Sinn Féin says 35% of students expected their course to be entirely online

A report from the party is critical of the government’s handling of higher education this year

Students have expressed feelings of having been “misled into securing accommodation” despite the move of most learning online in a new report published by Sinn Fein.

Sinn Féin Higher and Further Education Spokesperson Rose Conway-Walsh has published the results of the Sinn Féin Student Accommodation Survey 2020. 

The survey of 329 students emphasised the financial effects of fixed-term contracts and online education on third-level students facing a transition to online education. 

Among the small sample size of students surveyed, students reported their courses were on average more than 80% online – prior to the move to a state-wide level 5, with 35% of students surveyed stating they expected their courses to be completely online – prior to the move to a state-wide Level 5.

The majority of the students surveyed reported issues with online teaching. Various accounts in the survey’s findings supply evidence of lecturers not providing the contact hours that they are timetabled for, whether due to technological difficulties or inaction. 

The report notes that students took on accommodation contracts on the basis of university and government indications that in-person classes would still occur. The survey found that the majority of students rent in the private market.

The survey by the opposition party Sinn Féin claimed that students felt they were “misled into securing accommodation” for this academic year.

Until the announcement on September 25 that only essential laboratories and tutorials were to take place on campuses, classes under 50 were allowed. 

Minister for Further and Higher Education Simon Harris advised students to reconsider leaving home and moving into student accommodation. 

A student is quoted in Sinn Fein’s report as saying it was “ridiculous” that the government suggested that students reconsider moving when many students had already signed leases. 

The report noted that some students had still not received refunds for their accommodation after having to leave during the first lockdown. 

The report also claimed that students with difficult home lives have “struggled to secure accommodation they can afford due to reduced employment opportunities” during the pandemic.

Lack of connectivity in parts of the country has “forced” students to find accommodation even though their courses have moved online, the survey also claimed.

The party, in response to the concerns expressed by the students surveyed, has called for all universities and associated accommodation providers to be “instructed to allow for leases to be terminated” and “provide full-refunds for any student that requests one”.

Alongside this, Sinn Féin claimed that the government “must ensure that institutes of higher education are financially supported in providing accommodation refunds”.

Continuing the list of required action announced by the party, Sinn Féin added that the government must ensure that “all leases can be ended early without incurring any fee or penalty”, and any deposits or advance rent paid to private accommodation providers must be refunded to students.

The survey was conducted before the move to Level 5 was announced, so no information has been released about whether student dissatisfaction with accommodation will be further impacted by the second lockdown. 

Sinn Féin commissioned the survey as part of the “Telling the Real Story,” the party’s research project aimed at promoting government intervention to relieve financial stress among third-level students in the midst of the pandemic. 

The project was launched at the end of August and initially focused on the accessibility of the Student Universal Support Ireland (SUSI) Grant System to students concerned by the affordability of third-level education.