Thursday, 8 July 2021
Ceisteanna - Questions - Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions
Third Level Education
Will the Minster set out the amount of time students can expect to spend on campus when they return in September? It is certainly welcome that third level students will be back on campus, but so far little detail has been provided. As the Minister is aware, representatives from the Irish Universities Association, the Technological Higher Education Authority and Education and Training Boards Ireland are appearing before the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Education, Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science today when I will have the chance to get greater detail. Will the Minister provide details on the associated funding to help the institutions to return safely? The HEAs are taking on a huge responsibility in the reopening and the safe return to campus. What funding can they expect?
We have been discussing the required funding for the safe return to college, not just for the institutions but also for the students, and the great work that has been done by the student well-being engagement group that I asked the Union of Students in Ireland to chair. The short answer to the Deputy's question is that I expect to receive approval for additional funding from Cabinet on 19 July. We will have clarity on that then. My officials are engaging with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, as we speak, on that matter.
I thank the Deputy for her support on this issue and for attending the webinar we hosted when we invited Opposition spokespersons, students' unions, university presidents and staff representatives to attend to be briefed on our document entitled A Safe Return: Plan for a safe return to on-site Further and Higher Education and Research in 2021/22, which has been endorsed with the Chief Medical Officer and is in line with public health guidance. Our students and staff are going back to campuses, but it has to be done in a safe way.
The plan reflects the essential nature of higher and further education and training and research activities, and in that context it provides for comprehensive on-site activity for the next academic year, with almost full scale on-site activities. Institutions and providers in the sector have committed to ensuring all learners across all areas have significant scheduled on-site learning in the forthcoming year. Indeed, Government has now deemed on-site education to be essential.
Under the plan, larger scale lectures will take place on site if the public health situation allows. To be honest, that is the outstanding question and we said we would return to Cabinet, probably on 19 July, to make a determination on larger scale lectures. Obviously, if they do go ahead, safety measures will need to be in place, including rules around social distancing, face masks and ventilation, in accordance with prevailing public health advice.
Contingency planning in the event of a more restrictive public health environment is also being prepared by the sector. I know we have been through this in other forums, but we are saying that, at a minimum, a student can expect to come back to campus for everything other than large-scale lectures. At a maximum, we will manage to bring back such lectures. We are telling our students that, a minimum, no matter what happens with Covid-19, we are getting them back to campus for certain activities. That is the difference between this year and last year. We are able to do it on the basis of the success of our vaccination programme and the advice of the Chief Medical Officer.
I thank the Minister for his response and for the briefing he mentioned. I refer to my previous question in respect of extra lab places and being able to facilitate social distancing or whatever needs to be done there. We will all be looking forward to 19 July for this funding and otherwise. However, as the Minister is aware, funding is also very important to ensure support for well-being and mental health is provided on campus.
If a student is a close contact, will he or she have to isolate even if that student is fully vaccinated? I know there is talk in Britain at the moment that perhaps students in such cases will not be classed as close contacts. Has provision been made for those who are medically vulnerable or who have to isolate? Will lectures be part-delivered online and part-delivered in person for those who can attend the lecture theatres? I ask for some clarity and reassurance around that issue. Students have many questions regarding what it will be like in practice for them when they return to college.
The short answer to any questions about what students or staff members will have to do is we will follow the prevailing public health advice at the time. The way I think of it is that if we look on colleges as small towns, in effect, or indeed not so small towns in many ways, the rules that would apply in any town should apply there as well. For example, if a restaurant can be open in a certain scenario outside the gates of the college campus, then the college canteen can open on the same basis. If the pub down the road can be open, then the college bar can open. If sports activities can take place in the local town, then sports activities can happen according to the same rules. That is basically what we are trying to do. We have seen the success of how we safely reopen and manage Covid-19 in a town or a village and we are trying to apply that model to campuses. Therefore, anything to do with rules around social distancing, ventilation, close contacts and how vaccinated people will be treated will all be based on the prevailing public health advice.
There is significant optimism from our Chief Medical Officer, to whom I have spoken directly on the matter. We should remember we are living in a country where we expect to have all adults who wish to be vaccinated fully vaccinated by the end of August, weeks before colleges start back.
I thank the Minister for his response. I completely understand we cannot make predictions, particularly in respect of the Delta variant and the impact it might have. However, in respect of people making plans for accommodation, and I know we have improved it somewhat during the year, I ask that we provide as much certainty as possible, notwithstanding that there will be variables.
I must return to the issue of the number of extra lab places and physical infrastructure that will be put in place for students. I know money was allocated last year. What was that capital spent on? What were the outcomes of that? How many more students will it facilitate? How many more new students are we facilitating this year? Are the lecturers in place for that? Have additional lecturers been recruited across the board? I need reassurance that we have the capacity to address what we are trying to do so that we do not run into a bottleneck of problems come September or October.
There will be statements on this issue next week in the Dáil. I do not have the figure for lab places to hand. We give devolved capital grants to each institution. I would have to approach the institutions through the HEA to obtain that information. I can certainly do that for the Deputy.
The Deputy referenced recorded lectures. I accidentally overlooked that. It is something I would like to see happen. I have heard staff representatives say that they are not against it, but, understandably, they wish to and have every right to engage on it. I would like to see that happen with the institutions. There are definitely benefits to recorded lectures for students who are medically vulnerable. There are also possible benefits for any student who can benefit from both attending the lecture and being able to look back over the recording later.
The other issue we have not touched upon yet is that of rapid testing. While many people are talking about or considering doing rapid testing, we are doing it. There is a programme under way in four institutions, where up to 8,000 staff and students are being tested twice a week with at least two different tests. They are also reaching out to more institutions. We will see the benefits of that quite quickly. By the autumn, and certainly before college resumes, we will be able to make a decision on whether there is a need for a broader roll-out of that programme. It is an extra tool we could have in our toolbox. I will provide the Deputy with the information she requested.