Dáil debates

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

2:55 pm

Photo of Jonathan O'BrienJonathan O'Brien (Cork North Central, Sinn Fein)
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To ask the Minister for Justice and Equality the progress that has been made in achieving the goal, as set out in the Programme for Government, to overhaul the student visa system; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [43109/12]

Photo of Seán CroweSeán Crowe (Dublin South West, Sinn Fein)
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To ask the Minister for Justice and Equality if his attention has been drawn to difficulties or delays in job applicants and students receiving visas to come to work or study here; and if he has any new proposals to address these difficulties. [44826/12]

Photo of Alan ShatterAlan Shatter (Minister, Department of Justice, Equality and Defence; Dublin South, Fine Gael)
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I propose to take Questions Nos. 8 and 25 together.

In line with the objectives of the programme for Government, my Department has been working on implementing the recommendations set out in the new immigration regime for full-time non-European Economic Area students which has been in operation since 1 January 2011. Before outlining the steps which have been taken to implement the new student regime, I advise the House that approximately 30,300 non-EEA students are registered with the Garda National Immigration Bureau, GNIB. Statistics from the GNIB provide a snapshot of registrations. Of course, the majority of non-Irish students currently pursuing studies in Ireland are from EU countries.

I can report to the House that the Government has made significant progress on the reform of the student migration system within the framework of the new immigration regime. To date the following initiatives have been implemented. The regime distinguishes between degree programmes and language and non-degree programme courses and provides for appropriate time limits for each programme. The recommended maximum time limit of seven years residence in Ireland as a student has been implemented. Short-term English language students - those staying for a maximum period of up to 90 days - are now regarded as educational tourists for visa purposes and are therefore not subject to the student residency requirements. An enhanced post study pathway for graduates has been available to non-EEA students since October 2010, with honours degree graduates now able to avail of a 12 month graduate scheme permission. Fast tracking of Irish accredited degree programme visa applications has been rolled out in visa offices. A pilot visa scheme developed by INIS and Marketing English in Ireland, MEI, the representative body for English language schools, has been rolled out in the Turkish market to attract students from Turkey. A pilot visa scheme with regard to Chinese English language students is being developed with MEI with a view to maximising the potential of the Chinese student market, which we regard as substantial. A trusted agent programme has been launched in India in conjunction with Enterprise Ireland, whereby reputable agents in India who work with the Irish higher education sector would have their cases prioritised in the visa system. A new pilot scheme for verification of the finances the student needs to support him or herself in Ireland is currently being piloted in the key markets of India and China.

Visa Statistics for 2011 and the first three quarters of 2012 are available on the web pages of the Irish Naturalisation and Immigration Service. A comparison of the two years illustrates the success of the Government's ongoing initiatives in regard to international education. In the first nine months of the present year, 5,881 student visas were granted and 619 were refused, which represents an overall approval rate of 90% for student visa applications. During the 12 months of 2011, 4741 student visas were granted and 671 refused, representing a 87.6% approval rate for student visas. The number of visas granted in the first three quarters of this year already exceeds the number granted for the whole of 2011 by 24%. Adjusting for the fact that junior English language students from Russia were treated as visitors rather than students during 2011, a policy that was changed for this year, the figures show that the number of visas granted to students in the first three quarters of 2012 still exceeds the 12 month 2011 figure by 12.5%. The individual approval rates in the first three quarters of 2012 for key markets are also very encouraging. The approval rate for China stands at 93%, for India it is 85% and Russia it is 98%. My officials inform me that these approval rates represent a slight increase on the rates for the applicable period in 2011.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House.

In relation to the processing of visa applications for the purpose of study or taking up employment, while some issues may arise in specific cases I am not aware of any systemic difficulties or delays at present in such processing. With regard to the latter category the applicant will have obtained, in the first instance, a work permit from the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation and in these circumstances the visa process is usually a routine matter. On study visas, I am informed by officials in the visa section of the Irish Naturalisation and Immigration Service of my Department that there are no undue delays in the processing of such visas.

Photo of Pádraig Mac LochlainnPádraig Mac Lochlainn (Donegal North East, Sinn Fein)
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The number of visa allocations has significantly increased on the 26,000 issued in 2010, which brought revenue of €900 million to the economy. The importance of overseas students to our universities cannot be overstated. My colleague, Deputy Jonathan O'Brien, who is our spokesperson on education, tabled Question No. 8. I urge the Minister to continue co-operating with the Department of Education and Skills in this area. I understand that he is also working with the Ministers for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation and Foreign Affairs and Trade on allocating visas that can benefit trade. I ask the Minister, Deputy Shatter, to ensure his Department has sufficient resources to process these visas.

Photo of Alan ShatterAlan Shatter (Minister, Department of Justice, Equality and Defence; Dublin South, Fine Gael)
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My Department is focused on increasing the numbers of students coming to this State for educational purposes. There are enormous benefits for the State in increasing the number, including from the impact on future economic relationships between Ireland and the various countries from which students come. The Government is taking a comprehensive approach to the student migration regime. The new immigration regime for full-time non-EEA students forms part of a comprehensive overhaul of the international education system in Ireland and my Department and the Department of Education and Skills are working closely together in this regard.

My colleague, the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Quinn, has implemented a comprehensive reform process in the education sector, including the establishment of a new qualifications and quality agency. He also plans to establish a quality mark for English language schools and further and higher education colleges as part of efforts to get more international students to study here. I strongly support this initiative as it should make it much harder for disreputable providers to function and will act as a significant marketing tool to attract students to this country.

In addition, the Department of Education and Skills established a new high level group charged with the development of the strategy for building Ireland's international education sector. This group, under the chairmanship of the Department of Education and Skills, brings together the key Departments and agencies involved and includes a representative of my Department. We regard this area as one of substantial growth for the coming years. In the work we are doing in my Department, we are looking at the various possibilities with regard to ensuring we have a proper system in place which does not create unnecessary obstacles for those who wish to come here to study.

3:05 pm

Photo of Niall CollinsNiall Collins (Limerick, Fianna Fail)
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I agree with the Minister's comments on the economic impact inward migration of students can have for our economy. The spin-off that can create in the wider economy is immense. Unfortunately, we are playing second fiddle to the United Kingdom in terms of tapping into the potential of that unrealised market and anything we can do should be done post haste.

With regard to a separate but linked issue, we are having a discussion around the criminalisation of the purchase of sex and the area of prostitution and are engaged in the consultation under way currently. We know there is factual evidence that many of those people who are trafficked into this country for the purpose of prostitution or sex work travel here on visas for educational purposes. The Minister may not have the figures to hand on this, but has he any handle on the number of people the authorities have come across in prostitution who have educational type visas?

Photo of Alan ShatterAlan Shatter (Minister, Department of Justice, Equality and Defence; Dublin South, Fine Gael)
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There is a long stretch between dealing with reform of the laws relating to prostitution and visas for students. As the Deputy knows, we are engaged in a consultative process on the report we published last June. We passed the report on to the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality and it is engaged on that. I understand it either has held or will hold hearings on that report and that submissions have been sought.

On the issue of trafficking, I do not have statistics to hand with regard to individuals trafficked to Ireland for the purpose of prostitution who have come here on a student visa. Some of those who are alleged to have been trafficked to Ireland have denied to gardaí, when they have become engaged in the matter, that they have been trafficked to Ireland and have asserted they are here independently engaging in the form of work the Deputy described. Of course, some of the individuals who make that assertion do so out of fear, because of the individuals hidden in the background. We are very conscious of that.

Some of those who come here and engage in that activity come from outside the European Economic Area, but not all and some of those who arrive in this State and engage in prostitution are independent contractors who are not trafficked at all. There seems to be a tendency for a certain number of people to arrive on weekends of rugby internationals and then fly out when the internationals are over. This is a complex area, but I do not wish to minimise the level of concern about it. However, I am not sure we will ever have accurate statistics which indicate individuals who come here on student visas who engage in prostitution or which will indicate those on similar visas who have been trafficked here under pressure as opposed to travelling here voluntarily.

Nevertheless, as the Deputy knows, we are very serious about reviewing our laws on prostitution. I anticipate and look forward to the response of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality. We had a very full and interesting one-day seminar two Saturdays ago at which there was full participation from those in the audience and at which some very interesting papers were delivered on the issue. The Deputy was unable to be there, but I urge him to read some of the papers presented.

Photo of Niall CollinsNiall Collins (Limerick, Fianna Fail)
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We were represented there.

Photo of Alan ShatterAlan Shatter (Minister, Department of Justice, Equality and Defence; Dublin South, Fine Gael)
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They represent different perspectives and views on the best way forward legislatively. I value the feedback we will get as to the manner in which we should address this area.

Written Answers follow Adjournment.