College lecturers express concerns at plans to resume some classes at full capacity

Union raises concerns amid news UCD plans to resume lectures of up to 500 students

College lecturers have expressed concern at plans by some universities to resume certain classes at full capacity without social distancing.

It comes as it emerged that UCD is planning to resume large lectures of up to 500 students with safety measures such as mandatory mask-wearing.

The university says that if capacity limits and social distancing of even 1m were maintained it would reduce the on-campus experience of students by anywhere between 50 and 90 per cent.

In a message to staff, UCD president Andrew Deeks said the university management team was "confident we can proceed safely with our plans to return to face-to-face teaching" with risk mitigation measures in place.


While all universities are planning to resume face-to-face lectures, they are taking different approaches.

Trinity College Dublin, for example, is planning to initially hold lectures with more than 150 students online.

Other colleges such as DCU, University of Limerick and Maynooth are planning to resume some lectures at or near normal capacity levels, with limits of between 200 and 300 students for large lectures.

UCC and NUI Galway are still finalising details in this regard.

The Irish Federation of University Teachers has called for adequate social distancing in lecture halls and consistency in the application of Covid-19 rules across colleges.

Frank Jones, the federation's incoming general secretary, said clarity is needed on social distancing and numbers that are appropriate in any classroom.

“It must be based on national social distancing guidelines and safety advice from Nphet if lecturers and students are to have confidence that a sustainable return to college is achievable,” he said.

He added: “There has been a significant amount of work undertaken across higher and further education on these matters – our concern is that this work will be for nothing, or [for] little without adequate social distancing.”

Department framework

Under a framework for the safe reopening of colleges published by the Department of Further and Higher Education earlier this summer, colleges were advised that they can resume larger lectures with limits such as reducing the capacity of large lecture halls.

It says institutions may determine how best to do this in their own context.

Minister for Further and Higher Education Simon Harris subsequently secured Government approval in July for greater leeway to be given for the resumption of larger lectures.

“I’m pleased to see colleges now beginning to apply our plan to their institution,” he said.

“Workshops, labs, classroom activity, tutorials, libraries will all open. Sports, societies, college bars and canteens will operate in the same way as they do across society.”

In the case of UCD, the university says its large lectures will be managed by the standard lecture time being reduced to 45 minutes.

In addition, all lecturers will be required to provide online teaching material for all classes with more than 250 students registered. This is to allow students who are uncomfortable in larger lectures to continue learning.

If a national limit on lecture size is adopted by the Government in response to the public health situation, UCD says lectures above the limit will move to online.

It says students are to wear masks at all times in indoor teaching situations, while instructors can remove masks to teach once they are a minimum of 2m from the nearest person.

Return to college: What colleges will look like


Returning students are due back on September 20th, while first-year undergraduates are due to begin on September 27th.

Dublin City University says it is working to make this coming college year a mainly on-campus experience for students.

It is examining limits for lecture halls and expects the majority of lectures will proceed at or near normal capacities.

Labs, workshops, practicals and skills-based sessions will run as normal on campus.

DCU is planning for the catering, sporting, library, student support and administrative areas of the university to be fully operational on campus when students return. There may be small reductions in numbers allowed in some areas depending on building/room layouts and the available ventilation and where relevant sector-specific health and safety guidelines are in place, such as in gyms/sports facilities.

It says it will maintain a range of safety measures, including the wearing of face coverings indoors; enhanced cleaning, and ventilation.

Activities that have the potential for higher aerosol emission – such as strenuous physical exercise and certain music activities – will be subject to separate risk assessments to determine appropriate room capacities levels and any other precautions that may be required.

Clubs and societies will operate in line with public health guidelines.

NUI Galway

College resumes for most students on September 6th, with first-year undergraduates due to begin on September 27th.

NUI Galway says it is committed to “maximising and optimising the on-campus experience for students” in line with public health advice, but has not disclosed whether there will be limits on lectures.

It is also planning for clubs and societies to “offer everything they possibly can”, in line with public health guidelines.

A special programme of events is also being organised for second-year students, recognising that they missed out on the on-campus experience last year.

Students and staff will need to follow advice on cough etiquette, handwashing, mask wearing, awareness of symptoms and social distancing where appropriate.

NUI Galway is also part of an on-campus study into testing technologies for Covid-19 using rapid antigen testing, saliva-based PCR testing and wastewater surveillance. It says the research may help in the development of an early warning system for outbreaks in universities.

NUI Maynooth

Maynooth says it is planning for a resumption, as close as possible, to full on-campus teaching, assessment, research, students’ clubs and sports activities in September, while ensuring that overall numbers attending on campus continue to be monitored and controlled.

“We will return to on-campus teaching for most lectures and classes, with measures aimed at reducing the overall number of people on campus at any time,” a spokesman said. “Lectures of up to 250 [students], practicals, and tutorials will be on campus.”

It plans to have some remote teaching in place of the very large lectures in order to reduce the overall number of people on campus at any time.

Students taking large lectures remotely will, wherever possible, have a weekly on-campus experience in the subject, such as a tutorial.

Trinity College Dublin

The college resumes in September (September 13th for most students; September 27th for first years).

It says there will be in-person teaching for all students, while lectures larger than 150 students will be online.

All staff and students are being encouraged to participate in the vaccination programme to help ensure a safe return to campus.

It is inviting staff and students to take part in a rapid testing and surveillance system for Covid-19 with the aim of facilitating the safe and sustainable reopening of campus.


University College Cork says on-campus attendance will vary by discipline but every effort is being made to maximise numbers within public health guidelines.

“Lecture numbers will be subject to a number of variable factors, such as the capacities of any given lecture hall and the prevailing guidelines from health authorities and the Department of Further and Higher Education,” a spokesman said.


UCD plans to return to campus teaching in September based on no requirement for social distancing and no capacity limits for teaching activities beyond the physical capacity of lecture halls.

The standard lecture time for larger lectures will be reduced to 45 minutes, while online teaching should be available for lectures with more than 250 students.

Students will be required to wear face masks for indoor teaching, while clubs and societies are due to resume in line with public health guidelines.


The University of Limerick is planning a return to “as near normal” teaching as possible in September, while also recognising the need to keep the community safe.

Lectures will take place in-person with the exception of those classes with numbers above 300, which will be offered online for the autumn semester.

It says all possible measures have been taken to make this return to campus as safe as possible, including upgrading lecture theatre and classroom ventilation.

Club and society events may take place outdoors, with indoor gatherings remaining subject to public health guidelines.

Second-year students will be offered orientation along with first years.

Access to the library remains subject to public health guidelines and advance booking is required.

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien is Education Editor of The Irish Times. He was previously chief reporter and social affairs correspondent