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Gráinne Ní Aodha/
Higher Education

Simon Harris says the pandemic has been particularly hard for college students - but next year will be different

CMO Dr Tony Holohan has endorsed the return to college campuses in the coming academic year.

MINISTER FOR HIGHER and Further Education Simon Harris has said that a decision on whether large scale lectures will be allowed in the coming academic year will be made in July, as he announced a plan for opening college and university campuses.

At a minimum, the plan will mean that college workshops, tutorials, classroom-based learning, libraries and labs will be open. There will also be a “common-sense approach” to college bars, canteens, sports and social clubs. 

“So if the pub near the college is open, the bar in the college can be open. If the cafe across the road from the college is open, the canteen in the college can be open. Colleges are like villages, so we need to apply the same logic that we would to them reopening as we would to any town or village in Ireland, and that’s the bare minimum.”

At a ‘maximum’, the Minister said that large scale lectures should be allowed. A decision on whether they will be allowed in the next academic year will be made in July.

He said that a decision would be made about funding third-level and further education institutions in July, where students may also need ‘wrap-around’ supports when they return to campuses. 

“I fully understand and appreciate that after a year of many people being somewhat isolated, the idea of going back into a large room with lots of other people is a big transition for any of us to make. But we have a way to go between now and September.”

When asked whether the Government had advice on whether students should ‘hook up’, Harris said that the Government isn’t giving people advice on their private life.

“I think our young people have shown massive resilience, patience and tolerance for a lot of really difficult restrictions,” he said, adding that this was a ‘good news’ day. 

“In relation to vaccines, I’d echo the point that the Taoiseach was making – I’d expect the overwhelming majority of our students to be vaccinated before the college year resumes.”

The Government has been working since the 29 April, when a decision was made to get students back on campuses. 

Students, staff and management of third-level institutions have been working on this plan, as well as Government officials, Harris said.

When asked whether the discretion given to institutions to open what they feel is appropriate, Harris said that he doesn’t envisage that as a difficulty, as all stakeholders want a return to campuses. He said the discretion is there due to the different sizes and facilities that various institutions have.

Public health officials and the CMO have “endorsed the plan”, he added.

The college experience will return for everyone from September – this year has been overwhelmingly online, the college experience will be overwhelmingly on site from the new academic year.

“It’s been a particularly difficult year for students, many of whom have had the college experience of looking at a zoom camera at the corner of the kitchen table, maybe in their bedroom at home, and not the college experience that understandably, they would have expected before Covid-19.”

Antigen testing

Antigen testing is now being piloted on the campuses of four third-level institutions. When asked why third-level institutions would trial the less accurate form of Covid-19 tests, Harris said:

“It seems to me that when you’re the Minister for research, science and innovation, and that you’re willing to try new things, and every week we spend millions upon millions upon millions upon millions of borrowed money and having to lock down things in this country to keep people safe.”

It seems to be very sensible that we would spend €1.2 billion of taxpayers money, exploring new types of testing and seeing if they work and seeing if there’s a benefit. I think in the higher education sector we are well-placed to do that.

Harris said that academics approached him to pilot the tests in UCD, Trinity, UCC, and NUI Galway. 

“And look, if it doesn’t work, if the research finds there isn’t much of a benefit, I think it’s worth the €1 million to find out, considering the millions and millions COVID costs every single week.”

Funding Higher Education 

When asked about the funding crisis the higher education industry faces, and the publishing of the Cassells report into the issue being due this summer, Harris said that he is working with the Taoiseach on the issue and “you can expect to hear a lot more from us on that” in the coming weeks.

“I’ve already said I’m not in favour of student loans,” he said, adding that he hasn’t see a country do it well, and it can be a barrier for students to higher education.

“What I’ve said is we certainly won’t be doing what they’re doing in the North. We just leaving our students heavily indebted when they come out of college.”

Commending that it would require a “significant” increase in Exchequer funding, Harris said that reform form third-level institutions would be required in return.

“In return for a lot of extra investment, there is going to have to be big conversation about reform. We need our institutions to be flexible, and we need them to meet the needs of our country,” he said, later referencing the demand for ‘mature’ students seeking to retrain in order to be able to compete in the jobs market.

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