I thank the Chair and the committee for the invitation to be with them today to share some information on our plans for on-site activities in both further and higher education this coming September. We all know we cannot have another year like last year in terms of our students or staff and further and higher education. It was necessary from a public health point of view, but it is not sustainable. We need to get people back to on-campus education. We have been working really hard to do that and I will update the committee on where we are on that in a moment.
The over-riding objective here is a recognition that education and training is not just about what you learn in a lecture theatre or in a tutorial. It is about how you learn, the people you learn with, and the experience of being with others. Education is about the overall development of an individual. There are aspects of learning that can only be imparted in person. We have work to do to catch up on backlogs and to ensure that they are not further exacerbated as a result of some of the social distancing requirements that Covid-19 necessitated. Furthermore, many students and learners do better when they attend lectures and classes in person. That is not a universal, blanket statement, but it is true for many. These are the reasons, or some of the reasons, we are planning a safe return to on-site learning this autumn. I am pleased to say the Government has committed to a significant increase in on-site attendance in the third level sector in the next academic year. This is not just the wish of one Minister, but this was a decision made by the Government in April and conveyed by the Government in the Taoiseach's address to the nation. This was the decision reiterated by the Government in a memorandum in June, and again as recently as yesterday at our Cabinet meeting.
Following an intensive period of work with our sectors and stakeholders, including student representatives, staff, union representatives and management representatives, and with Government approval last month I published A safe return to on-site further and higher education and research in 2021-2022. In a nutshell, what this plan means is that all students will have an on-site college experience next year. It may not be every lecture or workshop, the numbers in the library may need to be smaller, and not all facilities will be open in exactly the same way as they were previously, just as things opened differently in towns and villages across Ireland as a result of Covid-19.
However, let me be very clear about this, we are getting our students and learners back to college. Whereas last year the presumption was that learning would be primarily online, this year the presumption is that learning will be mainly on-site. No doubt the prevailing public health guidelines will mean some learning is blended, but for all students, no matter what they study, on-site learning and attendance will be available. Specifically, at the very minimum, on-site activity next year will include laboratory teaching and learning, classroom based teaching and learning, tutorials, workshops, smaller lectures, research, return to work-spaces and access to libraries with appropriate protective measures in place.
Other on campus non-educational activities and facilities such as sports, bars, canteens, clubs and societies will also operate in line with prevailing general public health advice. This is important too. If the sports club can be opened in the town or village in any part of Ireland, the sports club needs to be open in the college campus. If the café can be open in a town or village outside the gates of the university, well the café or the canteen inside the gates needs to be open too, and the same for the bars, the clubs and societies. We need to treat the college campus like a town or village because in many ways, that is what it is.
Teaching within lecture halls will take place on-site but this will depend on the room size and on other factors. There will be moderation in numbers and there will need to be modification to normal practices. What I mean by this, for example, is entry and exit, ventilation, or indeed the length of time of on-site lectures. To be clear about this, I met yesterday with the representative bodies and they now need to do a body of work in regard to what modifications and safeguards they will put in place in regard to lecture halls. There will be an intensive period of engagement on this, with a meeting of our Covid-19 steering committee next Friday which includes staff representatives, student representatives and management representatives as well. All our plans have student and staff safety firmly built in. The plan is endorsed by public health and by the Chief Medical Officer, so this is a plan with public health buy-in and that also is very important.
Of course, this is going to cost money. It is important that we support our sector and our students. At the Cabinet meeting yesterday, I updated Government on the progress in regard to planning and the expected level of on-site activity in further and higher education and research in the autumn. Crucially, we also secured the approval of Government for a significant package of financial support, amounting to €105 million for the third level sector. I thank my colleague, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Michael McGrath, for the work we have done together on that. The package will include financial support for further and higher education to return on-site safely and in line with public health advice. Crucially, it will also provide additional supports for students. I am conscious that students have had a really difficult year. Therefore, €21 million of this additional funding will be allocated to provide specific extra supports for students in three areas.
There will be an additional €3 million for student mental health and well-being services and an extra €10 million for the student assistance fund. This is the fund many of the members will know that students can draw money down from if they come on hard times, receive an unexpected bill or whatever. I am especially proud of the creation my Department came up with last year in the third area, which is a new mitigating against educational disadvantage fund. We are putting a further €8 million into the latter. This is a fund from which community education providers who are often working with the most vulnerable learners in towns and villages across Ireland can draw down moneys. Last year, that fund was used to help meet the childcare costs of some people in community education. It was also used to buy textbooks and laptops, with the focus being on people who might otherwise not be able to engage with our education system.
A working group for student and learner well-being and engagement was established by me in January. I asked the Union of Students in Ireland, USI, to chair that working group. I am pleased that we will start to make major progress on many of the proposals contained in the group's report as a result of the new funding announced yesterday. I want to specifically thank USI for the leadership it has shown and its determination to achieve an effective outcome for students.
Higher education institutions and further education and training providers are progressing their own detailed planning and work in respect of a comprehensive return to on-site activity. My officials and I have already engaged directly since the Government decision yesterday. As already stated, through our Covid steering committee scheduled for next week, we will continue to support all stakeholders with further guidance and clarity, where required. To enable the success of the plan, the sector has developed a pact of actions and commitments which has been agreed by my Department, its agencies, stakeholders, institutions and training providers. This will support ongoing efforts with regard to the pandemic and ensure that planning is well-grounded in safe and sustainable practices. Within the pact, institutions and providers have committed to addressing backlogs and deferred learning outcomes. Similarly, stakeholder bodies have committed to engaging with institutions and providers to achieve significant increases to on-site teaching, learning, assessment and research. In addition, specific commitments have also been provided in respect of international students in higher education with respect to accommodation and ongoing research.
The engagement and collaboration between my Department and the sector has been a key feature of how we have worked since the start of this Covid journey in March 2020. I sincerely - and I mean this - thank student bodies, learners, staff organisations and management for their incredible collaborative efforts. I have been taken by how collaborative the stakeholders have been and the solidarity they have shown around the table to achieve the best and safest outcomes for staff and for students who so need the best possible educational experience at third level. This partnership has been instrumental in developing the plan for safe return and the continuation and intensification of this approach will be central to its successful implementation. We will continue to meet as a group, share experiences and design solutions.
I want to say a quick word on three topics, namely, summer provision, rapid antigen testing and vaccination. The vaccine programme is doing the heavy lifting with regard to how we can reopen our society. Let us be quite clear about that. The success of vaccines and the fact that, even with the Delta variant, they are proving so effective is what is helping us get back to and dare to dream again of getting back to normality and some forms of normality in our lives. As Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, I am delighted that the vaccine programme is now open to every single individual in this country from the age of 18-plus. If you are an 18-year-old, you have the option of registering for the Janssen vaccine in the pharmacy, registering for the AstraZeneca vaccine with the HSE and now registering for the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines with the HSE. I encourage all young people to get that vaccine because that vaccine is what will keep them, their community and our country safe and what will help us get our lives back on track. It is great news for our sector and for young people that the programme has been accelerated. I pay tribute to the HSE on that.
In order to enable summer provision, we are operating our sector on a more open basis for the summer period this year. This is in compliance with current public health advice and the phased reopening of activities and the protective measures in place are working well. We are getting our apprentices back on-site to complete their hands-on training which cannot be done online and we are getting our researchers back so they can advance their projects.
With regard to rapid antigen testing, I am fully committed to the role of rapid antigen testing as one part of a package of measures to support greater activity on-site. Indeed the role of rapid antigen testing as a possible way of strengthening Covid-19 responses and providing reassurance to staff and others has been recognised in the recently published Covid-19 national protocol for employers and workers. I am glad to say that the third level sector has been leading the way, while others have been debating the merits and demerits and chatting, considering and thinking about it, the third level sector has gotten on with it. I thank it for that. I thank it for its leadership.
There are two separate studies under way which will investigate and examine the potential for rapid antigen testing. We have University College Cork, UCC, University College Dublin, UCD, the National University of Ireland, NUI, Galway and Trinity involved in what they call UniCoV rapid antigen testing pilot. Last week, myself, the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, and the HSE announced five more pilots in further education and training including in counties Mayo, Galway, Cavan and Dublin. The Secretary General of my Department has written to the expert advisory group on rapid testing, which comes under the remit of the Department of Health, asking for its assistance in determining the appropriate role of rapid testing should we decide to expand it further, pending the results of the pilot outcome. I look forward to adopting its advice as well.
Let me leave the members with the message before we get into the engagement: we are going back to college in the new academic year. Education has been deemed an essential service - all of education - not just education that stops at secondary school. The Government has deemed education as an essential service. We need, from a mental health and well-being point of view along with an educational point of view, to make this happen. I have spent the past year listening to students, learners and staff down a camera on my computer and I have heard them say time and again that they want to go back. This is especially the case for learners and students who are more vulnerable.
We have learned good lessons and there are some positives coming from Covid-19 which we might reflect on, as well in terms of things we would like to keep in the education sector but in general, we now need to make sure we can get our students and our staff safely back to college campuses and training centres at the start of the new academic year. I look forward to working with this committee in ensuring we make that an absolute reality.