Third-level students are to receive a payment of about €250 each in the coming year to help compensate for the move towards greater online learning.
It is one of a number of education measures in Budget 2021 including the smallest class sizes on record at primary level, hundreds of additional teachers, thousands of extra further education places and enhanced grants for postgraduate students.
The combined education budget across primary, secondary and third level is set to climb above €12 billion for the first time.
Once-off payments for third-level students will cost a total of €50 million – or about €250 each – and will be provided to students who have paid the €3,000 student registration fee or who are in receipt of Susi grants.
Minister for Further and Higher Education Simon Harris said the payment was in recognition of the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on this group.
“For students, this year has been like no other. The majority of college will be online for this semester and we will provide financial assistance through a €50 million fund,” he said.
In addition, enhanced postgraduate supports will apply from next year with maximum payments rising from €2,000 to €3,500.
The income threshold for eligibility for these grants will also rise, up from €31,500, now €54,240.
In response to the need to reskill and upskill people affected by the pandemic, a €120 million fund will go towards 50,000 further education and training places, along with a new retrofitting training scheme and a climate action upskilling scheme.
The apprenticeship incentivisation scheme – where employers are paid to take on apprentices – will be extended, while nearly €30 million will be invested in research to support researchers, build capacity, support Covid research and strengthen North-South research links.
Mr Harris also said his department would carry out a wider review of grants for students to ensure part-time students and others could be supported.
The total budget for newly created Department of Further and Higher Education will be €3.3 billion next year.
Minister for Education Norma Foley is set to announce details of her department’s allocation on Wednesday.
However, it will include an additional 565 mainstream teachers, bringing the average class size at primary level to a record low.
Average pupil-teacher ratios at primary level will fall from 26 pupils to every teacher (26:1) to 25 pupils for every teacher (25:1) next year.
These new hires will include 300 primary teachers, along with 265 secondary teachers who are required to meet demographic pressures.
Record funding of €2 billion will also go towards supporting children with special educational needs.
It will allow for the hiring of 990 additional special needs assistants and just over 400 additional teaching posts.
There will also be funding for teacher education to address the shortage of secondary teachers in maths, physics and Spanish.
Overall, the education budget across primary and secondary will be €8.9 billion.
The bulk of the funding will go towards salaries for thousands of teachers and special needs assistants.
There will also be capital funding for 145 new school buildings, along with part-funding for 20 higher education building projects.
Opposition parties cautiously welcomed the move to reduce classroom numbers at primary level, but criticised the absence of measures to ease costs facing parents.
Labour education spokesman Aodhán Ó Ríordáin TD said: “The Government had an opportunity to make free books a reality for all schools, but instead didn’t even expand the pilot scheme that commenced in September.”
Responding to the announcement, the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO) said the move to reduce class sizes at primary level was “necessary and welcome”.
INTO general secretary John Boyle said: “While tens of thousands of children will continue to learn in classes above the EU average, we are at least on the right road now. This change will have a positive impact on the primary education landscape.”
However, the Association of Secondary Teachers, Ireland said the package was a “sticking plaster for schools, and does little to address the prolonged underfunding of Irish second-level education”, while the Teachers’ Union of Ireland warned that a teacher recruitment crisis at second level would continue until the “scourge of pay discrimination is eliminated”.
At third level, the Irish Universities Association said that while there were some positives, there were many “missed opportunities” in areas such as research and retro-fitting college campuses.
The Union of Students in Ireland said funding ignored barriers preventing student access to higher education in favour of “piecemeal one-off funding”, while the Irish Federation of University Teachers cautioned that extra college places could not be delivered in a context of fewer and restricted staffing numbers.