Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Simon Harris, has stated that third level registration fees are too high, and he would like for them to be addressed in the upcoming budget.
Speaking on Today with Claire Byrne on RTÉ Radio 1 this morning, the minister said that he believes the registration fee, currently €3,000, is too high.
He was cautious when asked whether the issue would be addressed in the upcoming budget, saying: “Ministers always get into trouble when they come on air and start speculating about what they want to do in the budget…but it is something that I’d like to see addressed.”
Harris confirmed that registration fees would not be lowered this year despite reduced contact hours, but referred to a number of programmes established by his department to assist students with fees and to provide materials such as laptops. The lowering of registration fees was not a feature of the programme for government put forward by Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, and the Green Party in June.
Harris also confirmed that he would bring plans to cabinet tomorrow that would see additional places provided in a number of high demand courses. He gave a number of reasons for the department’s decision, including that demand for college courses may be higher as a result of fewer leaving certificate students taking gap years due to travel restrictions and limited employment opportunities.
Additionally, Harris said that more places should be provided in courses covering “areas where there is a societal need” such as nursing and teaching. He believes that the Covid-19 pandemic has shown that more people are needed in the health service, and that we must increase the number of teachers so as to lower class sizes. Harris said that this decision is being made with young people’s wellbeing in the aftermath of the pandemic in mind.
When asked to give details of third-level institutions’ plans to keep students and staff safe on campus, Harris said that while it is inevitable that there may be cases in colleges, the plans put in place will do as much as possible to mitigate this risk. He said that colleges shouldn’t panic if cases arise, and that protocols such as contact tracing, attendance logs, and risk assessments by public health authorities would be used to limit the spread of the disease.
Addressing the number of colleges who have yet to provide students with their timetables, Harris said that colleges should be encouraged to give clarity on the number of days that students will be on campus during the week. He also confirmed that all institutions will provide timetables during the first two weeks of September.
He said that not all students can expect an equal number of hours on campus: “There will have to be a priority place on classes where there is a practical element; you can’t have a science lab at home, for example.” He also said that first-year students should be prioritised, as “it’s very hard to introduce someone to college life via Zoom”.
With regard to accommodation, Harris encouraged colleges to offer “flexible accommodation” whereby students could book accommodation for the days they will be on campus. This approach has already been adopted by the University of Limerick (UL) and Dublin City University (DCU).
Asked whether restrictions regarding visitors to student accommodation would be policed, Harris said that he would be wary of the term, but that colleges would need to enforce restrictions in some capacity. He also said that students’ accommodation fees should be refunded in the event of a college shutdown, saying that he believed students were treated “shabbily” at the beginning of the pandemic.
Harris stated: “The way we’ve succeeded with Covid so far is by bringing people with us, persuading people, appealing to people’s better nature, but of course there will need to be a degree of sanction and the college authorities will be able to address that.”