Scammed international students still in limbo after school closure

Over a hundred international students are still out of pocket after the sudden closure of Shelbourne College, but efforts to clean up the private college sector as a whole have met with little success so far.

indepth1Mayank Gupta’s worst fears were realised last Monday when Shelbourne College failed to reopen after the Christmas break. The 21-year-old Indian national was told, along with some 60 other recently arrived international students, that classes at the Camden Street-based English language school would resume on January 12th after the school suddenly closed on November 13th. Rumours that it had permanently shut down were incorrect, Adnan Wahla, one of the college’s directors, told them in an email.

Gupta had moved to Ireland 12 days before the closure. His family had remortgaged their house to pay the €5,700 fee required to enroll him in the school’s level 7 diploma in strategic management. He tells me he plans to spend the rest of his time in Ireland, until his visa runs out at the end of the month, seeking compensation. “I don’t have money to enroll in another college. That’s a very difficult situation for me as well as my parents. They told me to come back [to India] but how can I go back with empty hands?”

NavDeep Singh, also 21 and from India, is another Shelbourne College victim, despite having never set foot in Ireland. He paid the college €3,950 upfront for an advanced diploma in hotel management back in October 2013. He tells me that he has spent the last nine months chasing Adnan Wahla, one of the college’s directors, for his money after failing to secure the required visa to travel to Ireland. “They were playing with me again and again,” he says. “My parents blamed me about my [unrefunded] fee. They think I have done something with the money.”

Shanel Jacinto, a 25 year old Filipino national, says she feels she has nowhere to turn after losing the €4,950 fee she paid in May for a level 7 diploma in healthcare management. Her father, who’s working away from home in Saudi Arabia, had parted with his savings to pay for her studies. Her immigration agency told her that Shelbourne College would have to compensate her if her visa application was rejected. Neither she nor the agency have been able to contact the college since it closed in November.


Shelbourne College is alleged to owe over €500,000 to students from developing countries like India, Nepal, Bangladesh, the Philippines, Sri Lanka and Vietnam. More than 150 international students are now believed to have paid fees of up to €5,000 – significantly higher rates than those for previously closed colleges – that have still not been refunded by the college. The large majority of those affected never managed to reach Ireland, as the Irish visa application requires non-EU citizens to pay upfront fees before applying to study here.

Many students who weren’t able to travel after their applications were rejected have been trying to get their fees refunded since June, according to the Irish Council for International Students (ICOS). The organisation has highlighted that Shelbourne College focused its recruitment efforts on visa-required countries, instead of non-EU countries like Brazil and Mexico that aren’t visa-required for study in Ireland – even though Department of Justice figures have shown that 85% of visa applications related to the college were rejected by immigration officials over the last year and a half. “For a college to choose to focus its recruitment efforts so squarely on a small group of countries on the visa-required list does raise obvious questions,” Dave Moore, ICOS communication officer, tells me. “Malawi, which is not a visa required country, entered the college’s recruitment picture very late in the day.”

String of closures

Shelbourne was the tenth English language college in Ireland to close in 2014. Several of the others – including Eden College, Millenium College, the National Media College and the Business and Computer Training (BCT) Institute – were shut down after inspections found that they had offered to falsify attendance records to allow non-EU students to skip classes to work.

The practice is commonplace in many English language schools, according to David O’Grady of Marketing English in Ireland (MEI), an association of 54 regulated and inspected English language schools. O’Grady claims that schools have cashed in on demand for the ‘stamp 2’ visa, which allows students to take on up to 20 hours of part-time work a week during term time or up to 40 hours a week during normal college vacation periods, provided they have a minimum class attendance rate of 80%. Many don’t in fact have the resources to handle their number of enrolled students, he says. His own schools, as of December 5th, have offered course places to 565 displaced students for €60 per week, a  70% discount on MEI fees.


Moore estimates that some 2,500 students are still out of pocket as a result of the string of closures, though the figure is complicated by a number of factors. About 4,000 non-EEA students were enrolled in the 10 colleges, he says, but the number of registered students includes those who had just completed their courses and were in a period of holiday.  The registered number also excludes students “who had paid for courses but either hadn’t started or had only very recently started at the time of the closures and who had therefore not made their registration with immigration authorities.”

For a college to choose to focus its recruitment efforts so squarely on a small group of countries on the visa-required list does raise obvious questions.

A third factor is that Eden College “had some FETAC accredited programmes and enrolled some students to English ACELS language programmes in 2013 before it lost both MEI membership and ACELS accreditation,” he adds. “These are the only students of those affected who had any form of learner protection – i.e. the right to transfer to another programme without additional fees, thereby shielding them from losses. All other students have been expected to pay again to enrol with another college.”

For many students, though, the future is still uncertain. Some have reported difficulties getting the Gardaí to take their complaints seriously. Moore confirms this: “The feedback we have received on student experience of trying to make a report to the Gardai has shown it to be a pretty negative experience for most who sought to do so.”  The Irish Naturalisation and Immigration Service (INIS) has no telephone enquiry service and its last meeting with students was on May 13th. While schools are legally obliged to compensate students, their directors have no personal liability unless it can be proven that they have engaged in fraudulent or reckless behaviour. “The bar is quite high for this and the problem is compounded if there is a reluctance on the part of the authorities to investigate and pursue complaints,” he adds.

ICOS favours the establishment of protected accounts that would securely hold money on behalf of students applying for visas. It points to the private college sector in countries like Singapore, where schools are obliged to protect students’ fees via an escrow bank account or insurance provider. The Department of Justice has said it was open to the idea, but that there are no banks that can currently offer this kind of service.  It’s a goal that should surely be achieved this year, Moore tells me. “Other countries have such systems,” he points out. “Just as students have been hurt, Ireland’s reputation has been damaged by the closures. We would see the establishment of solid protections for course fees to be central to the rebuilding confidence.”

Meanwhile, efforts to clean up the industry have met with little success so far. Minister Frances Fitzgerald had planned to introduce tighter regulations that would only allow international students to enrol in programmes accredited by Quality and Qualifications Ireland, the national awarding body for third-level institutions outside the university sector, but the move has been delayed by last Tuesday’s successful High Court challenge brought by two English language colleges, Academic Bridge and the National Employee Development Centre, who claimed that the new rules would put them out of business. The focus of their opposition to government plans was almost entirely on the ACELS accreditation scheme – not on the issue of working hours allowed under non-EU visas or the requirement that courses be accredited in Ireland. This refusal to comply with minimum quality standards casts a cold light on those schools largely relying on recruitment from non-EU countries. School directors understand the attractiveness of cheap courses to the would-be student, thousands of miles away, and understand how to make money out of that longing for education, for a better life.

The victims of those closed schools, for now, have little comfort.  Savings have been wasted and dreams have died. It has been over half a year since Shelbourne applicants first called attention to the college’s failure to compensate fees. Now, seven months later, their common plea is the same:  “Please get my money back.”

Photo: Dave Moore, ICOS

Catherine Healy

Editor of Trinity News. Interested in politics, history and all forms of media.