The task of bringing students back safely to third-level campuses brings unique challenges. The sheer scale of campuses, the number of students relocating, the commuting distances, and issues of accommodation – to name just a few factors necessary to consider – mean it is an undertaking like no other. What unfortunately is not unique to this sector is the fact that a legacy of underfunding by successive governments has left it ill-prepared to deal with the coronavirus outbreak.
Whether we are talking about ICU capacity, cramped living conditions, or overcrowded classrooms, the pandemic has exposed many weaknesses and inequalities in our society.
Universities are often not the first thing people think of when they think of underfunding of public services. Particularly when they see sprawling campuses that are a far cry from the poorly heated prefabs that are still all too common at primary and secondary level.
But make no mistake – universities have been starved of public funding. This has led universities to take on unsustainable amounts of debt, prioritise commercial activities and push the financial burden onto students.
Whether we are talking about ICU capacity, cramped living conditions, or overcrowded classrooms, the pandemic has exposed many weaknesses and inequalities in our society
The effects of underfunding are often not seen in deteriorating campuses or a lack of facilities because these are so vital to the institutions’ ability to attract international students and the revenue generated from their fees.
Instead, it is seen in the increase of fees from €850 in 2008 to €3,000 today and the extortionate cost of on-campus accommodation that is run on a commercial basis. Students discover hidden costs at every turn – be it hundreds of euro to sit a repeat exam, or student centre levies.
All of these economic barriers increase inequality in our education system. On top of this, coronavirus has hit students’ ability to find work and many of their families are also facing hard times. A survey conducted by Sinn Féin that heard from over 1,000 students found that 70 per cent of students said that their personal employment opportunities or income have been impacted by the pandemic and 56 per cent of students said their household income had reduced.
These students are justifiably angry that they are still being asked to pay the highest fees in the European Union when they know their educational experience won’t be the same. Students over the summer were already asked to pay hundreds of euro to sit repeat exams at their kitchen table.
Students will, at best, have vastly reduced access to campuses, facilities, in-person teaching and access to social activity this academic year. They will be watching video lectures online and trying to engage in debates and discussion over zoom.
This does not just impact the enjoyment of their college experience, it is also unavoidable that this will have a negative impact on the educational outcomes. Despite the trojan work undertaken by third-level staff across the state to minimise the effect of the restrictions on student education, they will have an unprecedented impact.
The real issue students and educators have is that this means lectures will be broadcast in one direction without student interaction
The real issue students and educators have is that this means lectures will be broadcast in one direction without student interaction. I am concerned about the impact of this disengagement and the possibility of high failure rates. Online learning has been well researched even before the coronavirus, with most recognising substantial drawbacks. For instance, the Open University in Britain, which offers remote learning, only has a graduation rate of 13 per cent – far lower than conventional universities. The alternative to this learning style is teaching in groups of 15 to 25. However, this is far more expensive than providing a lecture to 300 students at a time. The economic and social cost of an increased dropout rate is far harder to measure – but they would be severe.
Nevertheless, we need to be sensible about how the return to campus life is managed. Around 174,000 students are returning to college over the next few days. The challenge of tens of thousands of students crisscrossing the country cannot be underestimated.
Above all, everything needs to be done to ensure the safety of students and staff. I am alarmed by the fact that the Department of Further and Higher Education has confirmed to me that they will not approve or even review the plans of individual institutes of higher education to manage the safe return.
The government should have stepped in and provided for a reduction in the student contribution charge to reflect the reality of the service being offered and the difficult financial situation faced by many students. But, at the very least, the government needs to be upfront about what students can expect this year.