In a publication issued by the Irish government on the 22nd of July, the Department of Higher and Further Education has confirmed that there will be a gradual return to on-site education and training.
The restrictions on research and development activity will also be gradually lifted. The report states that a full return to comprehensive on-site delivery is unlikely in the short to medium term. Blended learning will be provided, and physical distancing will be necessary to ensure safety. Two key documents, the COVID-19 Adaptation Framework and the Further and Higher Education Roadmap, were mentioned in the publication as resources third level institutes will abide by.
The COVID-19 Adaptation Framework
This framework acts as a structure for the Government, sectors, institutions and providers to use to prepare in case there is a change in public health advice to ensure that third level institutes maintain the quality of the education they provide. Their plan is to follow specialist public health advice, the guidelines and best practices suggested by organisations such as QQI and to respond to the data, analysis and feedback made by the institutions themselves so they can make sure that they safeguard the health and safety of students.
As the name of this document suggests, the ability to adapt is key to this structure. While each institution will need to consider their own special circumstances, the Department has outlined how they want third level institutes to adhere to shared principles. It is essential that they abide by public health and safety advice, that the quality of the education delivered is never compromised and that disadvantaged or vulnerable students are considered in all the plans made. Such students could include people with learning disabilities or those with poor internet connectivity at home.
The Further and Higher Education Roadmap
This roadmap outlines what can be expected from the learning programmes throughout summer 2020 and the 2020/21 academic year. When the new academic year begins, this will mark the beginning of Phase Four. New students will be inducted, and the blended provision of education will begin. There will be ongoing change and adaptation in line with public health advice after this reopening. The roadmap underlines the importance of ongoing and continuous communications with students and staff throughout this process. This roadmap has been made bearing in mind the lessons that have been learnt since Ireland entered lockdown and with the goal of making the transition for new students to further or higher education smooth.
The publication acknowledged the challenges students have faced since the introduction of emergency remote learning. This included students in programmes with a high proportion of practical learning and assessment. Some of their lessons or assessments could not be completed through remote learning. The Department stated in the publication that they will be working with the relevant stakeholders to address this issue. They have also said that when relevant mechanisms for completion of practical assessments are available again, final year students will be prioritised for programme completion.
The Department announced that a new initiative has been developed by SOLAS, the state agency which oversees the further education and training sector. As part of the initiative, they want to expand Springboard+, a service that provides free higher education courses for people who are unemployed. SOLAS intends to roll out the Human Capital Initiative in higher education, which aims to increase the capacity of students in skill-focused, higher education programmes. They are also enlisting the help of SkillNets Ireland, a state agency that supports Irish businesses. These efforts are in response to the new, challenging labour market that we have entered. The Irish Examiner reported that in May the unemployment rate for those aged between 15 and 24 was 54%. The Department has acknowledged their role in supporting skills provision to help people who have been laid off during the pandemic.
Brigid Molloy – Reporter