Written answers

Thursday, 10 September 2020

Department of Education and Skills

Covid-19 Pandemic

Richard O'Donoghue (Limerick County, Independent)
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152. To ask the Minister for Education and Skills if his attention has been drawn to the obstacles facing persons of diminished industries due to Covid-19 trying to secure third-level placements; and if exemptions will be made to accommodate the persons. [23063/20]

Photo of Simon HarrisSimon Harris (Wicklow, Fine Gael)
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In light of Covid-19, the higher education sector has implemented and expanded a range of initiatives to assist those who may be working in a sector that has been impacted by the global pandemic and who with to upskill or reskill.

On 24 July 2020 as part of the Government’s announcement on the July stimulus package an additional funding allocation of €47.5m was provided for Higher Education skills-related programmes.

A total allocation of €22.5m will be provided to create an additional 2,650 places across the full range of existing part-time and full-time postgraduate taught programmes in a number of specified skills areas. The skill areas identified will serve not only the requirements of the new economic model envisaged by the Programme for Government but also specific economic and social needs arising from COVID19.

A total of €15m was provided for Modular Skills provision which are shorter, more focused courses/modules that can be offered in a flexible manner and allow people to gain important skills without taking a considerable period away from the labour market. The modular courses will be accredited in such a way as to provide building blocks to a full qualification should the student so wish. Each module will also be stand-alone so that participants can acquire skills and put them into practice immediately in the workplace. It is expected to fill c2,500 Full Time Equivalent (FTE) places under this initiative.

Over 15,000 places are also available as part of Springboard+ 2020 and the graduate conversion courses under HCI Pillar 1. Places are available on courses in a wide range of skills areas, including artificial intelligence, smart factory technology, sustainable energy, medical device technology and cybersecurity. Courses begin from autumn 2020 through to early 2021.

Springboard+ courses provide opportunities to up and reskill to people who are unemployed, those looking to return to the workforce after a period away and those in employment. Courses are offered across the National Qualification Framework from Level 6 to 9 and are delivered by public and private higher education providers across the country. The majority of courses are delivered in a flexible format making them accessible regardless of the learner’s physical location. All courses provide job-readiness modules and most offer the opportunity for work placement, project-based learning or industry site visits were appropriate.

In relation to undergraduate courses, the CAO process applications for undergraduate courses on behalf of the Higher Education Institutions. Decisions on admissions, including deadlines for submission of applications, are made by the HEIs who then instruct the CAO to make offers to successful candidates. As such, neither I nor my Department have a role in the operation of the CAO, and it is not with my remit to extend CAO deadlines.

Rose Conway-Walsh (Mayo, Sinn Fein)
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153. To ask the Minister for Education and Skills if his attention has been drawn to the fact that there are persons with severe medical condition that are in the high risk categories such as those with cystic fibrosis that are denied SUSI grants on the grounds that they are online; the steps he will take to address the situation in view of the risk to these persons from Covid-19 and the fact that many traditional courses are now online; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [23064/20]

Photo of Simon HarrisSimon Harris (Wicklow, Fine Gael)
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The Student Grant Scheme, administered by Student Universal Support Ireland (SUSI), provides grant assistance to students attending an approved course in an approved institution who meet the prescribed conditions of funding, including those relating to nationality, residency, previous academic attainment and means.

Approved courses for the Student Grant Scheme 2020 are prescribed in the Student Support Regulations 2020 and in the Student Support Act 2011. To be eligible for grant assistance, students must be attending an approved full-time course at an approved institution. The Regulations prescribe that an approved course is a full-time course leading to a major higher education and training award which takes a minimum of two years to complete in an approved institution.

Courses that are part-time or that are less than two years in duration or leading to a special purpose/minor award rather than a major award are not approved for the purposes of the Student Grant Scheme. Distance Learning Courses are regarded as part-time courses and, as such, do not qualify for grant assistance under the Student Grant Scheme.

Under Article 15(1) of the Student Grant Scheme, a grant can only be awarded for the normal duration of an approved course, and cannot be paid for any period of study that extends the normal course duration.

In the context of limited public funding and competing priorities, student support funding is currently targeted at full-time students in approved institutions. The potential for reviewing options for existing access funding initiatives to part-time studies in higher education could only be considered in the context of the overall priorities and financial resources for access to higher education, and in the wider higher education funding context. There are no plans at present to extend the scope of the Student Grant Scheme to part-time (online/distance learning) courses.

In terms of policy, planning for models of blended learning is taking place against a backdrop of an evolving public health environment. Changes to courses normally delivered on campus are in response to the evolving Covid-19 pandemic and are a temporary, evolving situation.

In terms of supports for students with disabilities each HEI has an access and disability service in place to support students with disabilities. Students who feel that they may require supports from their institution should contact the access or disability service who will carry out a needs assessment in collaboration with the student. These supports will continue to be provided, as appropriate, where any online or blended learning takes place.

The Fund Students with Disabilities (FSD) provides funding to higher and further education institutions to assist them in offering supports and services to eligible students with disabilities so that they can access, fully participate in and successfully complete their chosen course of study. This supports the overall goals of the National Plan for Equity of Access to Higher Education. In 2019 funding of €9.6m was allocated to the FSD (covering both the higher education and further education sectors as well as Irish students studying in the UK and EU). The type of supports covered include:

- Assistive technology;

- Non-medical helpers;

- Academic/learning support;

- Deaf supports;

- Transport supports.

Further Education and Training (FET) Institutions are planning a phased reopening for learners by 29 September and will aim to maximize learner onsite experience and endeavour to provide maximum possible face to face interaction taking into consideration all the risk factors and the requirements of the high-risk learner groups. Learning experience will be enhanced through onsite streaming facilities and blended learning.

The Once-Off COVID-19 Grant (€15m) to support disadvantaged students in accessing ICT devices is part of the package of COVID-19 supports for higher and further education institutions funded by my Department.

The devices will be distributed by the relevant Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) and Education and Training Boards (ETBs) via appropriate lending schemes. The education institutions are best placed to determine which individual students should be prioritised to receive a device on a needs basis and within the terms and conditions of the scheme. In determining distribution of the devices, HEIs are required to have regard to the target groups, including students with disabilities, identified in the National Plan for Equity of Access to Higher Education 2015-2021

HEIs and ETBs must be satisfied that students who receive a device under this grant have demonstrated a verifiable need for such a device e.g. they or their family do not have the means to purchase such a device themselves. Students should contact their HEI access office for further information.

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