The Deputy makes a fair point. It is one of the reasons I very much welcome the fact that, on the advice of public health, we can keep access to college libraries and the likes open, albeit on a scheduled and organised basis, because there may be some students in this country who decide they would rather remain in accommodation they have organised near the campus and continue to access those sorts of facilities. It has been, and is, a significant priority for me in the context of the shift to online teaching and learning that has arisen from public health restrictions to provide support to students to facilitate connectivity and examine options designed to seek to minimise the extent to which connectivity challenges can act as a barrier to full participation in higher and further education.
On engagement with the Union of Students in Ireland, I made it clear that the student assistance fund can be used to meet connectivity costs. Without getting into all the technological solutions, I agree with the Deputy that giving someone a laptop that they cannot access the Internet on is not enough. As part of the package of financial supports, we provided funding to purchase ICT devices and, in addition to that, we have significantly increased the student assistance fund which can be used to meet connectivity costs.
The big piece is obviously the delivery of the national broadband plan but in the interim, there are initiatives across a number of Departments to facilitate connection through community-based broadband hubs and liaison with telecommunication providers on packages, including unlimited data.
It is also worth noting that, at present, HEAnet provides a WiFi solution, Eduroam, designed by and for the higher education community which operates across education locations nationally. Eduroam allows a student to access WiFi wherever Eduroam is broadcast, enabling a student to seamlessly roam from one Eduroam location to another. HEAnet is currently working on options to extend the reach of Eduroam beyond the traditional campus locations to areas such as public transport, libraries, cafés and other public spaces. An extended Eduroam footprint would greatly overcome connectivity challenges and facilitate staff and students in effective teaching and learning activities. HEAnet has already made progress in this regard, with Eduroam now available at many teaching hospitals and several public libraries.
I recently chaired a meeting between HEAnet and relevant Departments and public sector bodies to explore the potential for further pilot projects that could be done quickly in the coming weeks and months. I anticipate receiving an update on that in the next fortnight or so which I will be happy to share with the Deputy.