I propose to take Questions Nos. 402 and 404 together.
In considering the issue of fees, it is important to note that the State currently provides very substantial financial support to undergraduate students in higher education towards the cost of their studies. This support has played a very significant role in facilitating access to and growth in higher education. What was previously the preserve of a relatively small proportion of the school leaving population is now much more widely available, as reflected in the current transfer rate from second to third level.
This commitment is demonstrated through the Free Fees Schemes under which the Exchequer currently contributes €340m to meeting the tuition fee costs of eligible undergraduate students in higher education. In addition, the Exchequer pays the student contribution of €3,000 per annum in full or part, through SUSI, for approximately 44% of students at a cost of over €180m.
Under Level 5 of the Plan for Living with COVID all further and higher education institutions will deliver the majority of their classes online with only essential activities held on site. While I appreciate that this is disappointing for students who had hoped to have as much time on campus as possible, these measures were necessary to support halting the spread of the Coronavirus.
I am of course very conscious of the immediate impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on our students. In recognition of the challenges facing full time third level students, financial assistance will be provided in academic year 202/21 to all students who avail of SUSI grants and to all EU full-time undergraduate and postgraduate students attending publicly funded Higher Education Institutions in the state.
Under this initiative students who avail of the SUSI grant will receive a €250 top-up in their grant and students who do not avail of the grant but attend publicly funded Higher Education Institutions in the state can reduce by €250 any outstanding student contribution fee payments or receive a €250 credit note for their institution.
Additionally Budget 2021 provides further funding to enhance SUSI grant supports for post-grads and increase support for the PATH access initiative. In July I announced a range of additional student supports including a doubling of the Student Assistance Fund, and a €15 million technology fund for devices for students.
The combined impact of these supports and initiatives highlight the strength of the Government's commitment to supporting students in meeting the costs of third level education.
In terms of student placements, following the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, significant work has been undertaken by a stakeholder group chaired by the Quality and Qualifications Ireland (QQI) and including the representative bodies of education providers to address issues relating to the maintenance of the quality and standards of teaching and learning, assessment and qualifications. This group has focused on the implementation of alternative arrangements, where appropriate and necessary, to meet both these standards and, where applicable, the educational accreditation criteria established by Professional Recognition Bodies (PRBs).
In the case of Social Care, the awards standards in place reflect the accreditation criteria and placement requirements that have been set out by CORU, Ireland's multi-profession Health and Social Care Regulator and consequently the relevant PRB for this profession. QQI has facilitated engagement between members of the stakeholders group and CORU, in parallel to direct engagements between CORU and individual education providers, to ensure that necessary arrangements are in place to maintain standards of education and training in this area so that students can progress e.g. from second year into third year or, where relevant, graduate with the relevant professional competencies that have been set out by CORU. Students should engage directly with their education provider for further information on the arrangements being implemented for their particular year and course.