The position of ACELS in Ireland in 2015

People familiar with the with the English language education Sector in Ireland will be equally familiar with the Accreditation and Co-ordination of English language Services or "ACELS" standard. The ACELS accreditation is systems based approval accreditation that previously colleges in Ireland who were involved in the English language education business could apply for. It was an entirely voluntary code operated by a private company up until 2012 which that company ceased to operate.
 
Given the changes in regulation announced, we have been asked by a number of colleges in the Industry as to the legal status of the ACELS accreditation, given the closure of the operating company in 2012 and the current administration of the voluntary brand by the newly formed Government Authority Quality and Qualifications Ireland or "QQI".
 
The Irish Government over time has made and continues to make a distinction between colleges in the sector who hold the voluntary ACELS accreditation and colleges who do not. The Regulations announced on the 25th May 2015 and the latest publication of the Internationalisation Register continues to differentiate between the two groups. The information from the Government creates the clear impression, incorrectly, that colleges holding the ACELS accreditation are distinct and apart from colleges who do not hold this accreditation and are somehow institutions operating to a higher standard. This is not necessarily a correct presentation of the facts as they are in Ireland.
 
For industry observers and those familiar with the market in Ireland ACELS was a voluntary code which was available to colleges to sign up to as part of their on-going development strategy. ACELS was never a compulsory requirement. In 2012 when the private operating company closed the opportunity for any college to achieve an ACELS accreditation also closed. The 2012 Quality and Qualifications Ireland Act was passed. This Act provided for the introduction of the International Education Mark (IEM). From that time there was no opportunity for colleges wishing to apply for the ACELS accreditation to in fact achieve it. The code was adopted by QQI who now administer an ACELS scheme similar to that operated by the previous organisation and for colleges who already held it.
 
Numerous colleges in the sector who had lawfully operated for a number of years elected not to pursue the ACELS accreditations for various reasons. In addition when the opportunity to apply for the accreditation opened up in a narrow window of opportunity in January 2014, no information was made available to the industry that the reactivated voluntary code was to be relied upon later that year in September as a compulsory standard that all colleges should achieve. Indeed at the date of the announcement on the 2nd September 2014 applications for the voluntary ACELS code were not possible. This was the pretext behind the High Court challenges in 2014 which proved successful. Applications for the accreditation remain closed and it is expected the accreditation will cease to exist after the 1st October 2015.
 
Over the last number of months a number of colleges have closed down in Ireland causing considerable distress and reputational damage. Colleges in the sector would feel that in some cases the closures are attributable to the announcement of the 2nd of September 2014 and the immediate distinction made by the Irish Government between colleges holding the voluntary accreditation and colleges not then holding it. In other cases colleges closed due to mismanagement or malpractice. It is this latter element that the Government is regulating to protect against and to further protect the student body and reputation of the industry. All genuine providers of education support the intentions of the Government to act. In some cases however the colleges who closed either were ACELS accredited or had had their accreditation withdrawn immediately prior to closure. As such the ACELS accreditation cannot be regarded as a distinction in real terms between colleges which hold the accreditation and colleges which do not. The promotion by the Irish Government of the ACELS standard has resulted in an artificial distinction being drawn in the international market.
 
The difficulty caused to the sector therefore is the promotion of colleges on the basis that they hold an ACELS accreditation which is not reflective of the standards of the industry or a guarantee of the security of students' fees.
 
The International Education Mark is expected to be implemented by early 2016. The Mark introduces on a compulsory basis Protection for Enrolled Learner (PEL) arrangements. These are agreements between colleges to enrol students from other colleges that have closed and to allow those students to complete their studies. The changes announced on the 25th May also make student's insurance or protective bond arrangements compulsory certainly from the 1st October 2015. The latest regulations effectively introduce at this stage the need for the PEL arrangements and insurance which will also be required for colleges holding the International Education Mark, once it has been introduced.
 
Organisations such as the The Private College Network operate the required PEL arrangements at this stage and hold student protection insurance. The particular insurance policy operated by members of the Network ensures either the transfer of students to another college to see out their studies or a refund to that student of the course fees paid. Other organisations have other arrangements in place.
 
In summary students from outside the EU wishing to avail of English language courses In Ireland and who require visas for study are advised to prioritise colleges with student insurance in place and proper PEL arrangements regardless of whether that college holds an ACELS accreditation or not. After the 1st October students requiring visa should only enrol in colleges who have had courses admitted the Interim List of Eligible Programmes.
 
If you are a college affected by the changes introduced on the 25th May and wish to set up a consultation please feel free to contact us. Our Dublin City centre law offices are convenient and our service is personable.