The newly-appointed Minister for Further and Higher Education, Innovation and Science, Simon Harris has said there is “much to do” following a “constructive” meeting with representatives of the Union of Students in Ireland (USI) on July 2nd. 

Minister Harris met with USI president Lorna Fitzpatrick and, Vice President for Academic Affairs, Kevin McStravock to discuss the new department’s proposed work and the issues facing Irish Universities and their students. 

In a press release, the USI said they were “committed to working with Minister Harris and his new department to ensure our higher education system is funded, accountable and supportive for all students”. They have signalled their hope that “the creation of this new department will lead to a strong education system that is truly accessible to all.”

Minister Harris was appointed to head the newly created department for Higher Education, Innovation and Science on Saturday following the inauguration of the Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil & Green Party coalition. In the Dáil on Saturday, new Taoiseach Micheál Martin told of the prospective “major transformation” at Third Level, which will need “clarity and engagement from government”, hoping to be brought through the new department.

At the meeting, “the need for further students supports, to urgently address the digital divide and action needed following the recent student Sexual Experiences Survey were among the key issues the USI discussed – and proposed solutions to – with Minister Harris.”

Minister Harris agreed to meet “all relevant parties connected to the recent student Sexual Experiences Survey by USI and Active Consent in NUI Galway, within the next two weeks”. This comes after the recent revelations of ‘The Sexual Experiences Survey’ which found that almost a third of female and non-binary students, and 10% of male students, reported having experienced “non-consensual penetration”.

Regarding the urgent issue of “the digital divide” ahead of the new academic year, the USI is calling for “specific funding to be made available to support students to access devices and for connectivity issues to be resolved through expanding networks and creating new access points”. This follows a growing concern that the digital divide could increasingly prove to be a barrier to access for many students across the country, as technology is increasingly integrated into the University learning experience following Covid-19.

Another issue which “featured heavily in the discussion” was the SUSI Grant system and Student Assistant Fund. The USI outlined to Minister Harris “areas in need of immediate review; such as the SUSI eligibility criteria and the need to expand the thresholds to ensure all those who need to access SUSI can do so.” In addition, the USI highlighted “the need for increased funding for the Student Assistance Fund and the Back to Education Allowance”.

Earlier this week Minister Harris spoke of his commitment “to building an inclusive higher education system and SUSI grants are an excellent resource for eligible students to avail of.” He encouraged students to apply for the grant in light of the Covid-19 pandemic, assuring students “there is scope to address loss of income as part of the grant scheme.” In addition, the Minister agreed to “work with the USI to develop a framework for supporting Students’ Unions” and will continue to engage in discussions regarding “sustainable funding model for Higher Education”.

Minister Harris will attend another formal engagement with USI on the broader range of issues before the end of July.

Gemma Farrell – Reporter