Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Simon Harris, has announced he is seeking a €100 million relief fund for the third-level sector to soften the immediate financial fallout of COVID-19 on universities’ balance sheets.

The relief fund will be directed towards supporting universities’ response to COVID-19 health costs and preparing campuses for incoming students in the Autumn. Other targets for the funding are additional on-campus mental health support for students, such as counselling services, and the provision of digital devices for disadvantaged students unable to afford the costs of moving to online and blended learning environments. The Minister has stated that the fund will be allocated only towards COVID-19 related costs and not to pre-existing accumulations of debt or deficit.

This will come as a disappointment to the sector where some institutions are at risk of defaulting on loans upwards of €800 million spent on campus improvements notwithstanding the “€500 million blackhole” as a result of COVID-19’s financial impact, as reported by The Journal. According to the Higher Education Authority, many universities simply do not have enough cash reserves to continue “beyond a relatively short time frame”. The Authority has previously called upon the Government to introduce a financial support package to support the third-level sector, but a Department of Education discussion document expressed opposition to this policy instead preferring allocations of aid on an individual basis.

In April, The College Tribune reported that UCD is expected to lose up to €100 million this year due to COVID-19 related restrictions and declining international student numbers. In 2017, international students accounted for 20% of UCD’s income with some 8,428 non-EU students on the main campus last year. Non-EU undergraduate students can be expected to pay anywhere between €10,000 and €50,000 in tuition fees while for postgraduates this can be €10,000 to €35,000.

It is unclear at this time how the Minister’s relief fund will be distributed amongst universities – either on a case-by-case basis or diffused amongst institutions.

UCD Communications was contacted to comment on this issue, but no response was received by the time of publishing.

Rowan Kelleher – Reporter