The Government must begin consulting with colleges, staff and students in order to avoid escalating uncertainty and the threat of "enrolment chaos" in the autumn, the Irish Federation of University Teachers has warmed .
The federation's general secretary Joan Donegan said students and university teachers are being left in an "ongoing limbo" amid the uncertainty caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
She called for immediate consultations and engagement with the Department of Education to address this.
“We need clear and detailed discussion on a roadmap from Government on issues like when and how colleges will be allowed to reopen, how national restrictions will affect or inhibit class based teaching government [AND]funding guarantees to ensure staffing levels and colleges remain viable,” Ms Donegan said.
“Over 40,000 students hoping to enter third-level and up to 200,000 students already in the system have currently no idea on when and under what conditions colleges will reopen.”
Education sources say there are consultations taking place between the Department and representative groups for higher education such as the Irish Universities Association and the Technological Higher Education Association.
Sources familiar with discussion says the new academic year is likely to get underway on a staggered basis in September, with students attending classes on campus on certain days.
First year students are likely to be enrolled as late as November due to delays in holding the Leaving Cert.
However, no official decisions have been made or communicated to the sector yet.
Ms Donegal said a process of consultation is urgently required and there is an increasing risk that many students will opt out of or defer college, especially when added to the impact of job losses and financial uncertainty for their families.
She said “Government silence to date” means there is an “absence of clarity” on the status of thousands of casually employed and part-time contract staff.
Clarity is also being sought around whether universities will receive emergency support and if funding for research will be included.
This, she said, is “causing uncertainty for thousands of researchers and postgraduate students.”
She said that a detailed analysis published by the ESRI at the start of the pandemic warned of the need for “clarity and certainty about timelines” in dealing with the impact of the public health crisis.
“IFUT is committed to working with the Department of Education, universities, students and all other stakeholders to find and agree solutions to the issues now facing thousands of staff and tens of thousands of young people. The process of discussion and clarification needs to occur without further delay,” she added.
Meanwhile, the Government has been warned that up to 14,500 fixed term researchers working on major research projects are fast running out of funds.
In many cases, universities and laboratories are using their grant funding to pay researchers while their labs are closed and their projects paused.
Fianna Fáil’s spokesperson on research James Lawless TD said he has written to the Government to warn of an “imminent crisis” in the research sector.
“There are 14,500 fixed term researchers in Ireland, they are the workhorses of the research sector but at the moment they are on shaky ground,” he said.
“They cannot perform their experiments, work in their laboratories or attend their universities and they also are not eligible for the wage subsidy scheme.”
He said universities and laboratories were doing the right thing in keeping these people employed but warned that their funds were depleting.
“The worry is that when the time comes to get moving on projects again the resources simply won’t be there. Projects which have been ongoing for years, some of which are reaching their crescendo are now at risk of being stopped indefinitely,” he said.
Mr Lawless added that countries which invest heavily in research and development and science, such as South Korea and New Zealand, are “punching above their weight” and spending at least 2.5 per cent and more of GNP on research and development
It was not a coincidence that these countries have also done well in the fight against Covid-19.
He called on the Government to consider making the wage subsidy scheme available for fixed term researchers and boost funding for the sector overall.
“In the longer term an ambitious plan must be put in place to fund the sector,” he added.