Minister Harris calls for return to campus for spring semester

Image Credit: Dominic Daly

Minister for Higher Education, Simon Harris, has called for colleges to restart on-campus activity for the spring semester, to the condemnation of the Irish Federation of University Teachers (IFUT). This news follows UCD’s announcement that the upcoming Spring semester will be held remotely.

According to the Irish Times, Harris’ “priority going into the new year will be in increasing on-campus activity as much as we can and as safely as we can,” and that he ““would like to see some more on-site activity for first- and final-year students.” This announcement came in early November, with Harris stressing that he wants universities to hold off on making announcements about how the next semester will be run until the Department of Health and Department of Further and Higher Education can fully evaluate if a safe return to campus is viable.

The Minister’s primary concern is a potential downturn in engagement from students, in particular first and final year students, which could lead to deferrals and withdrawals from courses. This worry is not unfounded, with many students, particularly first years, expressing a feeling of alienation from their college experience, some of which going on to say that they wish that they had chosen to defer their space.

IFUT responded to the Minister’s statement in the Times with a statement on their own site, which states that reopening campuses further without singular government guidelines would lead to “chaos for staff and students alike”. One of the key issues they would like to see a universal standard brought in for at third level is the standard for social distancing, saying “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.”

John Donegan, the General Secretary of IFUT went on to say in this statement that “While everyone would prefer a return to on-campus education, to avoid the risk of chaos in efforts to combat Covid-19, 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.”

While IFUT and Harris are taking different stances on the feasibility of campuses reopening in Spring, they are united in believing that a return to campus is favourable, and should not be done without a substantial amount of discussion and planning. 

As it stands, UCD has announced and maintained that next semester will proceed in the same fashion as at present, with only essential labs and practicals taking place in person, with the remainder of classes taking place remotely.