Seanad debates

Thursday, 8 April 2004

2:00 am

Mary Henry (Independent)
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This Adjournment matter refers to an administrative problem. Eurocollege Institute of Education operates as the only dedicated medical English-language training school in either Ireland or Britain. It is one of fewer than ten such specialist schools in the world. It has a close educational alliance with Trinity College's school of midwifery, which provides practical advice and assistance to the school on nursing educational issues, as well as allowing the school to use its clinical training laboratories for certain elements of the teaching programme.

At present, there are just over 50 postgraduate students in the school, who have graduated from universities, medical colleges and medical schools outside the European Union. They are undertaking postgraduate study programmes in the school. This month the school hopes to recruit even more students in Korea and India. It hopes to have approximately 200 medical and nursing students next year and the figure may rise to approximately 400 in subsequent years.

It is a requirement that students at the school should be issued with a residency stamp by the Garda national immigration bureau. However, since December 2003, there has been confusion about this procedure. The Garda national immigration bureau has refused to issue the required residency stamps for students undertaking medical English-language study programmes at Eurocollege. As of today, there is a total of 29 students attending Eurocollege, who cannot gain the required residency stamps.

The problem is that someone seems to think that the students require work permits to study here. All that is needed is a letter from the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment stating that work permits are not required by them. The work permits information leaflet, published by the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, states that "all persons residing in the State are required to have up-to-date residency stamps. Without these stamps a person is considered to be residing illegally and is potentially liable for deportation". It also states that "work permits are not required for the following: postgraduate students, where the work is an integral part of the course of study being undertaken (a letter is required from the college stating that they are studying)."

One would think that all this should be in order because there has been contact between Eurocollege's director of operations, Mr. John McDonnell, and Superintendent Gerard Cadden of the Garda national immigration bureau. There seems to have been some hiccup in the situation, however.

Dr. Cecily Begley, who is the director of Trinity College's school of nursing and midwifery, and is also vice-dean of TCD's faculty of health sciences, has written to the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, confirming that the people in question are postgraduate students and that clinical placement is an integral part of their course of study. Dr. Begley's letter, however, has not elicited any solution from the Department.

In addition, the work permits information leaflet states that

Non-EEA nationals who have permission to remain in the State as students will be entitled to take up casual employment (defined as up to 20 hours part-time work per week or full-time work during vacation periods) for the duration of their permission to remain. As the primary purpose of their residence continues to be study, a work permit will not be required.

It goes on to explain that students who wish to continue in employment following the completion of their studies will be required to obtain a work permit. Unfortunately, it is difficult to know what is going on and this is causing great embarrassment to Eurocollege, which is trying to attract more foreign students. The college is also having problems regarding students who do not have the required residency stamp. I would be grateful if the Minister of State could outline why the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment has not managed to resolve this issue.

3:00 am

Tom Parlon (Minister of State, Department of Finance; Laois-Offaly, Progressive Democrats)
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I thank the Senator for raising the issue. I am quite familiar with the work done by Eurocollege. I am replying on behalf of the Tánaiste and Minster for Enterprise, Trade and Employment. The Senator refers to a long-standing arrangement, agreed in conjunction with the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, whereby non-EEA postgraduate medical students may take up employment in the State without requiring a work permit to do so, providing the work is an integral part of their studies. That provision was never in question and the Tánaiste does not have a decision to make in this regard.

However, this concession only applies to non-EEA nationals who undertake postgraduate studies at a recognised third-level institution in Ireland. It does not apply to non-EEA nationals studying English in Ireland who may possess a postgraduate qualification from their home country.

The college in question informed the Department that the nurses undertaking English language courses in the institution possess postgraduate qualifications in nursing. This suggests they are not undertaking further medical studies, rather a course in English that may eventually allow them to work in the nursing field. Non-EEA nationals undertaking English language studies in the college in Ireland are, therefore, not postgraduate students, medical or otherwise, for the purposes of immigration law. This means they are not permitted to take up periods of full-time employment during their studies.

Any non-EEA national student who has permission to remain in the State as a student is entitled to take up casual employment for the duration of his or her permission to remain. Casual employment is defined as "up to 20 hours part-time work per week or full-time work during vacation periods, for example, summer and Christmas holidays. However, they are not entitled to undertake full-time employment during their studies, even for short periods.

Students of the college in question have, in the past, undertaken periods of employment during their studies without obtaining a work permit to cover this employment. Non-EEA nationals with permission to remain in the State as students have no entitlement to undertake periods of full-time employment outside vacation periods.

The Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment does not generally accept work permit applications in respect of non-EEA nationals with permission to remain in Ireland as students. The only exception is where a student gives up his or her permission to remain as a student in order to gain permission to remain as an employee. A non-EEA national cannot have permission to remain as both a student and a worker.

In such circumstances, the question arises as to whether it is in the public interest to issue work permits in respect of students of the college in question, and if so, on what terms. It is important not to confuse the periods of work placement undertaken by students of the college during their studies with clinical assessment or clinical placement, as it was previously known. Clinical assessment is undertaken by non-EEA nationals who have received temporary registration from An Bord Altranais, the Irish Nursing Board. They are undertaken in designated teaching hospitals and generally lead to the individual gaining full registration with the board.

This is not the case with the students in question. They undertake periods of work experience as nursing assistants without the involvement of An Bord Altranais. The Department has received mixed reports from the college on a number of occasions regarding where these periods of work placement take place. It was initially asserted that they generally take place in the Dublin area teaching hospitals. It was subsequently outlined that they take place in nursing homes and there was mention of work placement occurring in crèches. This raises questions regarding the benefit such experience offers to the nurses in terms of increasing their chances of obtaining registration with An Bord Altranais at the end of their studies.

The Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment is well disposed towards any initiative that would provide the Irish health system with a new source of suitably qualified registered nurses. In this regard, the Department is consulting with other public agencies such as the Departments of Health and Children and Justice, Equality and Law Reform, the Garda National Immigration Bureau, An Bord Altranais and the Health Service Employers Agency

It is not clear what is the intended or likely outcome of attendance at the language courses in question. The Department has received mixed, and not altogether compatible, reports from the college and a number of other quarters regarding where the students will be working once they have completed their course of studies. A number of parties to the discussions have been told that the nurses in question will go to work in the USA or the UK while others have been advised that the nurses will seek to stay in Ireland to do two years "work experience".

The Department is also concerned that the students may have an altogether different expectation of their likely prospects and destinations after completion of their language course. The Department's inquiries in this area are continuing. It is likely the Department will wish to meet with the sponsors of the proposal in question to discuss outstanding issues in the week beginning 19 April.