Dáil debates

Thursday, 14 January 2021

Covid-19 (Higher Education): Statements


4:30 pm

Photo of Johnny GuirkeJohnny Guirke (Meath West, Sinn Fein) | Oireachtas source

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.


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