The incoming coalition government of Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and the Green Party have formally agreed on a draft five-year plan, with many initiatives expected to be undertaken in the Higher Education sector.
The key Higher Education initiatives in the recently unveiled plan, seen by The College Tribune, include a review of the SUSI grant, the creation of more Technological Universities (TUs), increased mental health supports, the tackling of gender inequality, facilitating student mobility and increased Higher Education funding.
The plan states that the current student contribution of €3,000 will remain unchanged. The last time students saw an increase of this charge was 2015.
A review of Student Universal Support Ireland (SUSI) and adjacency rates is also planned, although it is not stated whether students will see an increase or reduction in SUSI grants during these uncertain economic times. A review of the SUSI scheme following the impact of COVID-19 will be conducted later in 2020 according to the government’s plan. Measures will also be taken to address the gap in postgraduate grants.
The government aims to work with Higher Education Institutes (HEIs) to ensure that more accommodation is built on and off campus using cost rental models. Phase 1 of University College Dublin’s 3 phase accommodation plan is due for completion by September, whereby 924 student bedrooms will be made available. By 2024 the university will provide over 2,000 new beds on campus to students.
Additionally, the programme promises to provide a range of free, adequate, safe and suitable period products in all schools, colleges, and HEIs, to ensure no students are disadvantaged in their education by period poverty.
Initiatives supporting mental health, student care and welfare on campus will be encouraged in Higher and Further Education institutes, as well as the continued advocation for education on consent, wellbeing, drug, alcohol and substance abuse.
Higher Education Funding
The incoming government is “committed to addressing the funding challenges in third-level education” and aims to ensure that Higher Education “plays a vital role in our recovery” during this time of great economic uncertainty.
The development of a long-term sustainable funding model for Higher Level education is planned over the course of the government’s term.
A review of the International Education strategy for Ireland, which recognises the importance of overseas students and academics to our higher education sector, is also due to take place.
According to the Irish Universities Association (IUA), the estimated loss in fee income from international students alone could amount to approximately €181 million.
University College Dublin (UCD) has projected a negative impact of up to €100 million this year from the cumulative effect of the loss of international student fees, decrease in demand for on-campus accommodation, and a general reduction in revenues collected from activities occurring on campus throughout the year.
The plan also strives to increase access to Horizon 2020 funding and to increase Irish participation in Erasmus+ programmes, despite the uncertainty regarding the impact of COVID-19 on future student exchanges. UCD has recently suspended all student exchanges for the upcoming 2020/2021 Autumn Trimester due to COVID-19 restrictions.
The reconfiguration of the Higher Education landscape in the establishment of Technological Universities (TUs) is also addressed in the draft.
Sexual Harassment Prevention
The draft programme seeks to require that all HEIs create a specific action plan around tackling sexual harassment. Additionally, every HEI is required to commission a survey for all staff and students on harassment, sexual harassment, and bullying, in order to inform their equality, diversity and inclusion action plans.
The government wishes to implement the recommendations of the “Safe, Respectful, Supportive and Positive – Ending Sexual Violence and Harassment in Irish Higher Institutions” report, which provides a framework for institutions to put structures and processes in place for students to receive support and report unacceptable behaviour, as well as guidelines for increasing awareness around campuses. Both staff and students are to be included in these activities.
Incoming Freshers in UCD this Autumn Trimester will be required to complete a Bystander Intervention Workshop to help combat sexual harassment. Nearly 5,500 first-year students will take part in a mandatory 90-minute course. The programme focuses on how to help when someone is at risk during an assault, as well as educating students about consent and encouraging them to be more open to calling out sexual misconduct.
Additionally, UCD launched Report + Support in February, a website allowing students to anonymously report abuse, bullying, and sexual harassment.
Student Access and Mobility in Higher Education
The State promises to commit to further increase the support for people in Direct Provision to access third-level education. The vital work of the Universities of Sanctuary project, an initiative encouraging the good practice of universities and colleges welcoming refugees, asylum seekers and migrants into the country, will continue to be recognised and supported.
A National Traveller Education Strategy will be developed, including a plan to improve access to Higher Education for members of the Traveller Community.
The Fund for Students with Disabilities will be increased, and funding for programmes to engage with students from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds will be expanded.
Nessa Collins – Reporter