- 05 May 20
The Covid-19 pandemic has hit the education sector very hard. But can that excuse the fact that certain English Language colleges are refusing to give refunds to international students, despite being unable to provide courses? "It is completely unfair if these students are not getting a refund,” says Graham Gilligan of Welcome Ireland.
International students who arrived in Ireland recently are facing financial and personal ruin. That is the experience of one young Argentinian journalist, who came here to learn English – and now finds himself in danger of becoming homeless.
“My name is César Augusto Castelli. I’m a journalist, broadcaster, photographer and filmmaker,” a distraught César Castelli (pictured) tells Hot Press. “I came to Ireland to get a better life, to improve my English and be better in my skills. I was really happy and excited for my new life.”
César Castelli arrived in Ireland on March 8, just as the pandemic was extending its petrifying reach to this country. Like many international students, he had paid €3,000, in advance, to NED Training Centre in Dublin for 3 hours per day of classes in the English Language. “That is a lot of money in my country,” he says.
However, the owners of NED Training Centre were forced to close the school, when restrictions were imposed by the Government, leaving the Argentinian journalist with no classes to attend. As a foreign language student, he would have been eligible to work during his time studying here. However, there was no time to either get employment, or to get the necessary papers sorted before lockdown.
César Castelli tells Hot Press that he has sought a refund from NED Training Centre and that this has not been forthcoming. As has happened with other international students, he then dipped into his hard-earned savings to buy a ticket to fly home – but his airline, Air France-KLM, shut down flights immediately after he had purchased the ticket, and it is not expected to resume international activity before June.
“Now I have less money than before,” he says, “they said the next flight will be in June.”
In another unhelpful twist, his temporary visa is running out – and he is afraid that he might become homeless.
“I have €15 in my wallet,” he says. “That’s all. I’m not exaggerating. My family can’t send me money. In Argentina, international transfer is a special procedure, and it’s impossible to do, now that banks are closed.”
César Castelli says that he doesn’t want Hot Press readers to “feel sorry” for him.
“But I want everyone to know that there are a lot of people like me,” he says, “and now we are in the middle of something that nobody thought will happen. I came here to improve my English, my skills and obviously myself. I don’t want any Government gift. I don’t want free money because it’s unfair. I want to get a job, win my own money, pay my rent and be a good citizen.”
Now, however, that is impossible for him – and for many other international students like him.
TRIED TO OPEN BANK ACCOUNT
“A substantial number of English language learners from non-European countries, are now stranded in Ireland,” an industry source has confirmed to Hot Press. “They are struggling to find housing as well as employment, while battling with the colleges for a refund. It is a really shocking and extremely traumatic situation to find themselves in.”
A refund of even a part of what they have paid would help them to survive, yet many English language schools are refusing to return the fees. Hot Press contacted NED Training Centre to see why César Castelli was not being refunded.
The marketing manager for NED Training Centre in Dublin, David Russell, told Hot Press that refunding students would amount to cancelling their ‘student visas’.
“Many international students are in Ireland to complete studies,” he said, “while availing of the Student Visa system and the rights/benefits that come with it. If refunds are given, this automatically would cancel Student Visas, rendering individuals illegal in Ireland.”
No other explanation was offered.
Meanwhile, a student who had paid for classes in the Atlantic Language School in Dublin, told Hot Press that the €4,000 she had paid to study English in Ireland was “all of my life savings.”
“I asked for a refund,” she explained, “but they told us that we had three options: take online classes, take classes until a year later and cancel services without guaranteeing a refund. I can’t come back next year, because I already spent my life savings to come here and study. It took me several years to save the money to come here.”
The scale of the challenge facing the student, and other international students in a similar situation, are immense. Her appointment with immigration was cancelled as a result of social curbs imposed to combat the spread of coronavirus. Similarly, she has been unable to open a bank account.
"I have tried to open a bank account, to avoid the devaluation of my currency,” she told Hot Press, “but the branch the school has an agreement with is closed. I tried other branches, but I don't have proof of address."
She inquired about the possibility of using a lease agreement as proof of address. However, her landlord has refused to provide one.
Aware of the acute difficulties being experienced by colleges in the sector, Hot Press has asked Atlantic Language School to comment on their policy on extraordinary cases like this, but so far there has been no response.
LOST IN BUREACRACY
A recent large-scale survey conducted by Fiachra Ó Luain, a language specialist and teacher, revealed that international students coming to Ireland frequently find it difficult to deal with the bureaucracy required by Irish immigration. Students also list accommodation problems, challenges in accessing PPS numbers and social protection as being amongst the most pressing concerns of international students coming here.
Non-European students typically come to Ireland on temporary visas that are valid for up to 90 days. They must then enrol in a “visa-eligible” educational programme, and open a bank account with sufficient funds in it to show proof of financial stability, before they can obtain an Irish Residency Permit (IRP) card.
This card, which is issued by the Irish Naturalisation and Immigration Service, allows them to work up to 40 hours a week from June to September and from 15 December to 15 January. Other times of the year, however, they are permitted to work only 20 hours per week.
Once the local immigration office issues an IRP card, students are required to apply for a Personal Public Service Number (PPSN), which is required for both education and employment purposes.
Like many international students who arrived in Ireland last month, César Castelli has been unable to fulfil those legal necessities. Immigration offices are closed, and PPSNs won’t be easily granted to non-resident applicants.
Another student, Vladimir Delgado from El Salvador, had received his Irish Residency Permit card. However, he has since had difficulties securing his PPSN, even after presenting a letter of recommendation from a language school.
“When I arrived in Dublin, I didn’t expect to face with bureaucracy,” he said, “but it is similar, maybe worse than in my country.”
An English language student from Bolivia, who also requested anonymity, told Hot Press that she is very concerned about her situation, as her temporary visa is about to expire, and she could not obtain valid permission to stay in the country.
“I know this is a worldwide crisis,” she said, “but all I’m asking is to extend our visas for the quarantine period, and make the schools reschedule the classes that we have paid for. We are still bringing money to the country by paying rent and buying food every day.”
The student had planned to study English in a Limerick-based language school. However, she has had to forfeit a €450 deposit for a room, as the person subletting the place had posed a threat to her safety.
“He turned aggressive, and I didn’t feel safe,” she said. “I left because my room didn’t have a lock, and I was scared something would happen to me, so I lost the €450.
“I hope our voices can be heard,” she added.
DO THE RIGHT THING
Some people in the industry are very strongly on the side of the students. We spoke to Graham Gilligan, managing director of Welcome Ireland, a Dublin-based agency that specialises in securing study programmes and work for foreign applicants. He was adamant that students whose arrival in the country coincided with the coronavirus pandemic must be fully refunded.
“It is very unfair to ask students to take online classes,” Graham Gilligan said. “They have paid for face-to-face time with the teachers, so I believe that they should all get a refund. If they wanted to do online classes, they would have stayed in their own country and paid significantly less to learn from native teachers from all over the world.”
In many ways, the immediate future is looking very bleak for English language schools, who are primarily funded by international students.
Graham Gilligan acknowledged the financial devastation that those institutions are facing, but he insisted that refunding the students is the right thing to do.
“All the schools I work with,” he said, “we have refunded our students. I understand that schools are facing permanent closures, but it is completely unfair if these students are not getting a refund.”
The cards may be heavily stacked against vulnerable students, but it is not quite all doom and gloom. The Irish Naturalisation and Immigration Service (INIS) had recently confirmed that student IRP cards whose expiry dates fall between March 20 to May 20, "will be automatically renewed for two months."
This was one among a number of new measures, which were devised to accommodate international students during the coronavirus pandemic.
INIS has clarified, however, that "the notice applies to those with current permission, it does not apply to persons who have no valid permission to be in the State."
Make of that, as they say, what you will.
DID YOU CHECK THE REFUNDS POLICY?
A spokesperson for Quality and Qualification Ireland (QQI), a State agency which sets out university awards and standards, told Hot Press, that while the issue of refunds is not within the ambit of its influence it advices institutions to “have a refund policy in place and also a complaint procedure in the event of student complaints.”
QQI which oversees Accreditation and Co-ordination of English Language Services (ACELS) – a “voluntary scheme responsible for the development and management” of the English language sector – acts as a kid of backstop.
“If students exhaust the internal complaint procedure of the provider,” they say, “and are still unhappy about the outcome, they can make a complaint to ACELS.
“However, in the case of a complaint regarding refunds, ACELS can only check whether a provider has followed their internal refunds policy.
“If the provider’s refund policy was followed, ACELS cannot intervene any further in a private agreement between a provider and their student,” the spokesperson said.
QQI participated on a Covid-19 working group for the English language sector, which was established by the Department of Education to “ensure that issues of primary concern to students in this sector are addressed.”
A roadmap for English language students published by the Department of Education, the spokesperson said, is a fruit of the group’s endeavours.
The Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection Explains
A spokesperson for the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection confirmed to Hot Press that “non-EU/EEA and non-Swiss” citizens who wish to stay in Ireland for up to 90 days, must initially obtain an IRP card.
He said, however, that possession of an IPR card is not required to apply for a PPSN, but it is mandatory to present proof of address and “evidence of a requirement for PPSN.”
The Department also confirmed that unemployed and unregistered residents cannot avail of the Government’s Covid-19 Emergency Unemployment Payment.
“There is no entitlement to any of the COVID-19-related payments for non-residents who did not work here, and people in this category who state they are stranded in Ireland are referred to their own embassies in the first instance,” the spokesperson said.
“If there is an urgent need for financial support thereafter, they may claim a Supplementary Welfare Allowance emergency needs payment from their local Community Welfare office/Intreo, but they will first need to apply for a PPSN.”