- 21 May 20
The treatment of English language students, since the onset of the Covid-19 crisis, has caused extreme hardship for unlucky students who arrived too late to have their paperwork sorted out. That has highlighted the extent to which this important sector of Irish society is being taken for granted – inspiring teacher Fiachra Ó Luain to take action
A union representing thousands of English language students in Ireland has been formed. The aim is to fight for better living conditions and fundamental rights of foreign language students in Ireland.
The English Language Student Union (ELSU), is the brainchild of activists and teachers at Ireland English Language Student Solidarity (CIELS), a group set up to campaign for the rights of English learners in Ireland.
The decision to form a union was galvanised, in part at least, by recent changes made to the enrolment agreement(s) of those students with Ireland’s English language institutes, as a result of the coronavirus crisis.
As the health emergency wreaked havoc, thousands of international students who'd arrived into the country in March and February, found themselves stranded – and their requests for refunds were, in many cases, refused.
As previously highlighted by Hot Press, a substantial number of English language students are facing financial and personal ruin, with some pupils grappling with housing, employment and immigration issues. Many students were also asked to attend online classes for the price of in-person training.
Some schools did not even provide that option and instead informed students that they were going into bankruptcy, offering neither support nor refunds to their pupils. For many students, who come from countries where wages are far lower than in Ireland, the losses are correspondingly much higher than they would be for an Irish person losing the same amount in euros.
The coronavirus has triggered a crisis in the English language school sector, with no new students likely to be able to come to Ireland for the foreseeable future.
VULNERABLE TO COVID-19
Fiachra Ó Luain, a globetrotting English language teacher and political activist, whose efforts have been central to the formation of ELSU, told Hot Press that English language students in Ireland are especially vulnerable to contracting Covid-19.
He said some students had paid thousands of Euros in tuition and travel fees to come to the country, only to fall prey to the disease after living in cramped student accommodations.
“A number of the students have contracted Covid-19, and some of them contracted the virus before they could get a PPSN [Personal Public Service Number],” Fiachra Ó Luain told Hot Press. “They were all alone, and they knew nobody. So, we are trying to reach out to make sure this doesn't keep happening."
Fiachra Ó Luain said that students who have been lucky enough to secure a roof over their heads, “are often living in shared houses with up to 20 people in a house with six bedrooms. In those conditions, it’s obvious that they will be exposed to Covid-19.”
International students also make up a large proportion of delivery drivers in Ireland, a group that has continued to be active even throughout the coronavirus crisis.
"You'd often see that jobs like delivery work etc., falls onto the shoulders of these young students who have sacrificed so much already," he said.
CANCELLING STUDENT VISAS
Securing refunds remains a thorny issue for many English language students.
Fiachra teaches in three English language schools in Dublin. He told Hot Press that he was deeply disappointed with most schools’ approach toward refunding.
"I don't think any school has had a perfect response to it," he said. "A lot of people who own these schools don't live in Dublin, so they don't have contact with real-life in Dublin. They don't know about the price of living here. They think that students can just afford to pay and not receive education services."
Last month, a spokesperson for Quality and Qualification Ireland (QQI), a State agency which sets out university awards and standards, told Hot Press that students are advised to settle the issue with their schools.
QQI which oversees Accreditation and Co-ordination of English Language Services (ACELS), said that if students had ”exhausted the internal complaint procedure of the provider” they could then file a grievance with QQI.
David Russell, a marketing manager with NED Training Dublin Language school, had also argued to Hot Press that refunding students would amount to cancelling their student visas.
DESIGNING A LOGO
Fiachra Ó Luain said that he had recently led labour-organising efforts in Southern California. He is a firm believer in the notion of collective action as a vehicle for change.
“I was inundated by messages from students,” he said, “so we thought if we organised people, we could prioritise different situations and start looking for solutions.”
He is hopeful that a union can magnify the voices of both English language students and teachers, leading to meaningful State assistance.
Fiachra has written to Minister for Education Joe McHugh TD, about the plight of English language students. However, he has yet to receive a response.
He said that the State should not take the contribution of these students to society for granted.
"I'm very impressed with the level of patience they've shown,” he says of the students. “They have been great ambassadors for their people, for their families and for their countries. A lot of the time, people think they use the English language course as an excuse to work here, but many of them come here to improve themselves professionally and academically, aiming to return home and become leaders of sectors and schools.
“And if some of them choose to stay here, I have no reason to believe that a student in one of our English language schools can’t be a Minister for Justice or a senior Government official in Ireland in ten or 20 years.”
Members of the public can contribute to designing a logo for the newly formed union by reaching out to CIELS on Facebook here.