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Not all third-level students will be able to be accommodated on campus in the autumn

The minister said international students can come to the country to study as long as they self-isolate.

NOT ALL THIRD-LEVEL of students going to university in the autumn will be able to be accommodated on campus, according to the Higher Education Minister Simon Harris.

He said it remains his department’s priority to get as many students back to college as possible, but public health concerns may mean students have to study online.

“The priority now is getting people back into college and getting as much face-to-face time as possible because I do strongly believe the importance from a mental health point of view that people need to interact with others, face-to face,” he said.

He also said international students can come to the country to study as long as they self-isolate.

Harris said today he is working with the third-level sector to reopen universities, stating that he plans to publish a framework document for reopening colleges later this month.

“Every third level institution is different, every course is different… for some courses it is practical to be on site, for others, work can be done online,” he said.

“It is very hard to see how a first year can be inducted into college via Zoom,” he added. 

The framework document for reopening colleges will help inform the third-level institutions how to reopen safely, said the minister.

He said it about striking a balance, stating that “people are nervous”.

Getting back to education 

“But ultimately we have to get people back to education, we cant live in a country where we have opening up nearly everything else except but our education sector. I think that would reflect very badly on our values,” he said.

“I do need to be honest, it is going to be different institution to institution in terms of their layout… colleges are going to have to provide things in a more tailored way they are not going to be able to have everyone on campus the way they were able to pre-Covid, that is not how this virus works,” said Harris.

Ireland is still open to international students, said the minister.

Ireland is absolutely open to international students and there is no travel ban, but let’s be clear – if you’re coming to Ireland for any reason we expect you to self-isolate for two weeks.

“I am hearing from some universities that some international students will be able to travel into Ireland, quarantine for the two weeks. Maybe link in with the colleges online during that period of time and they will be happy to do that because they will be here for a year, not just a week or two.

“I’m also hearing from universities that there’s a little bit of encouragement in that people are now looking internationally at Ireland and they believe that Ireland is a country that handled Covid-19 well and they see us as a country that takes public health seriously.

“Therefore, if you’re living in another country you’re more likely perhaps to encourage your children to travel to that country to study and then perhaps other countries that didn’t,” he said.

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Retention rates of students is always a concern in new college year. The minister said they would seek to address high drop-out rates if there is less interaction and on-site teaching.

“That is something that we are going to have to monitor very closely. I have no information or data to suggest that is an immediate problem, but I think if people are 17 or 18 and their choices are accidentally narrowed,” he said.

Harris said further education courses are sometimes seen as the “Cinderella” of the higher education sector and more people will be encouraged to explore further education options rather than going straight to university.

Harris said a person aged 17 or 18 who is unsure about what they want to study should sign up for a shorter further education course.

“Going and doing a relatively short course or signing up for a year to try something might work better for some people than taking the plunge into something for four or five years when they’re not yet sure what they want to do,” he said.

“So you go to the institute of further education, do a course for a year, see how you get on. If you get on well and you like it then you get your qualification and you can seamlessly move on to university.”

He said despite the expected shortfall in third level and international student numbers, student fees will not increase.

“Let me be very, very clear. The programme for government is crystal clear on that. There will be no increase to student fees in the lifetime of this Government.”

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