IUA and IFUT call for clarification surrounding the safety of returning to campus

Image Credit: Dominic Daly

As the country prepares to adapt to loosening of Covid-19 restrictions, on Friday, November 27th, the Irish Universities Association (IUA) called for “the safety of staff and students and maximising the student experience”.

In a statement released by the IUA, the association “welcomed the guiding principles agreed for the sector following recent discussions with Minister Harris and his Department which enable universities to plan in a manner that “is best suited to their own context and the requirements of their staff and students...We share the ambition of the Minister for a measured and incremental increase in face-to-face activities on-campus where it is possible to do so safely”.

The IUA is the representative body for UCD, DCU, NUIG, NUIM, TCD, UCC and UL. Director General of the IUA, Jim Miley, said: “Our absolute priority is to try to do whatever possible to improve the student experience at this most difficult time. Working with staff at a local level, universities are doing everything they can to support students and have put in place a range of extra supports for student welfare. We are hopeful that the revised public health guidelines will enable further incremental increases in on-campus activity and in person teaching. Apart from academic settings, it would be particularly beneficial to students if sports and leisure facilities on campus could be made available in a controlled manner.”

This statement comes just days after the Irish Federation of University Teachers (IFUT) expressed that a: “Clear national health and safety approach [was] needed for face-to-face teaching in universities” and that an “Ad-hoc approach by individual colleges would ‘risk chaos for staff and students alike’” 

In a statement released on Sunday, November 23rd, the General Secretary of IFUT, Joan Donegan, said that “a key issue is clarity on the two metre versus one metre rule for separation of students. It is simply not acceptable that some colleges are now proposing a 2 metre distance, others advocate one metre while yet others define distance on a ‘nose-to-nose’ basis, reducing separation still further”. 

Donegan highlighted that the previous move to online learning required major adaption for university staff and students alike, citing far greater time required for new teaching and study techniques; “Many staff and students have, however, had to adapt to this new online reality. Further and additional pressures from a change in policy mid-stream or a return to a combination of face-to-face and on-line teaching must be identified and acknowledged. These range from issues like substantial revision of how classes would be delivered to a potential accommodation crisis for many students who will have to move away from home.

“While everyone would prefer a return to on-campus education, to avoid the risk of chaos in efforts to combat Covid, the priority must be to ensure that no staff or student in an individual college is exposed to inferior health and safety protection due to lack of clear minimum requirements at national level. Health and safety in college is not an aspiration, any discretion or flexibility allowed to individual colleges must be subsidiary to clear national requirements and considerations.”

“These issues can only be assessed and addressed through a full and open consultation, on an equal and ongoing basis, among all stakeholders in higher education, to enable a sustainable gradual return to on-campus education”.