By Conor Brummell, Deputy Editor for News and Current Affairs
It was announced yesterday (Tuesday, October 20th) that college campuses would remain open under level 5 restrictions in Ireland, as Minister for Higher Education, Research and Innovation Simon Harris stated they would be deemed as essential services.
This has led to students expressing their anger and frustration about the price of Higher-Level Education, as well as highlighting the lack of supports and protections the Government has put in place for students who have paid for rental accommodations in college cities.
The hashtag #EducationForAll went viral after a series of questions from Sinn Féin’s Higher Education spokesperson Rose Conway-Walsh were posed to Minister Simon Harris in Leinster House.
The issues Rose Conway-Walsh highlighted were the problems facing third level students in Ireland, particularly in relation to accommodation, college fees and financial uncertainties because of Covid-19.
A final year denominated Psychology student from the United States told SIN that the Coronavirus pandemic has left her in a precarious situation. “We were advised to come back to campus, and I had to make the initial decision against their recommendation because I could not afford to stay in Galway if my classes were going to be cancelled,” she said.
The same student is working full-time in the USA to afford rent, and she says that this has added to her worries.
“So now I am suddenly paying €12,750 in tuition for online lectures that I cannot even attend live because it is often 4-5am for me. I have to rely on the college to give me reliable information and communicate with me. However, I have sent emails to three different lecturers in the past couple of weeks with little response back, and it is incredibly stressful,” she continued.
“The college needs to realise that they are creating so much unnecessary stress for students. They need to listen to us and realise that we do not deserve what essentially feels like a punishment for not being able to be in Galway or on campus.
“It’s frustrating for people like me who are paying to take classes from 4,000 miles away, and who are unable to utilise campus at all,” she finished.
Domestically, a student from Offaly also expressed her woes about renting a private house that she signed a twelve-month lease for in June, and because of restrictions, has only been able to spend two weeks in Galway.
“I feel completely let down. I work in an essential service, so I have to be home every weekend, which means I can’t stay in the house I’m paying for, for the six weeks like we are being encouraged to do. I have to work to pay for this accommodation that I can’t even use. We need more communication and support, we cannot be left to fend for ourselves.”
A first- year Podiatric Nursing student expressed her fury over the decision to keep colleges open, as now she will have to travel from Tipperary to Galway to attend on-campus lectures.
“I’m going to have to get public transport to and from Galway two-three days a week and leave my house when the advice is clearly not to do so. I’ve no choice but to do so, and there is very little allowance for students travelling,” she told SIN.
“I’m sick of colleges constantly being forgotten about and case numbers being so high,” she finished.
A final year Irish and Economics student, Cormac Gallagher, told SIN that he thinks it is a good thing the college is staying open. “I think that it is great that the library and the likes are being left open, as some students rely on it big time for study. They have all the correct measures in place for social distancing and no one is forced to go in, so if you are weary of Covid you do not need to be there. But a lot of students will use the library.”
NUI Galway’s Students Union Welfare Officer, Róisín Nic Lochlainn, has also condemned the inaction of the Government and University in preparation for students returning to college.
“According to surveys, students have been hit the worst off financially and mentally- so why is it students who have been the most abandoned? We are calling for partial refunds in tuition fees, radical reform of SUSI and for unused accommodation to be refunded,” she said.
In response to queries about international students contacting her, Nic Lochlainn says, “I have had plenty of international students who are stuck in Galway tell me that they feel trapped, that they were lured here on the promise it would be better than their home cities and then got here for everything to go online.
“A lot of them are struggling financially and socially and we’re hearing a lot of complaints of loneliness. Online college is hard for anyone to keep up with, never mind for students abroad in a different time zone and for students stuck in a new city with a new time zone, new people, and a new culture!
“Basically, where does level 5 restrictions leave students? It leaves them with many, many unanswered questions,” she finished.
In a letter sent to all students, President of NUI Galway Ciarán Ó hÓgartaigh stated that under level 5 restrictions, a range of on-campus activities would still be available for students.
“Scheduled access to the Library will continue. We are mindful of the need for other on-site study space and will continue to provide such spaces, while avoiding congregation risk consistent with Level 5 measures.
“Under Level 5, physical attendance at workplaces is only permitted for those providing and supporting the essential on-site activities outlined, where this cannot be delivered or supported remotely. Travel to and from campus for essential on-site activities in adherence with public safety guidelines is permitted under Level 5 measures,” the statement continued.
Campus accommodation is to remain open to students and staff, but no visitors will be permitted. The email also states that the University is “is refunding students who no longer require on-campus accommodation at this time,” and that they “know that many students in privately rented accommodation off campus are faced with uncertainty.”
“Last week, I joined with the Students’ Union to call on Galway’s landlords and student accommodation providers to follow the University and Menlo Park in refunding those students who no longer require accommodation in the city,” the statement from Ó hÓgartaigh finished.
Sinn Féin TD and spokesperson for Higher Education Rose Conway-Walsh spoke to SIN about her Dáil address on Tuesday night, which earned widespread acclaim from students on social media, saying that at first she was worried about the lateness of the debate, but that in fact it nearly worked out better because she got to raise a lot of her questions, and students were listening.
“It worked advantageously- a lot of students were listening, and they got involved online. There are two major issues that need addressed, and that is accommodation and the over-arching problem of online learning,” she said.
“There are only five universities currently offering students refunds for accommodation, and I would urge them to publicly reassure students that if they do not need accommodation, a refund will be fully given,” she continued.
“This is a problem that could have been avoided- the Government knew since April that there would have been problems with online-learning, and they should have been advising students not to pay for accommodation unless they were sure they needed it.”
Deputy Conway-Walsh states, however, that she feels like these matters were left until the last minute.
“When Dublin went to level 3 restrictions, the decision to move teaching online came two weeks later. There was a lack of transparency and urgency, and it seems as if it was done purposely to make sure students had paid money for accommodation. The problems with getting refunds for students in March foretold that we did not want this to happen again.
“There’s a bill being put to the Dáil during the week about a ban on evictions- which should never have been removed in the first place- but there needs to be emergency provisions for students signed off on immediately,” she declared.
“When we have exceptional circumstances such as this, students need to have the provisions in place where they can access refunds. Minister Harris needs to provide this, and if it is a case of landlords losing income, then the Government needs to pay the slack. Students and their parents are the ones paying not only the Higher-Level Education debt, but also the gap on the rental market. It’s a double-whammy.
“I don’t want to be standing up in the Dáil in six months time and speaking on this issue again as if it’s a surprise to Government. It’s not good enough for the Government to be spectators- we need more than words on these issues, we need action,” she finished.