Dáil debates

Thursday, 14 January 2021

Covid-19 (Higher Education): Statements


4:30 pm

Photo of Gary GannonGary Gannon (Dublin Central, Social Democrats) | Oireachtas source

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.

We have spoken previously about the digital divide. I would have raised it earlier with the Minister for Education if the opportunity had presented. The work being done across the university sector on pathways to third level overlaps with the issue of confronting that digital divide, albeit some of the voices are probably more realistic than others in terms of access to broadband. Progress in this regard would be hugely welcome. The Minister made reference to the fact that such a task would require significant investment in identity management and other improvements. I ask that he work with the Department of Education and the Minister, Deputy Foley, as the issue does not separate itself from third level students.

I welcome the review of the SUSI payment and I hope it will be swift and will account for inflation. I urge the Minister to look, in particular, at the issue of the binary labelling of students as either dependent or independent and the restrictions on changing that label. It is common for students to enter higher education as dependent students but their circumstances may change, sometimes dramatically. In some instances, students may become financially dependent over time. I have spoken to people who experienced both and were unable to access the financial support of SUSI as dependent students. They were required to submit financial information from parents or guardians with whom they no longer had a relationship. This is an issue every year in terms of access to the university sector. I wanted to highlight it in the limited time available and would welcome an opportunity to discuss it with the Minister at the next available opportunity.

I have raised a lot of points and would be grateful for whatever answers he can give.


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