LAST summer, saw the establishment of the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, separating the department from the department of education.
The move was welcomed by students who hoped that this would allow additional focus and funding to be given to third level as many had felt ignored when colleges closed at the beginning of the pandemic.
A year on from the department’s establishment, we asked students how they feel about it?
Initially, many students were sceptical of Simon Harris being made Minister of this new department. As Health Minister he oversaw the worsening of the trolley crisis, the cervical cancer scandal and many other issues.
The department’s first scandal came just days before students were due to go back to college. It was announced that the first two weeks of the semester were being changed to online learning as opposed to the blended model previously promised. This was then extended to the entire semester. Students were outraged as many had signed leases and paid for accommodation for the year after being told they would need it.
Minister Harris said he would do his best to secure refunds for students. While he engaged with universities to refund money for college owned accommodation, his work with Housing Minister Darragh O’Brien to secure refunds for the thousands of students renting from private landlords left a lot to be desired. This led to students losing thousands of euro on accommodation they never got to use.
Outgoing NUIG welfare officer and incoming student president Róisín Nic Lochlainn said: “It was nearly impossible to get any response or movement from private landlords as they were totally secure in the fact that the government hadn’t done anything to help students in that situation.
“When I emailed Cuirt Na Coiribe accommodation, the response was that there were no protections for student renters from the government so they wouldn’t be giving a refund.”
As a mental health advocate, Róisín was also concerned at an NUIG survey that found 33% of students were suffering from severe depression.
“Mental health and suicide prevention isn’t just crisis text-lines, it’s affordable accommodation, affordable food and affordable healthcare so of course students’ mental health was affected and the stress that the accommodation situation put on their family was dire. It put a lot of pressure on families during what was already one of the most difficult times that any of us would experience.”
Students also criticised the department for not reducing tuition fees for the year considering they had no access to facilities their fees supposedly covered. Students had to pay full fees, which are already the highest in Europe, for a year where most of them didn’t step foot on campus.
DCU student Nathan McDonagh contacted Minister Harris last July expressing his concerns on this. After waiting over a month, the response he got simply explained how the SUSI grant and free fees initiative work and didn’t answer his question.
Nathan explained: “It felt like a stock copy-paste response and killed all faith I had in the department a couple of months into its existence.”
Nathan isn’t alone in his frustration when trying to contact Minister Harris or his department.
Many students and academics say they have waited weeks for a response, if they get any at all. One academic author said they contacted the department last summer and have yet to hear back. You could argue that last year the department was still finding its feet but these same issues still exist today.
Faye McDonnell of NUIG contacted Minister Harris this year expressing her concern that students receiving the PUP may not qualify for the SUSI grant next year as their income could be too high.
Weeks later she received a response without a proper answer to her question or any mention of the PUP.
One year on from the establishment of the department of further and higher education, it’s clear that the students I spoke to aren’t satisfied. They’re tired of seeing a minister praised for interacting with young people when he spends more time posting TikToks than he does responding to genuine concerns or engaging with student unions. It makes little sense that a public figure with such a strong online presence is so hard to contact.
Presuming the 2021/22 academic year will take place in person, it will be interesting to see how campus life has improved since third level got its own Minister.