Dáil debates

Wednesday, 13 October 2021

Ceisteanna - Questions - Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions

Third Level Education

10:40 am

Photo of Rose Conway-WalshRose Conway-Walsh (Mayo, Sinn Fein)
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3. To ask the Minister for Education and Skills the reason that many third-level students remain studying predominantly online; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [49753/21]

Photo of Rose Conway-WalshRose Conway-Walsh (Mayo, Sinn Fein)
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Why is there such wide variation in the amount of on-campus time that students get in different colleges and universities? Students are coming back to me who say they are paying full fees, have paid for their accommodation up-front and were promised an experience by the Minister, and now find that they have as little as one to three hours on campus in a week, even for study time. This has to be sorted.

Photo of Simon HarrisSimon Harris (Wicklow, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Deputy for the important question. We have seen significant reopening of our third level. "Reopening" is the wrong word because as we all know, it never closed. It just moved online and people worked extremely hard to provide education in that context. Some 500,000 students are in further education and training, and in higher education. It is probably the single biggest movement in reopening for adults since March 2020. I thank everybody who has worked so hard, including student unions, management bodies and public health officials, especially Dr. John Cuddihy, who provided us with public health advice. I also thank my officials, education and training boards, and everybody else. Our colleges, further education, higher education and training centres have reopened safely. So far, things are going well. Hundreds of thousands of learners have returned to on-site activity. Recent figures provided to my Department on 4 October show that the average daily student presence on campus at that point was 111,971, or 48.7% of the student population, an increase of 420% in the number of students on-site compared with October 2020. There is no doubt that there has been a significant ramp up, which I know the Deputy accepts.

I would also make the point, and I know the Deputy would agree, that it is not just about the lectures and measuring the lecture time. On the social side, the college bars, canteens, clubs and societies are all back, as are the libraries, research facilities, workshops and tutorials. It is correct that there is a difference when it comes to lectures and that is in line with public health advice. The public health advice is very clear that each institution needs to carry out a risk assessment in relation to its own situation. We should remember that on 22 October next, public health advice is likely to change again and for the better in terms of being able to mix socially. Trinity College Dublin, which has taken an approach where some lectures have remained online, has made it clear that when they return after reading week there will be much more on site. I am very happy with how it is proceeding. The general feedback I get is good. I accept that it varies from site to site but when we talk about what is happening on-site we should talk about it in the round and not just about the lectures.

10:50 am

Photo of Rose Conway-WalshRose Conway-Walsh (Mayo, Sinn Fein)
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I think we have a problem and I am not sure the Minister recognises it. I ask him to re-examine this matter on the basis of the correspondence I am getting from students and parents. I have been contacted by a mother in Ballybunion who has one student in first year instrument engineering and another in third year biomedical engineering. Both are paying full fees of €6,000, and €12,000 for accommodation. One of them is getting one afternoon a week on a Tuesday as in-person face-to-face learning at Munster Technological University, MTU, on its Cork campus and initial professional development for four hours on a Monday and five hours on a Thursday. That is not consistent with what the Minister is telling me, and I have a great deal of similar correspondence. We really need to look at it. As the Minister said, an opportunity is coming in a couple of weeks, later in October. We need to use that opportunity to correct what is wrong. Absolutely, safety is paramount, but we have to ask institutions to do more. Some of them need to do more to be able to accommodate students like this.

Photo of Simon HarrisSimon Harris (Wicklow, Fine Gael)
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I agree with much of what the Deputy says but I do not believe that any institution is doing anything wrong. I would not use that word because I genuinely believe that everybody is applying the public health advice to their institution. I attend a meeting almost every Friday of a steering group where we have input from around the country from all the representative bodies, the student unions and so on. I accept, and it is a statement of fact, that there is a different approach to lectures in different institutions. That is following public health advice. I also expect that there will be a further significant increase as we arrive at 22 October and beyond. We have to get to that date, but as of now, it is likely there will be a further easing of existing restrictions which will enable people to do even more. We are doing everything we possibly can in line with public health advice. Our sector has had 18.5 million free face masks provided. We saw 3,335 people receive vaccinations on campus as part of vaccination week. Next week we will run another vaccination week because many of the students or staff may require a second vaccine. My experience, and I have visited many of our colleges, is that students are getting back on campus for lots of things in addition to lectures, for example for sports and societies or to meet friends for a cup of coffee. From a mental health and well-being perspective that is important. My aim is the same as the Deputy. I want to see a full return to on-site education but I want it to be done in line with best public health advice. I know that would be Deputy Conway-Walsh's approach too.

Photo of Rose Conway-WalshRose Conway-Walsh (Mayo, Sinn Fein)
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I am very concerned about students' mental health and well-being. What is coming back to me is that many of them feel they have been misled and are disappointed, as are their parents and families. I ask the Minister to send a communication to all the third level institutions to ask them to do more and to have another look at this because it is an issue. I would not bring it to him before the House if it was not an issue that was ending up on my desk. I ask him to use October as an opportunity for the institutions to rethink because many students are being told it will not be looked at again until spring. I want them to examine it earlier and make the changes necessary to give the best full experience to students who have missed out on so much for the last 18 months.

Photo of Simon HarrisSimon Harris (Wicklow, Fine Gael)
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On that I agree 100% and I will certainly do that. I will probably be meeting them again this Friday as part of our steering group. The reading week or mid-term break - it is called different things in different institutions - is an important moment to recalibrate and take stock. I understand that is what many institutions intend to do. Trinity College Dublin, which I mentioned as an example, will take one approach before reading week and another, perhaps more liberal approach, after.

I would say to all institutions that we have seen very successful outcomes when students have been back on campus. I hope that can build confidence as well. We have to be respectful, as the Deputy is suggesting, of the health and well-being of students and staff and of public health advice. The fact is that all the institutions are different shapes and sizes, with different infrastructures and different levels of movement but I am very confident that there will be even more on-site activity. I would make the point that there is a 420% increase in the number of students on campus this October compared with last October, but we are not complacent on this. We are watching on a daily basis.