The provision of funding for a number of targeted student supports will have a meaningful impact on students’ ability to fully access and engage in learning this year, and are welcomed by the Union of Students in Ireland (USI) which has been calling for such assistance since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

On the back of the announcement by the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science this afternoon of a €168 million package for third level institutions and students and the Practical Guidance for Further and Higher Education for Returning to On–Site Activity, the USI is calling for a number of matters to be clarified in relation to addressing the digital divide, the Student Assistance Fund and support for student mental health programmes.

USI President, Lorna Fitzpatrick said: “We have been calling for measures to support students who will be working remotely for much of the new academic year through the creation of a new scheme that provides access to devices and better WiFi. We welcome the announcement of €15 million for this and are keen to work with the department to ensure it is clear, accessible and fair ahead of its roll-out. We would also like to see clarity on how the rest of the funding is being allocated. Are the institutions free to spend it as necessary or will it be ring-fenced for measures such as supporting remote learning and making campuses safer from COVID-19?”

“There is mention in the announcement of support for student mental health initiatives and our information is that three million euro has been ring-fenced for this aspect, which is very necessary and welcome.

“However, it must be made clear if this is in addition to the two million euro that was announced in the last budget and we need clarity on how that two million has been used to support student mental health.”

The USI has also called for an urgent reduction to the Student Contribution Charge in light of the economic difficulties facing students who lost have jobs, had summer work hours reduced and were placed on a lower Pandemic Unemployment Payment because they were only working part-time during the academic year.

Lorna said: “There is no mention of a change to the Student Contribution Charge. We have called for a €500 reduction to be made to that charge to ease some of the financial pressure caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. There was also no mention of changes to the SUSI grant. And while a boost for the Student Assistance Fund is very welcome, policies will need to be reviewed to ensure all students who are in need can apply. Policies within local institutions need to ensure that all students who are in need will be able to apply for this fund without additional restrictions such as requirements to be in receipt of a SUSI grant.

“We welcome the aspects of this funding that we know about so far, we just need to make sure it is fair and accessible and that students are involved in working out the detail and the roll-out of these provisions in order for them to make as much impact as possible. We welcome the release of the plan for re-opening. However, it is almost the end of July, we feel it should have been released sooner as students need clarity now on how the new academic year will look.”