Colleges set to boost on-campus activity for students over dropout fears
Most third-level teaching has been taking place online since colleges reopened
Minister for Further and Higher Education Simon Harris: “My priority going into the new year will be in increasing on-campus activity as much as we can and as safely as we can.” Photograph: Crispin Rodwell
Third-level colleges are being advised to increase on-campus activity for first- year students due to concerns that significant numbers are at risk of dropping out or disengaging from their courses.
Most teaching and learning at third level has been taking place online since colleges reopened in September, due to Covid-19 public-health restrictions. Only small classes such as practicals and laboratory work have been permitted to take place on campus.
There has been rising concern over the level of engagement among first-year and final-year students, in particular, due to lack of peer support and limited access to college campuses.
Typically about one in five students fails to complete their degree course. Some senior academics fear these numbers could rise in the current academic year.
The Department of Further and Higher Education led by Minister Simon Harris has been in talks with higher education institutions over recent days on what kind of on-campus activity should be allowed to take place in the next semester.
While most universities and institutes of technology have yet to finalise their plans for the next semester, some universities – including Dublin City University and University of Limerick – have said online learning will continue for the remainder of the academic year.
Mr Harris has “strongly encouraged” colleges to await the conclusion of discussions with his department before making decisions.
“We are now preparing for semester two and the new year. Every single decision we will make will be done in consultation with the chief medical officer’s office and the Department of Health and in line with the best public-health advice available to us,” he said.
“My priority going into the new year will be in increasing on-campus activity as much as we can and as safely as we can,” said.
“I would like to see some more on-site activity for first- and final-year students. We have started these discussions with colleges and it is my view we need to provide certainty as soon as is possible.”
Mr Harris said his department’s priorities would be continuing programmes and activities that could not take place online, such as teaching and research in laboratories and practical tuition, along with direct engagement with vulnerable or marginalised students and learners.
Some students and learners face difficulties undertaking independent study and engaging exclusively in online learning, he said. These students may be at a high risk of dropping out.
“We want to create new ways to promote small-scale, in-person contact, especially peer engagement, for new entrants to further and higher education, especially for students and learners that may be living away from home for the first time and those who may be at risk of dropping out,” he said.
Third-level institutions will continue to have flexibility to mitigate the impacts on students and learners who may have difficulty studying remotely, studying in their home environment or who find it necessary to live on or near campus and away from home, he said.
“Students and staff will be at the heart of all of our decisions. The more we all continue to follow public-health advice and the more we adhere to the guidelines the best chance we have in getting as many people back on site as often as possible,” he said.
Separately, Mr Harris has announced a €5 million fund designed to drive teaching and learning innovation online across the higher-education sector.
He said colleges rose to the challenge of meeting students’ needs when they closed last March.
“Today, we want to take that innovation and build on it. So we want to hear from you about how we can all learn to strengthen student success across face-to-face, blended, online and remote teaching and learning contexts. Through this fund we will learn and grow for the success of all our students,” he said.