On 25th September intensified protective measures in third level were announced, in line with public health advice. On-site activity in further and higher education will be minimised so long as these measures are in place. Campuses will remain open to facilitate learners and researchers in accessing laboratories, practicals and apprenticeship training, scheduled library attendance and small group activity on a prioritised basis. With the country being placed on Level 5 of the Plan for Living with COVID for a period of six weeks, it is clear that this will be the case for the remainder of the first semester.
I appreciate that this is disappointing for students who had hoped to have as much time on campus as possible, however these measures are very important from a public health perspective in controlling the spread of the Coronavirus.
Responding to these issues is a significant matter of concern for myself and for my colleague the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage and we are examining how accommodation providers can be encouraged to show greater flexibility to students during this challenging time.
The Deputy will be aware that the university sector is already engaging with these issues. I will be continuing to liaise with the sector through the Irish Universities Association to encourage the availability of fair solutions to students in university-owned student accommodation. The majority of universities have confirmed that students who choose not to take up their accommodation will receive a refund and I have made it clear that I wish to see this principle applied by all universities.
For students in the private rental market, I am urging providers to be flexible in finding solutions given the circumstances in which students find themselves. There are, however, no powers available to me under the current legal framework to direct any particular course of action. Refund or cancellation policies in student accommodation should be set out in the license agreement signed at the beginning of the academic year. In the first instance students should engage with their accommodation provider to see if an arrangement can be reached. If this is not possible, students have access to the Dispute Resolution Services of the Residential Tenancies Board.
I have asked my Department to continue to engage with the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage to monitor and report to me on developments on student accommodation issues in order to ascertain whether any further policy response is feasible.