I propose to take Questions Nos. 47, 56 and 78 together.
The Government has committed to planning for a significant increase in onsite attendance in the tertiary education sector in the next academic year. Last month I published A Safe Return: Plan for a safe return to on-site Further and Higher Education and Research in 2021/22. The Safe Return Plan can be accessed here: www.gov.ie/en/publication/bcd91-a-safe-return-to-on-site-further-and-higher-education-and-research/
The Plan reflects the essential nature of higher and further education and training, and research activities, and in that context provides for comprehensive on-site activity for the next academic year, with almost full scale on-site activities. Institutions and providers in the sector have committed to ensuring that all learners across all areas have significant scheduled on-site learning in the forthcoming year.
Under the Plan, larger scale lectures may take place on-site depending on the public health situation but some restriction in numbers may still be required. The safety measures which will be in place such as social distancing, face masks, and ventilation will be in accordance with prevailing public health advice taking into account the essential nature of further and higher education and research. Institutions and providers will continue to put in place plans to ensure that the overall number of people on campus at a given time continues to be moderated.
Contingency planning, in the event of a more restrictive public health environment, is also being prepared by the sector. However even in a more restrictive public health environment, it is envisaged that there will still be significant on-site activities. At a very minimum, workshops, tutorials, classroom based activities and smaller lectures will be allowed and libraries, research facilities and labs will be opened.
While vaccination rollout continues to accelerate across age cohorts, the challenges associated with the unpredictability of the virus remain, particularly in light of the emergence of new variants of the virus. Nevertheless, the sector is committed to maximising onsite provision for students and learners for September 2021 and on that basis and in line with the Safe Return Plan, institutions and providers are currently progressing their own detailed planning and work for a comprehensive return to on-site activity.
I have undertaken to provide an update to Government in mid-July on this planning and the associated expected level of on-site activity in further and higher education and research in the Autumn. This will ensure that there is ongoing support for planning in this sector and that planning proceeds in a manner that is aligned to prevailing public health advice.
Following the update to Cabinet in July and taking account of public health guidelines, it is envisaged that institutions and providers will be in a position to communicate their plans for a return to on-site activity to students, learners and staff.