Irish universities hopeful students can return to large-scale lectures in autumn

Announcement on status of rapid-testing pilot programmes due later this week

Prof Ciarán Ó hÓgartaigh believes the one-shot Janssen vaccination, currently being offered to people aged 18-35 in pharmacies, will help aid the return to campus. File photograph: iStock

Prof Ciarán Ó hÓgartaigh believes the one-shot Janssen vaccination, currently being offered to people aged 18-35 in pharmacies, will help aid the return to campus. File photograph: iStock

 

Irish universities are hopeful that students can return to large-scale lectures this autumn.

However, this would be contingent on public health advice at the time, along with the rate of Covid-19 in the country.

Speaking at the Oireachtas committee on Further and Higher Education, Prof Ciarán Ó hÓgartaigh, president of NUI Galway, said if Ireland achieves mass vaccination among young people, students may be able to return to larger lectures in semester one of this year.

“The provision of larger scale lectures is achievable only in a very different public health environment. It is hoped that, contingent on the benefit of mass vaccination, this environment is achievable in autumn 2021,” he said.

Speaking on behalf of the Irish Universities Association, Prof Ó hÓgartaigh added that antigen testing may also form part of the return to college, but vaccinations would be more important.

He believes the one-shot Janssen vaccination, currently being offered to people aged 18-35 in pharmacies, will help aid the return to campus.

An announcement on the status of the rapid-testing pilot programmes, carried out in Trinity College Dublin, University College Dublin, University College Cork and NUI Galway, is due later this week.

“The research is ongoing. We will follow the public health advice [on the use of rapid testing],” said Prof Ó hÓgartaigh.

“Our experience is with students, when we ask them to be tested ... they were very forthcoming. My expectation is students will engage, if asked, as part of this process.”

He also said ventilation will be key to ensure campuses are safe, and universities will be looking at their ventilation systems and CO2 monitors.

There has also been a dramatic increase in the number of Irish students applying for the Erasmus programme.

“This includes a backlog of students who were unable to travel abroad to study last year,” Prof Ó hÓgartaigh said. “There are insufficient funds in the HEA Erasmus budget to cover the expanded demand.”

He also said medically vulnerable students should be able to continue working remotely if needs be.

However, he believed that the majority of staff and students want to be on-campus.

Re-adjusting

Raw data from NUI Galway has shown that retention rates this year are slightly higher than average, however, the true number of dropouts may not become apparent until the start of this academic year, according to Prof Ó hÓgartaigh.

He also implored the committee to ask the Department to issue guidance by July 19th, so the sector can plan ahead.

Dr Joseph Ryan, CEO of the Technological Higher Education Association, said some students have been disappointed by their college experience because of the pandemic, and they needed certainty about the year ahead.

He believes that many will need ongoing support to re-adjust to college life.

“For that reason, the unanimous ask from frontline colleagues tasked with the care of students is that the current welcome supports be extended to cover the coming two years to meet the demand that is expected.”

Dr Ryan added that second years will also require a re-orientation, as many did not get to know their campus and classmates properly before the first lockdown.

International students have also been impacted. “[that] market has been severely impacted by the pandemic. Some good collective work is underway currently but there is the danger that Ireland may find itself outpaced by competitor countries who have moved more nimbly to agree protocols for safe inward travel,” Dr Ryan said.

The committee also heard that Covid-19 has impacted on apprenticeships, with electrical, plumbing and carpentry apprentices set to be prioritised for in-person learning and training.