Covid-19: University lecturers warn of ‘chaos’ if face-to-face teaching returns

Simon Harris keen to boost on-campus activity for first year students early next year

Minister for Higher Education Simon Harris has said he wants to boost on-campus activity for first year students, in particular, early next year amid concern over a potential increase in drop-out rates. Photograph: Crispin Rodwell

University lecturers have warned of “chaos and confusion” if there is a return to face-to-face teaching in the new year in the absence of clear health and safety rules.

Minister for Higher Education Simon Harris has said he wants to boost on-campus activity for first year students, in particular, early next year amid concern over a potential rise in drop-out rates.

Covid-19 restrictions mean most teaching and learning in the further and higher education has been taking place online, with only practical and laboratory work in small groups permitted.

The Irish Federation of University Teachers has called for a single, clear health and safety plan to be published if there is a return to face-to-face teaching. It says the absence of such advice means colleges are planning in a vacuum and devising contradictory measures for preventing the spread of Covid-19.


Joan Donegan, the federation’s general secretary, said a key issue is clarity on the two-metre versus one-metre rule for separation of students.

“It is simply not acceptable that some colleges are now proposing a two-metre distance, others advocate one-metre while others define distance on a ‘nose-to-nose’ basis, reducing separation still further,” she said.

“While everyone would prefer a return to on-campus education, to avoid the risk of chaos in efforts to combat Covid, the priority must be to ensure no staff or student in an individual college is exposed to inferior health and safety protection due to lack of clear minimum requirements at national level.”

‘Not an aspiration’

She said health and safety in colleges was “not an aspiration” and any discretion or flexibility allowed to individual institutions must be subsidiary to clear national requirements and considerations.

Mr Harris met the presidents of higher education institutions last week, as well as student representatives, to discuss how on-campus activity could increase in line with public health guidance.

One idea being advanced is to promote small-scale, in-person contact which would allow new students to meet their peers across both further and higher education.

“Our priorities will be continuing programmes and activities that cannot take place online but this conversation needs to be about more than education,” Mr Harris told the Dáil last week.

“It has to be about welfare, well-being and the first-year student sitting at home at the kitchen table or in the box room of a house who has not been on campus. If it is safe to get such students there for some activity and engagement, there would be a great benefit, although we have to manage it carefully and do so in line with public health advice.”

He said there had been “real enthusiasm and leadership” from the presidents of institutions in examining these options.

“We need to do it in a way that gives our institutions flexibility and we cannot be overly prescriptive on it,” he said. “ The safety and well-being of students and staff will be at the heart of all our decisions.”


Separately, Mr Harris has signalled that part-time students may be entitled to financial support on foot of a new review of thrid-level grants, which gets underway shortly.

He has said the current system of Susi (Student Universal Support Ireland) supports is "not fit for purpose" as it excludes part-time students and does not cover expenses such as creche fees.

He is to announce a major review of the grants scheme shortly, which is due to be completed in advance of next year’s budget.

About 40 per cent - or 77,000 - students receive some form of mean-tested financial assistance from Susi and other sources worth a total of about euro350 million.

The numbers availing of grant support are projected to increase significantly next year due to the impact of Covid-19 on family earnings.

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