Thursday, 8 July 2021
Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions
15. To ask the Minister for Education and Skills the engagement he has had with third level institutions to ensure that 2020-21 first year students who did not attend their courses due to distance learning will have the necessary supports in place to transition to on-campus learning for the 2021-22 academic year; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [36800/21]
People who were in first year of college have had an unusual experience and are not facing into a normal second year. That needs to be considered. What engagement has the Minister had with the colleges to ensure they are not falling off a cliff? They have a different experience of learning, accommodation, being on campus, engagement with friends and so on. It is important that this is taken into consideration and that they get the necessary supports.
I thank the Deputy for this important and timely question. The Government has committed to planning for a significant increase in on-site attendance in the tertiary education sector in the next academic year. Following intensive consultation with sectoral stakeholders, staff, student representatives and university management, I published A Safe Return: Plan for a Safe Return to on-site Further and Higher Education and Research in 2021/22, the central tenets of which are the protection of and provision of supports to students and learners. The plan was written by students and staff. Its purpose, among other things, is to enable maximum on-site provision of activities, to support the ongoing public health requirements and crucially, to address the core of the Deputy's question, to support the ongoing needs of students and learners.
Institutions and providers are currently progressing their own detailed plans and work. This will include planning for orientation and for reorientation, which I think is the Deputy's point, and transition programmes to assist students in familiarising themselves or refamiliarising themselves with the on-site environment and learning. The approach to providing support for students returning to campus and the need for resources to support these students has been examined by a group I established called the student and learning well-being and engagement group, which was chaired by the Union of Students in Ireland, USI, and supported by my Department.
My Department is finalising the funding that we will require for that safe return with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. As part of that, we will look at some additional measures that we can take to support students returning to college after a year of Zoom and to support students setting foot in college for the first time who may have left a structured education environment in March 2020, when sixth year moved online. This funding will provide additional supports for students and will help with the plans that individual institutions have for orientation and reorientation to help students to refamiliarise themselves. I expect it will include additional funding for student mental health because, while people are excited to return to campus, I am conscious that it is an anxious time for many and that additional supports will be required. I hope to have clarity about that in the week of 19 July.
I thank the Minister for the overview. It will be a different experience for people returning to college. We know from the USI's mental health survey before the pandemic that 38% of students were already anxious, with 29% experiencing depression and one third having a formal diagnosis of mental health difficulties. That was before the pandemic. When the pandemic, the remote experience and the return to college are laid on top of that, an additional mental health challenge is placed ahead of colleges, students and their families. It is important that support is provided and is there from the beginning. It probably needs to have been started already rather than waiting for people to return to campus. People need a clear message about when they will be returning to campus and whether it will be blended learning. Accommodation is a significant issue. We need to look at how accommodation is prioritised for first years. The people who are now going into second year will be at a loose end.
I do not disagree with anything that the Deputy has said. I have asked institutions to continue doing what many of them already do, which is to set aside a certain amount of on-campus accommodation for first year students. They did that last year and it was helpful. We recently passed legislation which has done two things to help students with student accommodation. It was largely based on the USI Bill. It makes sure that students can no longer be asked for months of rent upfront, which was a real barrier. It changes the notice period so that if a person starts a course and cannot continue, he or she only has to give 28 days of notice in student accommodation rather than being out of pocket for many months. We have significantly increased mental health funding, with an additional €5 million for student mental health supports. I take the point the Deputy makes. We want students to know about this and about what will be in place for them long before having to go back to college. I genuinely believe that the Cabinet meeting on 19 July will help to provide further clarity. The outstanding issue is about whether it will be possible to have large-scale lectures. Other than that, we have said that almost everything else will be able to come back. I will do everything I can to expedite the provision of the funding so that we can provide it early.
There is already a shortage of accommodation for students. I acknowledge the efforts that are being made with legislation. Prioritising accommodation for first years recognises the change for them coming into college. People who are going into second year this year have not had the opportunity to live away from home, make friends, get a network, book accommodation and so on. They are facing a situation that will be different from previous years. Reserving accommodation for first years does not acknowledge that. People facing into second year need support with accommodation too. That needs to be recognised in advance. Those bookings need to be made already. Second years often book their accommodation in March, April and May because they know where it is, how much it will cost and who their friends will be. That option has not been available to these people. They should be recognised and prioritised.
The Deputy makes a fair point. It is up to each institution to consider reserving some accommodation for first year students. The rationale for that is that they will not know what college they are going to or what course they will be doing until well after second, third and fourth years know what they are returning to because of the delay with leaving certificate results. This year, we have tried to provide as much certainty and clarity as we can much earlier than we were able to last year. Last year, these matters were still being discussed in August and maybe even in early September. The Government has published its plan for the safe return to on-site campus activity. We have said what people can expect to happen on site at a minimum. We have also said that we will provide clarity about large-scale lectures on 19 July. I agree about the need to increase purpose-built student accommodation. We have been too reliant on the market and therefore pitted students against, for example, families trying to rent the same houses. I hope, as part of our housing for all plan, to be able to accelerate the delivery of college-owned student accommodation.