‘incidental aspect of the stay’.
According to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the programme aims to broaden the landscape for young Chileans by introducing them to all areas of Irish life. For Chileans who took up the offer, this year, however, the Irish stay turned into an ordeal.
Luis has managed to get a PPSN, but he has been scouring for a job with no luck. His savings continue to dwindle.
“I have only enough money to pay my rent for two more months, I already spent €2,000 of the €3,000 I had saved,” he said.
In fairness, life might not be any better at home. Along with Brazil, Peru and Mexico, Chile’s caseload of coronavirus is among the heaviest on the American continent.
Last month, a spokesperson for the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection confirmed to Hot Press that people stranded in the country during the coronavirus crisis were not entitled to the Government’s Covid-19 Emergency Payment.
He said, however, that those grappling with exceptionally dire circumstances, may claim a Supplementary Welfare Allowance (SWA) from their local Community Welfare Office/Intreo.
For Luis, so far that route has led to what feels like a dead-end: the option to have a ticket home provided for him. Hot Press has seen a copy of a response to the young man’s request, which was issued by an Intreo office in the south-west.
It confirms that the Chilean man’s application for assistance has been refused “on the grounds that you don’t have the right to reside here and is it deemed you do not satisfy the Habitual Residence Conditions.”
On the face of it, this seems like an example of Kafka-esque bureaucracy in action. Apparently, to satisfy the Habitual Residence Condition (HRC) people who had previously lived in the country must prove that they are returning to stay. A habitual, Irish resident can avail of social welfare protections offered by the State, regardless of nationality.
This is Luis’s first time in Ireland, but his visa is valid until March next year.
“The Intreo office said they can only pay for my flight back home,” he told Hot Press. “But I don’t want to go because I’m waiting on a job offer to make up for the money I’ve lost in Ireland. Obviously, I also like to use English daily and be able to tour the country later. Maybe my parents will send me money from Chile, but I don’t want to make them spend a lot of money.”
He had asked us not to reveal his full name in this article. “I don’t want any problems with Irish immigration,” he said.
AN INDUSTRY IN GRAVE CRISIS
In economic terms, the pandemic has had ruinous consequences for English language schools across the State. That has prompted a wave of layoffs in the English language sector.
Speaking to Hot Press about the impact on the industry as a whole, Nico Dowling, director of Dublin’s Atlas Language School, said that Atlas had been forced to let a number of teachers go.
“We had to temporarily layoff a large number of our teachers,” he said, “but luckily, we also kept on some teachers to teach online. It was a real scramble. We put a huge amount of work and resources and money into getting online classes up and running, and over 90 per cent of schools have done that.”
Dowling underlined that he, and his team, have worked exceptionally hard to provide high-quality online training. It is worth noting that in Ireland, this is a requirement and the majority of schools – some less quickly than others – responded, despite the enormity of the challenge. In contrast, in the UK, students have been left without any classes. In that sense, he argues, the response has been far better, more constructive and timely in Ireland.
However, without State aid, he said, the future of the English language sector in Ireland is shrouded in uncertainty. It is an extraordinarily difficult time for those trying to pick up the pieces of a crisis that is in no sense of their own making.
“A lot of our students went home,” he said. “When we opened our online education, we actually didn’t have many students left to teach. We’re hoping to bring back as many as we can.”
Whether that can or will happen, in an era where flights are very restricted and social-distancing impacts enormously on potential class sizes, remains to be seen. But if it doesn’t then it will represent a huge loss to the Irish economy – and to the increasing and hugely welcome cultural diversity here, which in many ways the English language education sector has driven.
“This industry needs serious funding and support from the Government,” Nico said. “That can be in the form of continuing the wage subsidy scheme, grant aid or some other sort of support. Because if we don’t get it, the schools won’t survive, it’s as simple as that.”
Against that background, the English language education sector has prepared a recovery plan document to present to the Government.
The document, which was seen by Hot Press, acknowledges the invaluable contribution made by over a hundred thousand English language students to the Irish economy. Their absence, the document states, will mean a huge loss of income for a chorus of agencies and individuals – from the schools themselves through school teachers and staff, and the families who host many of the students, to the Department of Justice and Quality and Qualification Ireland (QQI). Among the measures proposed is a set of tax reliefs to the end of 2020.
In relation to refunds, Nico Dowling said that the Department have made it clear that reimbursing students who are residing in the State would inevitably nullify their study visas – and therefore their permission to remain in Ireland.
“We had about 400 students when we closed, and some of them went home,” he explained. “The ones that went home were given refunds or credit notes, but the ones who stayed here, their work/study visa was contingent on them staying in a school and continuing to study in a school.
“This is how the regulations, put in place by the Department of Justice operate. And currently we are allowed no discretion in relation to that.”
TEACHERS UNION RESPONDS
That English language teachers have been very badly affected by the crisis is also clear. A new qualitative survey has been carried out on the conditions of teachers during the coronavirus crisis. It was conducted by the Unite union, and it reveals the scale of the problem. The study surveyed union members who have been teaching for over five years in Ireland.
Two-thirds of the respondents had said that their schools were not offering online classes in the immediate weeks following the coronavirus lockdown – though this might have changed as schools scrabbled to respond. Significant decisions like contract termination and temporary layoffs were made by many employers, the survey reveals. Two-thirds of teachers were dealt with as a class of employees collectively, without the benefit of an individual contact, the study reports.
Only 24 per cent of teachers said that their schools had agreed to refund the students, while 97 per cent said that the schools offered ‘some form of online learning’ with various price, quality and supply issues. The respondents charged that there had been repeated violations of “ethical, pedagogical, labour rights and consumer rights in the provision of online learning.”
The majority of teachers said that they felt ‘excluded’ from the decision-making process, while citing as their main concerns employment, income and accommodation.
WHERE THE DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE STANDS
As with many aspects of the official response to coronavirus, things have been changing by the week in relation to education, with Universities also suffering a collapse in the numbers of foreign students enrolling.
The Department of Justice issued a letter concerning the situation of international students in Ireland on May 26. In it, the Department of Justice announced several temporary measures which were devised to assist international students living here, during the Covid-19 crisis.
As part of these new measures, student visas due to expire between May 20 and July 20 of this year, were automatically renewed for two months.
The Minister for Justice, Charles Flanagan TD, also emphasised in the Dáil last month that the extensions mean that students may continue to work in the country, as long as they re-enrol in an online course, to adhere to the requirement of their permission to stay in the State. Students who have completed their course, but were unable to return to their home countries may also remain in the State “given they re-enrol in an online course of study for the remainder of the year.”
However, many students may not be able to afford the fees required to enrol in another study course just to remain in the State.
"For these students, the duration of the course shall be from the date of enrolment to December 31 2020," the Department has said.
The Department has also suspended the physical class attendance requirement for non-European students during the coronavirus crisis. However, it has said that "students are required to enrol and virtually attend in the same way as if they were physically present in the classroom."
“Further, where online courses are being provided, all other criteria remain including the requirement to provide a minimum of 15 hours of student contact per week and have no more than 15 students in a class,” the Department has clarified.
Since international students are also required to maintain an attendance rate of over 80 per cent, the Minister for Justice has advised the related agencies to disregard the formality for students whose schools had failed to offer any classes following the onset of the pandemic.
Back in Argentina, César Castelli keeps his spirits up by looking at the situation through a lens of hope.
“It’s okay. That’s life,” he says philosophically. “When it hits you, you have to get up and fight again.”