I propose to take Questions Nos. 473, 479, 481 and 482 together.
Education is an essential service and the Government has agreed that it can continue on-site, in line with Safe Return Plan published in June. The Safe Return Plan and the most recent guidance on the current approach advocate and support contingency planning to ensure that institutions remain flexible and adaptable in response to changes in the public health environment.
My Department does not determine sector specific matters at this level. However, in order to address concerns, I met with management, staff and student representatives on the 19th November and the issue was discussed.
Due to the diversity and autonomy of our higher education institutions, and the broad range of activities they undertake and the different contexts and requirements applicable to examinations, it was agreed that a uniform or one size fits all approach would not be appropriate across the whole of higher education or indeed the tertiary sector more generally.
Management bodies confirmed that they are actively looking at 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 or underlying health conditions can be addressed. It was also pointed out that there are some examinations – such as those related to external accreditation - which are 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 examinations, taking into account the significant contextual factors that arise in different instances and that individuals who cannot sit exams due to Covid-19 concerns will be offered alternatives.
Since that meeting in November, the sector has confirmed that many institutions have now commenced their end of semester examinations, adopting approaches to their examinations on the basis of risk assessment and the use of precautionary measures as agreed.
In instances where examinations are being held in person, institutions are ensuring that these are taking place in environments in line with public health guidance and at a significantly lower capacity than normal. Procedures are in place to accommodate students who cannot sit an exam as a result of Covid impacting either themselves or close contacts.
The sector continues to carefully consider the balance between the measures, the risk assessments and to engage with staff and students in planning for examinations.
In all instances public health must remain a priority and I know that there will be a continuing focus on the evolving and often quickly changing public health situation overall. I have also recently announced a €9 million fund to enable institutions provide free antigen tests to students. The use of these tests can provide an additional layer of protection, to prevent onward transmission and help to protect students, our third level sector and the community at large.