Written answers

Wednesday, 28 April 2021

Department of Education and Skills

Third Level Education

Photo of Alan DillonAlan Dillon (Mayo, Fine Gael)
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773. To ask the Minister for Education and Skills if discussions are taking place to identify and prioritise the students that can return to third-level campuses as soon as possible; if work has been undertaken to identify courses that are not suited for online delivery; if engagement has taken place with parent or student representative organisations; if a roadmap is being developed to allow students return to on-campus education; the number of students being taught online versus those allowed to attend on-campus practical classes by institution in tabular form; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [22188/21]

Photo of Simon HarrisSimon Harris (Wicklow, Fine Gael)
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The response of tertiary education to the COVID-19 pandemic is coordinated by my Department through the Covid-19 Tertiary Education Sector Steering Group and structure of working groups. The steering group is comprised of representatives from the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science,  our agencies, Higher Education Institutions, Students, Adult Education, HEAnet and ICTU. The steering group meets fortnightly and additional meetings can be convened at short notice as necessary.

The work of the steering group is supported by the establishment of working groups to address particular issues and the membership of these working groups may be comprised of representatives from other organisations as appropriate. 

The following principles underpin the work in the Structure:

- Prioritising the immediate needs of the health system;

- Prioritising learners’ interests;

- The importance of maintaining continuity in educational services;

- Ensuring the integrity and quality of solutions;

- Ensuring that, at a minimum, disadvantage is not exacerbated by the crisis and actions taken in response to it; and

- Sharing best practice, solutions and leveraging unity.

It should be noted that more recently stakeholder groups have also been established in the further education sector and the technological education sector. These stakeholder groups support the continuity of education in these sectors and address at a more granular level the planning, co-ordination and provision of education in the institutions in these sectors.

A working group to plan for the return to tertiary education in the academic year 2021/22 is currently being established. Comprised of key stakeholders, this group will work over the coming weeks to develop a plan for returning to onsite tertiary education in the autumn.  The working group will work closely with the relevant stakeholder groups and other working groups and will report back to the steering group in May.

The purpose of the Plan will be to:

- Enable maximum onsite provision of teaching, learning, research and other onsite activities

- Retain scope for online teaching where necessary

- Support the ongoing needs of students and learners

- Ensure coherence and consistency in planning across the sector

- Support autonomy in the work of institutions and providers in the development of their plans.

The plan will build on the plan which was developed for the academic year 2020/21 incorporating the experience of 2020/21 and it will retain the approach of a discretionary framework for institutions to prioritise onsite attendance and enabling phased increases leading to greater levels of onsite provision.

The new plan will continue to prioritise public health and safety and respond to ongoing changes in public health, including the level of vaccination achieved and national public health advice.

Institutions are currently using their own discretion to prioritise on-site attendance for time critical practical learning and to ensure that this is no more than 5% of the student cohort at any one time.  As attendance onsite is for time critical purposes, this can change from time to time depending on the subject area and student cohort and this is decided at the discretion of individual institutions.  Accordingly, information is not available regarding the number of students being taught online versus those allowed to attend on-campus practical classes by institution in tabular form.

There is ongoing engagement with the Union of Students in Ireland (USI) at a national level through bilateral meetings and their membership of the steering group.  USI recently chaired a Student Welfare and Engagement working group which has reported to the steering group on the supports that will be required for students and learners. There is also ongoing engagement at a local level by HEIs with student unions.


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