Higher Education Minister Simon Harris has announced a 168 million euro package for third-level institutions and students to cover costs incurred during the coronavirus pandemic and to support students returning to college in September.
The package will include around €15m to support access to devices for online learning – which could give 10,000 students access to laptops and tablets, while three million euro has been granted for mental health support.
Mr Harris said that the Department of Education would be increasing student supports, access to mental health services and helping more students access the internet as learning moves online.
“There is a significant digital divide emerging among our student population,” he said. “Many students have difficulties accessing devices – laptops or tablets – while some can’t access WiFi and others need assistance in using the devices for college work.
“This new scheme of €15m will help us address that digital divide and give students the tools to continue their education.”
Social Democrats TD Holly Cairns, the party’s spokesperson on higher education, said the funding package “falls far short of what is required”.
Ms Cairns said: “While any increase in financial supports for students would be welcome under normal circumstances, we are not living in ordinary times due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
“College life will look very different for returning students and first-year entrants this autumn, with many modules likely to be taught online.
“The true extent of what financial supports for students and student welfare, including additional grant supports for students, must be agreed with key stakeholders urgently. Students need certainty that they will be able to afford to go back to or start off in their college in September and will be making those kinds of decisions now.”
The Irish University Association (IUA) said the fund provides “much-needed stability” for higher education arising from the Covid-induced financial shocks.
Jim Miley, director general of the IUA, said the fund provides universities with the immediate resources to plan and implement teaching and research programmes for the new academic year.
“It will ensure that the quality of those programmes is underpinned to deliver the best student experience possible,” he said.
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