I thank the Deputy for raising this matter, as he has done on a number of occasions. I want to assure him that like the whole of Government, I am absolutely committed to a significant increase in on-site attendance in the further and higher education sectors in the next academic year. We all know the reasons why students have had to attend online this year. They have been well rehearsed and based on public health evidence. However, we are also aware that it cannot be repeated. It is not a sustainable situation to be in from an educational point of view, but more importantly, from a well-being perspective. Our young people, in particular, need to be back in college. It has been a hell of a long time since first-year students actually had on-site access to education, considering they left school - sixth year - in March 2020.
My Department has established a working group. It includes students, the unions, the representative bodies, NGOs and educational institutions. The working group will prepare a plan for the new academic year. It is due to meet again tomorrow to discuss the issue. I will publish a plan for the new semester in June.
Rapid antigen testing will form a part of that plan, but it is only one part of a package of measures that could support greater on-site activity. A rapid testing study - pilots, as it were - will be rolled out across four universities this month: TCD, UCC, UCD and NUI Galway. This will help us learn more about the potential role that rapid antigen can play in the further and higher education sector. More broadly, perhaps those lessons can also be shared with other sectors.
My Department is also participating in a HSE antigen testing pilot working group which is working with the HSE on the piloting of antigen testing in the education sector, including at third level. I am excited about antigen testing and eager to get the rapid testing pilots under way. They are starting this month. There is a commitment of funding of over €1 million from my Department. However, I want to be clear that rapid antigen testing is only one of the tools at our disposal. The return to campus this autumn is not dependent on such testing.
The adoption of detailed procedures and guidelines encompassing public health advice has played a central role in ensuring that essential and time-critical on-site activity could take place this year. We now want to expand that advice and to use the benefits of the vaccination programme to get our students and staff back to campus in September and October.