- 01 Oct 20
Lorna Fitzpatrick was elected as President of the Union of Students in Ireland last year. The Gorey native, a graduate of IT Carlow, here outlines some of the most pressing issues facing students and colleges in 2020 – including accommodation, societies, funding, student supports, and more.
Going to college is going to be vastly different this coming academic year. There are definitely going to be major challenges, for colleges and students alike.
At the moment, the biggest one is around clarity. Some people are getting detailed timetables – whereas others don’t have that at all. This makes it very difficult when you’re trying to make plans for the year. Colleges need to recognise that – and the strain that all students are under, including first-years. The college authorities need to try to be as supportive as possible.
USI has launched a campaign for flexible conditions around student accommodation, and we’re actually meeting the Minister for Housing to discuss the issue. Basically, we’re looking for emergency provisions to be introduced into legislation to protect student renters, and to provide a basis in law for the flexibility that is essential. What we don’t want to see is a repeat of what happened in March, when students were basically told to go home. A lot of students were left with having pre-paid thousands of euro for accommodation they weren’t in a position to use; or they were stuck in contracts, and lost their deposits.
This question of flexibility in accommodation provision really is important. People may have a lecture one day, and consecutive lectures the following day. So, being able to rent somewhere on a short-term, one, two or three-night basis, depending on a student’s schedule, is vital. We don’t want students to have to sign into eight or nine-month contracts.
It also has to be recognised that the entire student experience has value. That means making sure that colleges are supporting what goes on outside the lecture theatre, including clubs and societies, so that they’re able to run. If we only focus on the academic side of things, and the lectures, then students are not getting a broader student experience. While obviously it’s a very different time, that can still be achieved, in line with social distancing guidelines.
Covid-19 has also exposed the significant cracks in the higher education funding system – particularly regarding international students. Of course, it’s really good to have international students for loads of reasons – including the internationalisation of education, and meeting people from different backgrounds and cultures. But the other side of that, comes down to how higher education is being funded.
A strategy was deployed by our government to encourage higher education institutions to diversify their income. When it’s boiled down, that basically came down to raising the numbers of international students in their colleges – because, of course, they are charged a fortune to come here. In effect, they’re basically propping up the system, which is so, so wrong.
Now, in the context of Covid-19, all that income from tourism, rented-out facilities, summer activities and international students is going to be massively down. It shows us that this system of trying to fund education through private income, or diversification of income, just doesn’t work. The government needs to step up, and to actually fund education as the public good that it is. Two years ago, an Indecon report found that, for every €1 you invest in higher education, the economy gets €4 back. So, it’s a smart decision in terms of the economy, but it’s also a very smart decision in terms of the wider societal benefits.
Students come from such a wide variety of political backgrounds – and none! But over lockdown, the polarisation we’ve seen, and the growing anti-mask messaging, 5G, and so on, are all really harmful. Across the island, students have been first responders in the national battle against Covid-19 – from those working in hospitals and pharmacies, to shopkeepers and delivery drivers. These harmful messages are putting those students in danger.
So it would really concern me if that kind of message, and that kind of movement, were to start building on college campuses. I genuinely think that the vast majority of students recognise that this is a virus, and they recognise that we all need to take action to try to limit its spread. Don’t get me wrong: different political opinions are healthy in any society. But when you confuse political opinions and public health messaging, that’s a problem.
While the college experience will certainly be different, that doesn’t mean that it’s going to be bad! I was talking to Scott Ahearn, who’s a counsellor in TU Dublin for a podcast the other day, and he made a really good point. Incoming first-years shouldn’t feel like their college experience is going to be blighted. We have to try not to be negative about it all the time – because there are opportunities here. There are some students who had been calling for lectures to be recorded for years. That kind of thing is going to happen now, which is a real plus.
It’s all about making sure that you get on top of things. So my advice is to attend as much as you can, including your inductions, which are really important – this year more so than ever, because it’s a new situation for everybody. The social aspect is important too. We all know we can keep in touch with our friends online –I think we’ve all been part of one too many Zoom quizzes at this stage! – but actually making friends online can be more challenging. Students unions and staff have a big role to play in rolling out formal and informal online spaces for people to meet and chat. So keep an eye out for those, and engage with them.
Don’t be afraid to get involved – recognising also that this is a very difficult, challenging time. There are incredible teams of people who really want to help students achieve their best. There are loads of supports – from student services to student counselling, and from student unions to academic supports.
Finally, this is new to everybody – so, above all don’t be afraid to reach out and ask for help when you need it.