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Third Level Examinations

Dáil Éireann Debate, Tuesday - 30 November 2021

Tuesday, 30 November 2021

Questions (57)

Rose Conway-Walsh


57. Deputy Rose Conway-Walsh asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science if students will have a remote option for end of semester exams; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [59095/21]

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Oral answers (6 contributions) (Question to Further and Higher Education)

In light of the rising numbers of people infected by Covid-19 and the arrival of the new variant, will students have an option to complete end of semester exams remotely? Students across the State are seeking clarity and uniformity on what plans are in place to ensure third level institutions are prepared and capable of providing alternative assessments for students who do not wish to sit in-person exams or students who are unable to attend due to requirements to restrict movements.

I thank the Deputy for raising an important and timely question. Higher education and research and further education and training, including apprenticeship have been confirmed and reconfirmed by the Government as an essential service in the course of the pandemic. They continue, therefore, to take place on-site, consistent with the safe return plan published by my Department last June and endorsed by the Chief Medical Officer. There is no medical or public health advice from the National Public Health Emergency Team or the Chief Medical Office to suggest any level of on-site activity planned, including exams, should now be moved online. Since the start of the pandemic and whether I was Minister for Health or in this role, I have always believed in following the public health advice.

On Friday, 19 November, I met sectoral and stakeholder bodies through our Covid-19 steering committee, including the Union of Students in Ireland, and the question of end of semester examinations was discussed. The USI emphasised the requirement for consistency in approaches and the provision of appropriate options for students and learners. Due to the diversity of our higher education institutions and the very broad range of activities they undertake and different contexts and requirements applicable to exams, it was agreed that a "one size fits all" approach would not be appropriate across the whole of higher education or the third level sector more generally. It was also agreed that the basic principle of risk assessment and the application of appropriate precautionary measures would also apply.

Management bodies confirmed at the meeting that they are putting in place a range of approaches to ensure that end of term examinations will be safe and that the requirements of students who may have Covid-19, be a close contact or have an underlying health condition can be addressed. It was also pointed out that there are some examinations, such as those related to external accreditation, that are very challenging to change to an online format at short notice.

The outcome of the meeting was that individual higher education institutions will assess the appropriate approach to exams consistent with the outcome of their risk assessments since they returned to campus. Timely engagement and consultation with student and staff representatives has a very important role to play and in all instances, public health must remain a priority. To be clear, if a student is not able to attend an exam in person due to Covid-19, being a close contact or having an underlying health condition, I expect and am assured that alternative arrangements will be put in place. That may be a deferral or, in some cases, online accommodation.

I understand some colleges, such as University College Cork, have moved all their exams online. I spoke to a number of students from Waterford last night who were told they cannot be facilitated in doing their exams remotely. The issue here is that students do not feel safe or comfortable entering an exam hall with hundreds of other students and students do not want to defer these exams. Many of them depend on working through the summer to pay for college and they cannot afford the cost of deferring.

Living situations, health status and many other factors vary from student to student. Some have underlying conditions and others live with vulnerable family members so it is unfair and unjustified that students are given no option in this position when Covid-19 numbers are high. There must be scope within examinations for alternative arrangements for students who for whatever reason do not feel comfortable attending mass indoor exams, even if they are scheduled to go ahead. These students need the Department to demonstrate leadership on the matter and we must really send a message from here tonight that these students must be accommodated. I will explain further why this is so as we debate the matter.

Respectfully, the last time I took Oral Questions in the House the Deputy was asking me to increase on-site attendance and I shared that view with her. I said to her then what I will say now, albeit in a different context. Everything must be done in the context of public health and the framework we have agreed with all stakeholders, including students, their union and, crucially, the Chief Medical Officer.

The return to on-campus education has gone very well, although it has not been a straight road without hiccups. I spoke with students in Maynooth last night and they want consistency and clarity about what is happening with the exams in their institution. I believe, as a result of our stakeholder meeting on 19 November, there is now an understanding in the approach being taken. The Deputy has made me aware of individual examples and I am very happy to follow up on them. However, the approach we are taking is that what is safe to carry out on-site and in person will continue, with accommodation and flexibility being shown to students for whom it is not possible to partake in on-campus activity. The Deputy is correct that different institutions will act differently in this scenario, which is okay or right because they must risk assess their own campuses, as they have done with lecture theatres etc. since the recommencement of on-campus activity in September.

I still think we need uniformity and fairness across institutions in this. Are we really saying it is okay to tell students who are unable to leave their home or who are a close contact that they will have to repeat an exam in August? This will not only result in the punishing of students who follow public health guidance but incentivise some in not adhering to public health advice. I am concerned about that. Too often the response has been reactive rather than proactive.

Students are also being asked to submit medical certificates, costing up to €50. They may be doing exams on 23 December in a hall but have vulnerable parents or other people at home. They deserve a Christmas as well. They may be two hours or more in a hall with many other students, putting themselves at risk. Having windows and doors open is not conducive to doing exams. I ask the Minister to please look at this again because it is causing heightened anxiety among students and their families.

Of course I will look at such matters continually but I will not defy public health advice approach, no matter which way it goes. I will not decide on the floor of Dáil Éireann that I will move exams online because I do not control the decision and institutions are autonomous. Additionally, such a decision is not in our space, and as politicians and public representatives our role is to put in place the framework endorsed by public health. That has been working well.

It is entirely correct - I do not view it as an inconsistency or inappropriate - that different institutions must make different calls on this because they have different facilities available.

That has been the case since the return to on-site activity. That is where our colleges differ very much from our schools in the size of examination halls, the potential for some exams to take place online and the potential for others not to. I am satisfied our institutions are applying public health advice to their facilities. I fully agree with the Deputy's point that maximum flexibility, common sense and accommodation must be shown to students who, for appropriate health reasons, cannot attend an exam on-site. I could not agree more with the Deputy on that and I will work with her if there are any examples where that is not the case.