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Language school quality chief linked to collapsed college which left students in limbo

International House Galway went into liquidation while the head of new quality standards for the industry remained the majority shareholder.

By Alice Chambers

A FORMER DIRECTOR of the now liquidated company behind an international language school which left students out of pocket is the head of Ireland’s new language school quality assurance scheme. 

Mary Grennan is the former director and majority shareholder of English by Design Ltd, the company behind International House Galway, which controversially closed last year. She is now responsible for the development of the International Education Mark (IEM) at Quality and Qualifications Ireland (QQI).

Grennan registered the business name International House Galway in November 2013, and resigned as a director of English by Design Ltd in January 2022.

Whilst Grennan declined to comment directly, a spokesperson for QQI responded on her behalf. They told Noteworthy that Grennan had not been involved in the management of International House Galway since October 2021, had been hired through a competitive recruitment process and had put her shares in a trust in January 2022.

“The process of placing the shares in a trust was nearing completion when the liquidation was announced,” the QQI spokesperson added. “At this point, the shares were dissolved by the liquidator with no material benefit to Mary.”

At QQI, Grennan will be tasked with implementing the new quality scheme which will, according to QQI, “provide protections for learners to avoid situations such as those experienced by IHG (International House Galway) students”.

Under the International Education Mark’s new rules, her track record would likely rule Grennan out of being qualified to run a certified language school. 

Until the IEM is in place, even current interim measures state that language school providers and shareholders “must have not been involved in the last five years in the ownership of an education and training provider, in this or any other jurisdiction, which closed leaving students disadvantaged”. 

The IEM is set to replace these interim measures by mid-2026, according to a Department of Justice spokesperson.

IHG - Eyre Sq International House Galway was a language school located in Eyre Square before its closure last year.
Source: Google Earth 2022

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Partial refund given to some students

Brian Hearne, policy and communications manager at the Irish Council for International Students (ICOS) told Noteworthy that they are still being contacted by people who were affected by the Galway school’s closure in January 2023.

“Some of the affected students did receive a partial refund of their course fees,” he said, but “others did not”. 

At the time of the collapse of International House Galway, it was reported by the media that students were left €40,000 out of pocket.

The liquidator for the company, Conor O’Boyle, told Noteworthy that since then “a large number” of students” were repaid on a “pro rata basis” along with others that were owed money.

He recalled this amounted to about “one third of course fees”, but this only applied to students who had paid fees directly to International House Galway and not third-party companies.   

QQI said that Grennan had had no involvement in the financial or operational management of the school, or in the circumstances leading to the liquidation of the school and failure to refund learners from the point at which she became Head of International Education at QQI in October 2021.

Nevertheless, the formal record indicates that Mary Grennan remained a director of English by Design Ltd until the end of January 2022, when her International House Galway email was listed in official documents. In response the QQI spokesperson said:

“Mary Grennan tendered her resignation as a director of International House Galway in August 2021 in order to accept the position of Head of International Education at QQI in October 2021.”

The QQI spokesperson added that Grennan would not be permitted to become a provider of language services under the terms of her QQI contract.

And further that “neither QQI nor its employees have any role in assessing or deciding on applications from providers. QQI will apply a robust governance framework to the IEM application process.”

The Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science (DFHERIS) oversees QQI.

When asked about the appointment of Grennan, a DFHERIS spokesperson said that “such recruitment would be a matter for QQI itself”.

They added that “this post was filled as part of the wider recruitment of additional staff to ensure QQI has the necessary resources and expertise, including industry expertise, available to support the development and implementation of the IEM”.

90342151_90342151 Students protesting in 2014 after the closure of a number of language schools at the time.

Quality control needed to protect students

The closure of International House Galway was one of the latest of many that impacted language students over the past decade. 

The government began work on a quality mark in 2014. That year, ten colleges closed leaving over 3,000 students without courses for which they had paid. 

Grennan was director of English By Design Ltd until January 2022 when she resigned. She was the majority shareholder (over 60% shares) according to the company’s 2021 accounts – the last filed before liquidation in April 2023. 

The school’s closure is less than five years ago, so any shareholders or directors of the company would likely not meet a key provider requirement under the ‘Interim List of Eligible Programmes’ criteria.

This is the stop-gap measure in place until the IEM is rolled out. Students who need visas to come to Ireland and study English won’t get them if their language school is not on the list. 

The Department of Justice manages this interim list. A spokesperson told Noteworthy that the DOJ “cannot comment on potential providers who might apply”.

On whether Grennan herself would meet the requirements to again become a provider of language schools services, a DFHERIS spokesperson said: “Determinations on the eligibility and listing of providers can only [be] made after due consideration of detailed applications.”

Hearne of the Irish Council of International Students said they are concerned about enforcement of the interim list regulations: “ICOS has consistently called for greater oversight of the English language sector to protect international students.”

The International Education Mark was originally supposed to be introduced in 2016. In 2022, the government announced it would be introduced in January 2023.

The Department of Further and Higher Education has now told Noteworthy that preparation is at “an advanced stage” and that it is anticipated that the scheme will open later this year. 

QQI said that it “currently has no statutory role in regulating the English language education sector” but in 2019 new legislation gave the state agency a new statutory basis for this through the development and implementation of the IEM.

This will require providers to “demonstrate that they meet national standards to ensure a quality experience for international learners from pre-enrolment through to the completion of their programme of education and training”.

The spokesperson said that it will also “contribute to a fund that will protect learners in the event of a sudden provider closure, allowing them to either continue their studies with another provider or receive a full refund of fees”.

The IEM will be a voluntary scheme but providers of courses for students who require immigration permissions or visas must apply to QQI to use the mark.


By Alice Chambers of Noteworthy

Noteworthy is the crowdfunded investigative journalism platform from The Journal. This article was funded in its entirety by our investigative fund. We can’t do this work without your support. Please consider contributing here:

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