Tuesday, 15 December 2020

Ceisteanna (50)

Rose Conway-Walsh


50. Deputy Rose Conway-Walsh asked the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science the measures he has taken to urge universities to compensate postgraduate students for the move to online teaching and the much-reduced student experience promised in their prospectus and marketing campaigns; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [43162/20]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí ó Béal (6 píosaí cainte) (Ceist ar Further and Higher Education)

This question relates to postgraduate courses. It is an issue I wish to raise again. We should also include the graduate-entry medical students, as they pay similarly high fees. We have seen significant and justified anger among postgraduate students because they have paid so much for a one-year course and now they are doing it from their kitchen table or from box rooms. What, if any, steps has the Department taken with regard to postgraduate students who have paid up to €18,000 in some cases?

I am pleased the Deputy mentioned medical graduates because I would not want to miss the Irish Medical Organisation too much due to the change in my brief. I am looking forward to meeting it in the new year on medical graduate training in Ireland. We need to have an important conversation about how we support medical students in this country. I look forward to coming back to the Deputy on that.

It is important to note that postgraduate study in the higher education system in Ireland takes place across a very wide and diverse set of disciplines and extends from taught master's programmes to advanced and specialised postgraduate research. While the introduction of strict public health restrictions impacted widely on postgraduate students, the shift to online learning necessitated by Covid impacted predominantly on taught postgraduate programmes. I am making the point that there is a variety of different types of postgraduate programme. While Ireland was on level 5, all further and higher education institutions delivered the majority of their classes online, with only essential activities on site. As I indicated, as we are now at level 3 we are hoping to be more ambitious in terms of the ability to increase face-to-face learning on a phased and incremental basis. It is also hoped to restart a number of social activities such as sports, clubs and societies to allow students to experience some element of college life.

We need to be realistic. Higher education institutions are autonomous, as provided for in legislation, and the determination as to the total level of postgraduate fee to be charged is a matter for each institution in accordance with its particular operational condition and circumstances. That is a matter of legislation.

The cost of delivering such a programme has not reduced as a consequence of the pandemic, and in many ways these institutions ran up a range of additional costs in continuing to deliver programmes, despite unique circumstances. We have been trying to assist them financially in meeting those costs, and we have provided much funding for that.

Conscious of the immediate impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on our students, I ensured that postgraduate students were included in the €50 million financial assistance fund. The variety of postgraduate courses vary and therefore the experience this year in college is varying significantly.

The issue is that institutions have overpromised and the Department must take some responsibility for that, as with the accommodation matter. Many of the students and parents I have spoken to feel they were misled. We cannot treat universities, institutes of technology and private colleges like primary or post-primary schools. They are marketing very expensive courses and that is what they sold. The students are not getting what they paid for. In many or all cases, they made promises that could not be delivered.

I understand Covid-19 adds an element of uncertainty but many of us back in September could see this overpromising. Students have a right to expect to pay less for a reduced service. These courses were sold on the basis of glossy brochures of the experience these students would have. It is not the institutions' fault they were not able to deliver the experience but they should reimburse some of that money at this stage.

I thank the Deputy. I doubt she means it like this but with my Department or the Government, there was no attempt to mislead anybody. I remember getting a letter from the deputy chief medical officer on the Friday telling us we needed to bring in additional precautions, and this effectively moved much college activity online. That decision was made and published on that Friday, so it was the moment we received the public health advice. The Deputy has been decent and fair enough to acknowledge that the situation has been very fluid with regard to the public health advice.

I take the Deputy's point about the cost of a postgraduate course in Ireland, which is significant. I have outlined the legislative reality and these are the laws passed by the House relating to how the fees are set by autonomous institutions. I have outlined the supports I, along with Government colleagues, have put in place in that regard. I want to do more in this space but we have significantly increased the level a person can earn and the amount that he or she can receive from next year as part of the maintenance grant while doing a postgraduate course in Ireland. These supports were decimated in the previous recession and we need to rebuild them.

I am sure the €250 support brought welcome relief to many students and I welcome the fact it was extended to postgraduates. We can consider the large sums involved in getting a master's degree, which can be anything from €8,000 to €18,000 per year. When the move online was announced at the end of September, students should have been offered the chance to defer or take a refund. Will the Department now support students in their calls for a rebate of the fees they have paid?

The UCD Smurfit business school students are lobbying for a 30% reduction in their fees and I know many British students are doing likewise with some colleges there. It is a reasonable demand. Graduate entry medicine, GEM, students are spending €16,000 to study medicine in UCD, and they saw fees increase this year. Will the Department engage with these students to find a solution?

We always engage but we do not make commitments I cannot stand over. The legal position with regard to the autonomy of our universities and the setting of postgraduate fees is a statement of fact. I always welcome the opportunity to engage, hear views and see how we can support people, and this is important. We have put in place a number of supports this year for students at undergraduate and postgraduate level.

In fairness to the higher education sector staff and students, they have kept the system going in what might be a less than ideal scenario, to put it mildly. They have continued to provide high-quality education, albeit not with the usual college experience. I am sure the Deputy reads the likes of the Quality and Qualifications Ireland, QQI, report into how the standard of our higher education system has been maintained despite additional costs, challenges and the new way of providing that education.

There is a balance to be struck and this is a position in which nobody wished to find themselves. Our higher education institutions have tried to keep the show on the road in that regard. I hope 2021 sees us move to higher terrain.

Questions Nos. 51 and 52 replied to with Written Answers.