On behalf of the Irish Universities Association I thank the committee for the opportunity to participate in this important discussion on the safe and sustainable reopening of further and higher education this autumn. We particularly appreciate the reference in the session title to both the safe and sustainable return to our campuses, which are both critical considerations in this regard. Our preference is to refer to a return to campus rather than to a reopening.
Our universities remained open throughout the pandemic, with significant contributions to research, public health and the continuity of engagement with our students, albeit that much, though not all, activity has to be carried out remotely. Despite these challenges, our eight universities will have successfully graduated more than 100,000 students between this year and last, including the latest cohort of our doctors, nurses, teachers and other front-line staff.
We welcome the recent publication by the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Deputy Harris, of the plan for the safe return to a normal working operation for staff and students this autumn. I will focus my comments in particular on the main issues and challenges for our universities on behalf of the Irish Universities Association.
Our priority focus is on the health and well-being of our students and staff. All of our plans are predicated on the public health environment and on adhering to public health guidelines and to providing the best possible student experience.
Further and higher education are an essential sector for students and learners and for the country. It has been designated as essential by public policy and by public health. Research is also an essential activity intrinsic to higher education and, as we have seen through the pandemic more than ever, for society itself.
The plan set out by the Minister sets out the expectation that the majority of the adult population, including third level students, will have been vaccinated by September. This is critical and its achievement lays the foundation for our return to campus plans. We share the desire of our students, staff and Government to safely reinstate face to face teaching and research activities on our campuses. Noting in particular that the provision of larger scale lectures is achievable only in a very different public health environment, it is hoped that, contingent on the benefit of mass vaccination, this environment will be achievable in autumn 2021.
Each of our universities is finalising its detailed plans for the autumn for the resumption of on-campus teaching and learning. This preparatory work includes substantial modification of campus layout and facilities management, entry and egress protocols to buildings, sanitisation and cleaning regimes and adjustments to ventilation systems. Readjusting timetables in our universities with campus populations of between 15,000 to 30,000 covering hundreds of courses and thousands of modules is a complex process. In doing so, universities will have a reserve plan in place in the event that greater levels of restrictions are required by public health guidelines than those currently anticipated.
We are working together and with other stakeholders, notably our students and our staff, to review and learn from our digital experience over the last 16 months, and to ensure that the positive aspects of this can be embedded into the ways we teach, learn, conduct research and organise our institutions. Universities have been willing partners in the Government response to Covid-19. We have made our facilities available for contact tracing and for vaccinations; we have seconded key personnel to support the health service; and we have partnered in Covid-19 research and test facilities, and some of these are located in some of our on-campus labs. We have given more details of these to the committee.
Four of our universities, Trinity College, Dublin, UCD, UCC and, my own, NUI Galway are involved in pilot research projects to assess various approaches to on-campus rapid antigen testing. While it will be some weeks yet before results from these pilot programmes emerge, it is hoped that they will provide useful evidence as to the role that rapid antigen testing could play in the safe return to campus.
The IUA has worked with the HEA and the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science to seek to secure an additional Covid-19 funding package for the sector similar to that provided very generously, and we are very grateful for that, in July 2020. This includes additional supports for students, especially vulnerable students who may require supports for digital access or welfare and mental well-being supports. The capacity of universities to deal with the additional demands arising from Covid-19 needs the investment supported through a further such funding package.
The pandemic has led to significant backlogs in research projects across our universities. The HEA Covid-19 cost extension fund of 2020 is being used extensively to support researchers as many need more time to complete their research. Again, we are very grateful for this generous support. Further funding will be required to address the growing backlog in this regard. Plans are also under way for the gradual return to increased research capacity over the summer months. We look forward to welcoming our students back to campus and to Government investment to support us in this regard.
The safe arrival of our international students is a priority for the sector and for society more generally. Our universities are working with other sector partners and with the Department to agree an updated protocol and put in place the necessary arrangements for the safe welcome of international students. Government decisions on international travel and the roll-out of the EU digital pass are crucial enabling measures for this. In addition, we are liaising with Government to support us, as last year, in funding the costs arising in this regard and to resolve a number of visa processing issues from and to certain countries.
We have seen a dramatic increase in applications from Irish students to participate in the Erasmus programme. This includes a backlog of students who were unable to travel abroad to study last year. Our sense is that there are insufficient funds in the HEA Erasmus budget to cover this expanded demand.
Seven of the eight member universities of the IUA have university-owned campus accommodation with a total of approximately 15,000 beds available. In the last year, our universities saw a sharp reduction in the income from these facilities and all universities provided refunds to students who had booked on-campus accommodation last autumn, but were then forced to study from home due to Covid-19 restrictions.
Our students, staff and the universities themselves have shown great flexibility and adaptability to the challenges of Covid-19 over the last 16 months. In particular, I commend our colleagues and our students on the adaptability and resilience now being stretched by and into another academic year. We are now looking forward to a safe and sustainable return - those words we used at the beginning, in the title of this session - to campus that will enable a more fulsome student learning experience, a resumption of the full range of our research work and the first phase of the restoration of the academic, social and cultural aspects of campus life. Táim ag súil le bheith ag caint libh, go raibh míle maith agaibh.