Minister Frances Fitzgerald recently announced major reforms of the Student Immigration and International Education Sector. A policy statement entitled Regulatory Reform of the International Education Sector and the Student Immigration Regime is available on the INIS website and sets out the key reforms, the most significant of which appears to be proposed changes to the student work concession.
The policy statement recognises the significant contribution that international students make to the Irish economy, which is estimated as in excess of €800 million. The policy proposes to introduce higher regulation of the third level education sector in Ireland to ensure that the sector provides high quality service and is not a route for a non EEA students to access the labour market in Ireland but rather a route to attain their personal education aspirations. The view of the Department of Justice & Equality is that some education providers have been acting as little more than “visa factories”. There is recognition in the policy that international students are in a vulnerable position but the main thrust of the policy is that the system is to be significantly reformed to create a robust regulatory environment.
There are three pillars to the new regulatory framework.
Under the first pillar, the Department proposes to replace the current internationalisation register, which specifies eligible programmes for non-EEA students and to replace it with an Interim List of Eligible Programmes for Student Immigration Permission (ILEP), which will be in place from the 1st of January 2015.
The second pillar introduces an inspection and compliance regime such that INIS and the GNIB will have an enhanced inspection function. There is direct reference to the National Employment Rights Agency (NERA) becoming involved to investigate any abuse of the student work concession and there is also reference to involvement of the Revenue Commissioners and the Department of Social Protection. In addition there is a proposal to set up a compliance working group to focus on the student work concession.
The final pillar is what we believe will be the most significant change for non-EEA students and is described in the policy as a “strengthening” of the terms of the student work concession. What this in fact amounts to is a restriction on the work concession. At present, non-EEA students attending a full time programme on the Internationalization Register are permitted to work up to 20 hours per week during term and up to 40 hours per week outside of term. It is the view of the Department that permission to work cannot be justified in all circumstances. The policy document proposes that from the 1st of January 2015, the work concession will be aligned and essentially restricted such that students can only work 40 hours per week during the months of May, June, July and August and from 15th of December to 15th of January inclusive. There will therefore be no flexibility as to when students work 40 hours per week and when they work 20 hours per week. The policy states that the set periods during which students can work 40 hours per week will be irrespective of the programme timetable. It is unclear how non-EEA students will be able to manage working and attending a full time course where the course runs during the summer months and how the new policy will work in practice.
This policy document is the most significant reform of the student immigration regime since the changes implemented in 2011. They will have wide ranging impacts on non-EEA students seeking to come to Ireland after 1st of January 2015 and they will have a knock on effect on the visa application process and the financial requirements for new students coming to Ireland particularly in light of the proposed amendments to the work concession. To our mind, it is likely that students will struggle to financially support themselves through studies in Ireland if they are restricted in when they can work. It is unlikely that employers will be able to offer employment during set periods given that the set periods do not take account of the need for flexibility in the employment sector.
Further information on the changes can be found on the INIS website here.