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Covid-19 (Higher Education): Statements (Continued)

Thursday, 14 January 2021

Dáil Éireann Debate

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(Speaker Continuing)

[Deputy Marc MacSharry: Information on Marc MacSharry Zoom on Marc MacSharry] There is the potential to develop a research-led school of nursing, as I said, because there are small schools in GMIT and LYIT which, along with St. Angela's, can provide the critical mass that we yearn for, again, under some of the recommendations of the Hunt and Salzburg reports. While we in the north west are anxious that the technological university application will not be delayed, given that it is just about ready, we very much hope the merger of St. Angela's College with Sligo Institute of Technology will be acknowledged by Government and the Department as something that makes perfect sense economically and educationally and is in line with other core programmes in the programme for Government, such as Ireland 2040 and so on. I ask that the Minister and Minister of State facilitate a meeting over the next fortnight in order that we can discuss and progress these matters further.

Deputy Johnny Guirke: Information on Johnny  Guirke Zoom on Johnny  Guirke I want to bring to the attention of the Minister a number of things I came across in the past couple of months that he could, perhaps, take on board. I am the father of two children who attend third level education. I know from experience what it takes for people to put their children through education. Many families across the country struggled before the Covid-19 virus arrived to put their children through college, particularly as there are bills for accommodation, food, travel, expenses and college fees. All of these impose a major burden on stressed-out parents and guardians. Students have had to endure more stress and anxiety during Covid times than in normal college years, with having to attend college classes online instead of in person. For some, that will be okay because they may have good broadband access. In rural Ireland, however, I am afraid that the pandemic hit us before the national broadband plan was commenced. I have spoken to many students who fear that they are falling behind in their classes due to not having adequate Internet services available to them. They have expressed their fears of not having any or having bad Internet coverage in their areas, which leaves them with two options, namely, to stay at home and miss classes or break restrictions by travelling to another home or premises so they can attend college online.

Another problem for students was identified by Deputy Conway-Walsh. I refer to the fact that students paid for accommodation but could not use it because restrictions did not allow them to travel or stay on campus. This led to students seeking refunds which were not given . As a result, many families were left out of pocket. Some students had to pay for accommodation in the hope that college courses would return to campus but, unfortunately, this did not happen, which meant they were also left out of pocket. Students also had to pay full fees for courses. In some cases, this cost over €3,000. There were no reductions in costs even though courses have now moved online. A voucher of €250 will be issued to students soon – some have already received it – to help with the upheaval they are going through. This does not go anywhere near meeting the full cost involved in paying for college.

Some students are worried that if they fail exams they may incur repeat fees, which can be very costly. It is to be hoped these fees can be waived in order to relieve any undue stress.

Many families have had one or both parents laid off work, leaving 400,000 people in receipt of the pandemic unemployment payment. This has caused undue stress for families with mounting debts. The loss of work for some of these families will not just affect their children who are attending college this year; it will have a major knock-on effect over the next few years as many families will struggle.

I hope the Government will take this into account and allow for additional grants and supports for struggling families over the coming years which will allow their children to be in a position to be able to attend college. A student explained to me that she has struggled through college this year and feels she has fallen further and further behind because online learning is not the same as being in a classroom. When one is in a classroom and does not understand something, one can ask a professor a question and he or she can help. If that is not good enough, a fellow classmate can be asked a question and help a student who feel he or she is falling behind.

Students are missing out on interaction in classes. Colleges assist our children with social and practical skills and life outside of the family or community bubble we live in. Another student told me that he feels like dropping out of his course in his very first year of college because he does not know anyone in his class. He went on to say that he feels lonely and isolated and does not have anyone to ask for help because he is the first of his family to attend college.

Other students have said that online teaching leads to classes overlapping, meaning that when a class running from noon to 2 p.m. runs over they are then late for a class at 2 p.m. This is a problem that is not just happening in third level; I am afraid it is happening across all levels of education.

A student told me he feels like he is teaching himself. This is on top of studying at home in a busy household where siblings play, unaware of the stresses their older brother is going through. He explained how he is starting to feel the pressure on his shoulders because he cannot travel to college for practical work, and is unable to work part-time due to the restrictions and is not entitled to the pandemic unemployment or any other payment. We need to put a mental health strategy in place to help students cope with online classes and studying. We need to make sure that our children come out of this pandemic smiling and happy.

Deputy Gary Gannon: Information on Gary Gannon Zoom on Gary Gannon I thank the Minister and welcome the opportunity to interact with him today. I have said several times that although the leaving certificate examination is important and that all of those facing State examinations deserve clarity, one set of examinations should not dominate and overshadow all other aspects of education. Many students in further and higher education are facing similar difficulties relating to the digital divide, appropriate study spaces and well-being issues as they endure one of the hardest academic years in our history. It is also worth remembering that for many students of the class of 2020, the pandemic marked the end of their secondary school education. The experience of the classes of 2020 and 2021 is stark and different from that of any other cohort.

I am very conscious that at this point that there would be a drop off in all university settings of students in first year who leave education for a variety of reasons. Can the Department capture the data in that regard? It would be interesting in terms of discovering what has been their experience in that regard.

A matter I will discuss further with the Minister is the potential of a no-detriment policy. I am very conscious of students in receipt of SUSI grants who, like everybody else, have four years of free education. This particular year is different from any other. Therefore, we might explore the idea of having a no-detriment policy in the future. I am happy to take this matter up with the Minister at a later date.

Any clarity and assurance the Minister can give to students would make a big difference. They need more information on what the next academic year will look like so that students and parents know whether to invest in accommodation. I understand how difficult that would be. If we knew the virus would be at a particular level meaning the colleges would not be able to go back, students would know what September would look like when they are budgeting for the rest of the year.

While acknowledging the autonomy of higher education institutions, some uniformity, consistency and consensus across the sector with regard to services, exam policies and what is deemed essential work on campus would be greatly welcomed at this time. I wish to inquire into the additional support for students this year, particularly mature students, students with children, students who are caring for a loved one and students from non-traditional backgrounds. They should be permitted to repeat modules or examinations without financial penalties.

I am also very conscious of the very welcome €250 the Minister has given to students for their educational needs this year. One particular cohort will not benefit from that, namely, foundation course and access students. I was on a call with the Minister when he discussed college for early years students recently. It was a fantastic engagement. We cannot leave this cohort behind the in the €250 payment for education. We need to be creative in how we provide that payment.

I greatly welcome the announcement of the eduroam network, but this process needs to be accelerated to address digital divides. For example, students in study spaces at home or those in rural areas need access to this network for online and blended learning. I submitted a parliamentary question to the Minister regarding whether the extended network could support secondary school students and those in further and higher education. My work in higher education access has shown me the great willingness and need for further and higher level institutions to support those at second level so that they might transition to further or higher education.

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