Written answers

Wednesday, 21 September 2022

Department of Education and Skills

Third Level Education

Photo of Gerald NashGerald Nash (Louth, Labour)
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102. To ask the Minister for Education and Skills the work he and his Department are undertaking, if any, to ensure all students have fair and equitable online access to further and higher education in light of the ongoing student accommodation crisis; if he agrees that high-level institutions must be proactive and flexible in providing online and remote opportunities to students where possible in view of the fact that the difficulties students have in securing appropriate accommodation; his plans, if any, to issue updated guidance to higher level institutions regarding remote learning; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [46115/22]

Photo of Simon HarrisSimon Harris (Wicklow, Fine Gael)
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Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) are autonomous institutions within the meaning of the Universities Act 1997, the Institutions of Technology Acts 1992 to 2006 and the Technological Universities Act 2018. Under this legislation the institutions are academically independent and are entitled to regulate their own academic affairs and administrative processes, including the mode of delivery of programmes of study. HEIs have taken significant steps to ensure that teaching and learning is enhanced by the integrated use of digital technologies, both on-campus and remotely.

Many HEIs are and will be developing new blended learning programmes for validation. Such programmes need to be designed, delivered and assessed within an approved quality assurance framework developed by HEIs with reference to the Statutory Quality Assurance Guidelines for Providers of Blended Learning Programmes.

Programmes that are delivered partially or fully online, need to be developed with that mode of delivery in mind rather than merely being translated or transferred from the original face-to-face programme model.

In 2021, key stakeholders from across the higher education sector worked collaboratively to reflect on the sudden move to online/remote learning in higher education, gather related evidence and to agree a way forward post-pandemic. Partners included the National Forum for the Enhancement of Teaching and Learning, QQI, USI, representative bodies of HEIs, and others. The resulting report, ‘Next Steps for Teaching and Learning: Moving Forward Together’ was launched in November 2021. The report includes recommendations for the sector with regard to blended/remote teaching and learning and the use of technology to ensure that higher education is as flexible, resilient and equitable as possible for all who learn, all who teach, all who support and lead, and our wider communities.

In June 2022, the HEA announced €37.62m in funding for the ‘National Technological University Transformation for Recovery and Resilience' (NTUTORR) programme. The programme was informed by the Next Steps report and this funding will enable the technological sector to systematise the learnings from the experience of digitally enabled education and support the provision of digitally enhanced teaching, learning and assessment to meet the needs of staff, students, and enterprise in the regions.

The fourth National Access Plan, 2022 to 2028, which launched last month, places an emphasis on student- centred goals, including flexibility. It aims to support students to study on a flexible basis including part-time and blended learning, and identify connectivity supports for remote learning. This is a seven-year plan with an additional dedicated investment of €35 million over the course of the plan.

Regarding student accommodation I am conscious that some students are struggling to find affordable accommodation but fundamentally the challenge is one of supply of housing supply more generally. As a country, we know that we need to dramatically increase the supply of all types of housing and accommodation, including student accommodation. That is why the Government launched Housing for All, led by the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage setting out a series of actions which will be delivered to address the housing crisis. The plan is backed by the largest housing budget in the history of the State to transform our housing system, in excess of €20 billion.

Since taking up office, both my Department officials and I have engaged and continue to engage on as ongoing basis with the Minister and Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage and the wider higher education sector and relevant stakeholders on student accommodation issues including within the context of the advancement of the Government's Housing for All policy.

Specifically, in June this year I met with the presidents and chairs of all the traditional universities and technological universities to discuss any immediate proposals they may have identified or be able to identify in relation to any additional student accommodation provision that may be pursued in the short to medium terms and the Department is continuing to liaise with the higher education institutions in this regard. In a welcome development hundreds of additional bed spaces have been made available by higher education institutions this academic year and an additional 674 beds at the University of Galway are due to open later next year.

I am also pursuing a new policy on student accommodation. For the first time, this policy would see the State assist with the cost of building student accommodation beds in return for affordable rents for students. Progressing this policy was agreed at the Cabinet Committee on Housing in July and detailed work is currently being advanced with a section dedicated to student accommodation having been established in my Department. Department Officials have met with the HEA and further meetings are taking place with representative bodies and stakeholders this week as well as with individual Higher Education Institutes with a view to developing pathways to accommodation and accelerating their delivery. Meetings with students and stakeholders are also being arranged. My Department is also ready to work with any of the new technological universities to support them to borrow to build student accommodation.

On rent affordability, restrictions have also been put in place to limit the amount that students can be required to pay up-front for their accommodation, ending the practice whereby students were required to pay a lump sum up-front each term. The total amount that anyone is required to pay to a landlord by way of a deposit or an advance rent payment to secure a tenancy is now no more than the equivalent of 2 months’ rent – that is one month’s rent, and one month’s deposit.

Student accommodation is subject to rent pressure zone caps and students now have recourse to the Residential Tenancies Board for dispute resolution. In addition to the extra accommodation which is being put in place this year, amounting to hundreds of beds, I am encouraging homeowners to consider renting out a room in their house for students. A homeowner can rent a room, retain their social welfare entitlements where applicable and earn up to €14,000 in rental income before having to pay tax.

All higher education institutions continue to support their students to find accommodation in the private rental sector through, for example, the encouragement of room rental or ‘student digs’ in family homes and many also maintain online databases where students can search for and check out accommodation, advertisements for room rentals can be placed and advice on sample rental agreements provided. Institutions are actively promoting this option in their localities.

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