Thursday, 14 January 2021
Covid-19 (Higher Education): Statements
Le bliain anuas, is minic go raibh mic léinn ó Ollscoil na hÉireann, Gaillimh, agus Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology, GMIT, i dteagmháil liom agus iad trína chéile mar gheall ar bhrú airgid, ar fhadhbanna lóistín agus ar an mbrú meabhairshláinte atá orthu de bharr na paindéime seo. Tá a fhios againn ar fad gur buille uafásach a bhí sa phaindéim seo orainn ar fad ach ba bhuille ar leith í ar dhaoine óga. Chaill an t-uafás acu a gcuid phost agus, ar ndóigh, stop a saoil shóisialta. The past year has been difficult for all of us but it has most certainly been a difficult year for young people. I have lost count of the number of students from NUI Galway and Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology who have been in contact with me about the extraordinary pressure they are under. They have told me of the real economic hardship they face and of the real impact it has had on their mental health. Many have lost their jobs as a result of the pandemic and the social life that comes with going on to third level education is non-existent. The NUI Galway Students' Union has told me the feeling of isolation has become a major problem for many students. Of course, that is the antithesis of the experience of most of us at university.
I have raised with the Minister previously the issue of the repeat fee at NUI Galway. It still has not been rectified. In the middle of a pandemic when youth unemployment is at a height of 19.4%, students are being asked to cough up €295 for an examination that is free almost everywhere else. That is a considerable amount for students and it is not the kind of disposable income that most of them have. I call on the Minister to intervene urgently in this matter now, before we are in a crisis for so many students again.
This is not the only disadvantage facing students of NUI Galway. While other universities have made repeat examinations free, they have also extended time for deferrals and made it possible for students to resit examinations even if they have already passed. If a student needs a higher grade, the student can resit for free. This is the case in some universities but not others. The length of examination time has also been increased in some colleges but not others. There should be a unified approach. No one should be academically disadvantaged during this pandemic. When students graduate and join the workforce, they should be on a level playing field. It is unfair that policies at some universities are more favourable while other universities are not made to follow suit. I urge the Minister to consider this and what action may be taken.
Of course the cost of accommodation is bad and crippling in Galway city at the best of times. However, during the pandemic this has been exacerbated. One student wrote to me and said that for the summers between college she worked two jobs and saved 80% plus of the money she earned each summer to pay for going through college. She was also in receipt of the SUSI grant. Each time the college year ended she was in debt as the cost of accommodation crippled her year on year. There are plenty of other students in the same circumstances. Of course in Galway, there is an added stress on students since private providers of student accommodation have not returned money that they have been paid, amounting to up to €5,500 for unused accommodation. Again, we need action on this urgently.
I received another shocking account from a student nurse who was not being paid as a student nurse. She was unable to work a part-time job. Any money she received from SUSI, which was not much, went straight on rent. Then, when the pandemic hit, she had increased difficulty finding accommodation as people were concerned, naturally, about sharing with a student nurse. She ended up relying on the hardship fund. That is no solution when it comes to students in the private rented sector. A student hardship fund should not be going directly to landlords or on repeat examinations and college fees. We have another issue relating to the €224 levy being paid. Part of it is supposed to be going toward on-site services. It has to be paid. Will the Minister advise on whether he intends to meet private accommodation providers about refunding up to €5,500 to students? What is his view on whether some universities have more lenient policies regarding examinations while others do not? Will he contact NUI Galway regarding the €295 repeat fee?