Thursday, 14 January 2021
Covid-19 (Higher Education): Statements
I thank Deputy Matthews. I could not agree more with his comments on first-year college students. These are leaving certificate students from last year, who last sat in a classroom in March 2020. Against all the odds and all the challenges, they got themselves into college and now, as he rightly said, they are finding courses being done from the bedroom, the box room or the kitchen table. It is extremely difficult for them. Subject to the behaviour of the virus, I have not given up hope of trying to at least arrive at a point where first-year students could be invited in to see their campus, to get a sense of what college will be like, to feel connected to the institution and to know that the current college situation is not forever. That will very much depend on how the virus goes.
I will keep a very close eye on the drop-out rate. I take his point in that regard. I would not in any way be complacent or cocky about that, but the initial indications are that it is correlating with last year. I await an update from the HEA.
Direct communication with students is important. I raised this last week when I met USI representatives and also the representative bodies of the colleges. We asked the colleges and the student unions to identify how best to do that. We do not want to bombard people with lots of communication or another email to read. Deputy Matthews is correct: it is time to try to wrap our arms around all of the supports that are there and put one, easily digestible communication in place in that regard.
On the examinations, I want to see common sense, compassion and a bit of cop-on when it comes to flexibility. I think that will be forthcoming and I was encouraged by the comments of the Irish Universities Association in that regard.
In the interests of time I will send Deputy Devlin a written note on the once-off payment of €250 but it is going very well. The SUSI grant before Christmas gave a once-off bonus payment in December and colleges are now beginning to credit the accounts of non-SUSI students, so the process is very much under way. My Department is ready to assist the Department of Education on extra college places and is working very closely with it on that. We have an ambitious programme of capital development for the further education colleges. I agree with the Deputy's point about them needing that investment. I will send the Deputy written detail on that.