Minister for Higher Education Simon Harris today committed to working with the Union of Students in Ireland (USI) to develop a framework for supporting student unions.
Harris made the commitment at a meeting with USI President Lorna Fitzpatrick and Vice President for Academic Affairs Kevin McStravock.
At the meeting, which USI described in a press release as “constructive”, Harris also agreed to meet in the next two weeks with parties involved in a recent survey carried out by USI which found that nearly a third of female students have experienced non-consensual penetration during their time in college.
The need for further student supports to address issues such as the digital divide and a funding model for higher education was also discussed at the meeting.
In particular USI officials highlighted the need to expand the criteria for SUSI eligibility and the need for increased funding for the Student Assistance Fund and the Back to Education Allowance.
Speaking to The University Times this evening, Fitzpatrick said that the discussion with the minister had been “fruitful”.
“It was overall a constructive meeting and we are committed to working with the minister and the new department in the coming weeks and months and years to ensure that higher education is funded and that it’s supportive of all students but that it is also accountable for students as well.”
She also welcomed the minister’s commitment to a framework for supporting students’ unions, but added that she had raised concerns about the student contribution fee and “again reiterated a call to reduce that by €500 this year and on an annual basis and replace it with public investment”.
In a press statement, USI said that it “hopes the creation of this new department will lead to a strong education system that is truly accessible to all”.
“The union is committed to working with Minister Harris and his new department to ensure our higher education system is funded, accountable and supportive for all students.”
Harris said on Twitter that he “wanted to meet with [USI] in my first week in office to discuss this new Government Department & a range of important issues for students”, adding that he planned to meet with USI again later in the month.
Harris was appointed Minister for Higher Education on Saturday following the formation of a coalition government between Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Green Party.
The new Department of Higher Education will have an “economic focus” and will “drive investment to our country”, Harris said in a Twitter video following his appointment.
“Having a voice for that department at the cabinet table, having a dedicated government department to work full time on this is something I am really really energised about.”
“I know only too well in light of the covid pandemic the huge pressures that there are to get people back to work, to help people upskill, to help people keep a job or gain a new job”, he said. “Research, innovation, science – these are the things that can help drive investment to our country and also can help businesses right across our country.”
Harris also said that he saw the new department “very much as a department that’s an economic driver and a department that very much promotes social cohesion, inclusion and equality”.