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[00:00:00]

But first, with many schools having reopened last week, third level institutions are now readying themselves for the return of their students in just a few weeks time. But how will colleges and universities who in the past would have seen thousands of students on campus safely operate? Well, just before we came on air today. I was joined in the studio by the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Simon Harris. And I asked him whether the scenes in Kalani point to huge difficulties ahead when the third level colleges return.

[00:00:31]

I think we have to say in relation to Kilani, there will always be some people who will do stupid things. And I'm conscious that there'll be people getting off this morning who have sacrificed so much looking at the newspapers again and going, here we go again. We shouldn't lose sight of the fact that most people are sacrificing so much, trying so hard and doing everything right. We also shouldn't decide that it's just one generation or one age group of people in relation.

[00:00:52]

When we talk about parties, for example, there are no students in Clifton. So I'm not I'm not going to allow us go down a route of deciding that it's one age group of people not following rules. Most young people have been extraordinarily irresponsible. And because they get it and they know it's about keeping themselves safe, keeping their mom and their dad safe, keeping their granny and granddad safe, keeping their community safe as well. And they know the impact of not following the guidance in terms of them getting sick.

[00:01:15]

Remember, about two and a half thousand people between the ages of 15 and 24 have had covid. And I think 78 people in that age bracket have ended up in hospital. So no age group is exempt. But but, yes, as as we come back to colleges and it's Grace that we're getting back to college, think about 170 days since our colleges closed down in terms of on site learning, it is really, really important and that we make sure we have the safeguards in place and there will be safeguards.

[00:01:39]

So college life is going to be very different as you see through you think, are we in a hiding to nothing here because people are going to congregate. And that instant at the weekend raises lots of questions like where all those people beforehand, you know, these are the type of things that we're all asking today.

[00:01:53]

Yeah. And I think it also raises a broader question as to, you know, the government is planning a new national plan on how we how we deal with covid for the next few months. And I think that's badly needed at this stage. And we have to recognize that this virus is going to be with us for a significant period of time and not everybody is going to stay at home forever more. That's not the way we can live our lives.

[00:02:11]

So how do we safely ensure people can get out and about how can people safely socialize whilst also limiting their contacts? And I think that's a discussion we're going to be able to have with the Irish people.

[00:02:20]

And when we publish our new national plan in the middle of September, because we're talking, aren't we, about people who will be living on campus, not inviting people into their accommodation? Absolutely.

[00:02:29]

So, I mean, there will be strict rules when it comes to college, to college life. So it's not going to be like the schools. Everybody is not going to be going back full time. Far from it. It will vary from institution to institution because physically they're all different and they'll have to be a priority placed on classes where there's a practical element. You can't have a science lab at home, for example, and they'll also have to be a priority placed on first year students.

[00:02:52]

It's very hard to introduce someone to college life. The assume and yes, when people live in college accommodation and many people will, there will be new rules. So we're asking colleges to try and accommodate people and have their housemates also maybe be in their lecture classes so that you're limiting the contacts. And yes, there will be a rule that you're not meant to have older people and you'll expect people just to abide by that.

[00:03:12]

Will there be policing of it?

[00:03:14]

Well, the college authorities already, as you know, monitor college accommodation and they will have a responsibility in that regard. But but, yeah, when I hear the word policing, there's always a little bit of me that kind of goes. I'm not sure that's the right approach. I mean, the way we have succeeded with covid so far is by bringing people with us, persuading people and appealing to people's better nature. But yeah, of course, there need to be a degree of sanction of the college authorities will be able to address that.

[00:03:36]

OK, let's talk about going back to college, because lots of people have been saying I haven't got my timetable yet. You know, it's the 31st of August. I was told to have my timetable by the end of August. I still don't have it today.

[00:03:47]

Yeah, this is a real issue. And fairness, the logistical challenge that there is for our colleges is immense because what they're having to do is take public health implementation guidelines that were published on the 5th of August. And they're having to translate them into their facilities. They're having to put in place a timetable and a roster for every single class, every single course. So there's a huge, huge body of work at this stage. Every single college has given out the Star State for first year students and the start date for all returning students.

[00:04:15]

So everybody now knows when they're starting college or starting back to college. A lot of colleges have now given an indication of how many days you'll be on site versus online, not although I'm what I am told now is over the next fortnight. So we're about to start the 1st of September. Over the first two weeks of September, everybody will get their full time job.

[00:04:32]

So do I book accommodation or not? These are big decisions. And you know what? And I can't I can't just kind of ignore that or suggest that they're not. I think it would be really, really helpful if more universities could do what INSEAD has done, what Maynooth has done, which they've said, look, it might be another few days before we can give you a full timetable, but we can tell you you'll be onsite, you know, one week and three or you'll be on site three days a week.

[00:04:53]

Even providing that level of clarity is helping our students. A lot of them have done that, and I expect more to do that in the coming days. OK, so. On campus accommodation, will they be flexible across the board? Again, this varies because some of our colleges have already had all their accommodation booked up. So they had returning students saying, I'd like to take it again for next year where they haven't. A number of our colleges have now provided flexible accommodation where they're basically allowing you and book in for the number of days that you will be there.

[00:05:22]

There's a secondary benefit to that as well, because it actually creates more spaces overall and to accommodate more students. So a number of them have done that. I think you well have led the way in that regard. We're encouraging as many as possible to do that.

[00:05:32]

We do need send you tell them the ones who haven't. I truthfully can't, because in terms of in terms of how they operate. But I don't think I need to I mean, the way the way I'm engaging with the colleges, they're very willing to do this. They're trying to do it. They're trying to be flexible. It makes sense for them. What they're also doing, and I'm very clear on this, is if if ever, God forbid, ever again there were further restrictions and colleges had to close, we need to make sure that all the students get refunded.

[00:05:55]

I don't want any messing around in that regard as well. I think students were treated a bit shabbily when the last lockdown came in that regard.

[00:06:01]

And the fees are the fees. They're not going to change regardless of how much time you're going to spend in college. Yeah, and I've heard a lot of talk about this, but but yes, that is the truth. But there's a couple of things to say in relation to that. Firstly, the cost of education has actually risen. So can you can imagine it's costing more to provide college education in a covid environment to smaller classes, longer opening hours, use of technology registration fees I think are too high in Ireland.

[00:06:23]

I'm the minister for eight weeks and I would like to look at this over the course of the lifetime of the government. We will obviously have a budget in October. But what I have done is made sure that the Soozie Grant system, so the grants that you can get to go to college is flexible and it can take on board if you had a change of income in your family due to Colvert. So already about a third of people going to college won't have to pay the registration fee at all because they got a Soozie Grant.

[00:06:45]

In addition to that, the government sanctioned 168 million euro extra for colleges to help with the covid costs. A significant proportion of that is going to double the Student Assistance Fund. This is the foreign students can draw down. And if they fall on hard times, maybe you used to have a part time job and you can't get one because of covid. And we're also providing 15 million euro to to buy 17000 extra laptops because again, you can't tell a student the lectures are online and then have a union of students bearing to us about that.

[00:07:12]

Or they said, how do you get the laptops? Because it's not clear. Well, I think I think they know because they've been excellent partners in this regard at three or access office. So we placed a bulk order of 17000 laptops and we're allowing each university and college decide its own criteria because they know best who needs them.

[00:07:28]

So three year access office in your local university and you mentioned the budget and registration fees. Are you hoping to change the registration fees in that budget?

[00:07:37]

So ministers always get into trouble when they come on air and start speculating about what they want to do in the budget. But I do think the registration fee in Ireland is too high and it is something that I'd like to see addressed. Obviously, it depends on a whole variety of issues which I'm committed to working on it. I am also told, and it's important to say that the registration fee can be paid in two instalments. Again, because I'm conscious people are talking about 3000 euro, which is an awful lot of money.

[00:07:59]

And so my message to people would be apply for the Soozie Grant. If you think you qualify, if you've had a change your income this year because of Kovik, the grant system can take that on board. And the Student Assistance Fund has been doubled to help more families with students going back to college.

[00:08:13]

OK, so much nervousness when it comes to the colleges around the leaving search results and what might happen.

[00:08:20]

Yes, there is, because nobody plans nobody planned it to be like this. I mean, the idea that we hadn't we wouldn't have a leaving service in Ireland. I mean, what what what an incredible thing it would have been to say before covid huge amount of work has been done. The calculated grades now will be issued this week on the 7th. From my perspective, we have a continuity then in terms of how you access college. So the Leaving CERT results will be issued on the 7th and the CEO will make its offers to students on the eleventh four days later.

[00:08:49]

So Friday week, Minister Folie, the Minister for Education, is currently refining what they call the standardisation process. I'm expecting she'll update Cabinet on this tomorrow and she'll be in a position to update the public later this week.

[00:09:02]

But there'll be more people going to college, won't there, because the grades will be higher this year. That's what I expect probably. And to be honest, I hope there's more people going to college anyway. So what I'm doing from my perspective is I'm trying to provide more college places for two reasons, really. I'm really conscious of the fact that, you know, often when somebody comes out of school, they say, I might take a gap year, I might go to Australia, New Zealand, or I go to America and come back and do college later.

[00:09:24]

That's not really an option. And a covid world or others might say, look, I'm going to work for a while and I'll go back to college at a later stage in my life. That may not be an option in terms of employment opportunities. So we need to make sure we provide more educational chances. So I'm I'll be briefing cabinet tomorrow on my plan to increase the number of college places this year. And we'll be looking at increasing them in two areas, one areas where there's a societal need.

[00:09:48]

So I think it has shown us we need more people in the health service. We need more teachers to lower class sizes. So areas like that. And then secondly, also some of the high demand places where you could say to the universities in the colleges are. You have a few extra places here, give them out amongst your high demand courses, so I'd brief cabinet on my proposals in that regard tomorrow and subject to cabinet.

[00:10:07]

Of course, we won't have the foreign students coming in. So so there'll be a bit of a gap there. A bit more room there?

[00:10:12]

No, there may be. Well, firstly, we don't know the answer to that. So obviously some international students may still come. Obviously, some international students may indeed have stayed in Ireland. And also on top of that, remember, a lot of our international students are in the postgrads space. So they're doing postgraduate courses rather than undergraduate, not all, but a lot of them. But I do think it's important that we recognize that there is a need to provide more educational places, easier for a whole variety of reasons.

[00:10:36]

The well-being of our young people in the aftermath of the global pandemic or the ongoing covid pandemic is something that's very acutely on my mind and on the mind of government. And I think it would be sensible if we can increase the college places, we can't do it dramatically and because the whole system would tip over. But I think we can make targeted improvements in some areas.

[00:10:54]

What happens if there's uproar over the leaving search results, as we saw in the UK?

[00:10:58]

Well, I think the most important thing is that the government has a system in place that it can stand over because exactly what you said cannot happen. So there cannot be a change in the results after they're after they're published.

[00:11:09]

So the results will be the results as far as you're concerned. Yeah.

[00:11:12]

And can I just say something to in relation to the UK, because I've heard this comment a lot and I'm sure parents and students are worried about what they saw in the UK. There are differences between the Irish system and the UK system, and I won't go through all of them. But one of the big differences is in the UK, they gave students a grade. In Ireland, every student has been given a precise percentage mark. So that's a much more accurate measure than a grade, which could be over many percentages in the UK.

[00:11:38]

They also put, in my view, to higher focus on the historical performance of a school in Ireland. The primacy is on the teachers, estimated Mark the mark went to the principal. So it is about trusting teachers whilst having a standardization process in place that is in place for the Leaving CERT every year. There has to be a degree of standardization by the State Examinations Commission. So the system in Ireland is different. But the Minister for Education and is obviously making sure that Ireland learns any lessons that need to be learnt.

[00:12:03]

Well, you said in August, under the third level guidance that the number of students in a lecture hall at any one time would be 50. Is that the same now, given that the regulations have changed?

[00:12:13]

Yes. The new regulations don't apply to the education setting. I mean, what the new regulations are about in relation to six and 15 is to try and encourage all of us to curtail our our social gatherings and our social activity. We obviously deem education as as essential for a whole variety of reasons and mask wearing. Yes.

[00:12:32]

Where it's not possible to maintain to measure social distancing and also being congregated settings. So I think the evidence on masks is becoming stronger by the day. Very importantly, they're not a substitute for the other things. So you can't just stick on your face mask and decide to stand close to somebody or that you don't need to keep washing your hands. But as an additional hygiene measure, absolutely, it's recommended and would be required where you can't keep two metres distance.

[00:12:54]

And what will happen if there is a positive case in a college or university?

[00:12:58]

Is there a plan, the same thing that would happen if there was a positive case here in this workplace that we're in now and all of the close contacts would obviously be traced. Colleges will be told to keep an attendance log as to who attended a lecture. I'd be encouraging people, obviously, to use the contact tracing app as well, which will help. And those that needs to be tested and isolated will be.

[00:13:18]

And college shutdowns. I mean, have we have you looked at that of you extrapolated if one person tests positive, how that will impact the college or university?

[00:13:25]

So so should there be a positive case? And let's be honest, there will be a positive case. There's no point beating around the bush here. It's not possible to create a risk free environment. And we shouldn't panic if there's a positive case, there will be positive cases in schools. There will be positive cases. As we've seen in crashes. There are positive cases in workplaces. You know, covid is still very much here in our community. If there is a positive case that will be reported to the public health authorities, who would be able to step in and carry out a risk assessment, I think the measures that our colleges are taking, though, in terms of minimising the number of students there at any one time, blended learning, not saying everyone's going back and we're all rushing into an institution.

[00:14:01]

Remembering that some of these have tens of thousands of students is a sensible thing.

[00:14:05]

It doesn't eliminate risk, but it doesn't mitigate the blended learning thing will only work for people who have good broadband. I mean, how are we going to manage that?

[00:14:14]

So, yeah, this this is absolutely a challenge. And we've already provided funding through the Student Assistance Fund for Overconnectivity. So I'm not a terribly technical person, but for things like the dongles and stuff that can help people get access as well. And we're also obviously encouraging people to use other public spaces like libraries and the like where where they can learn to. But this is an issue. I don't hear anybody criticising the rollout of the National Broadband Plan, which was seen as a very controversial issue only a year ago.

[00:14:40]

But it is very difficult for people, isn't it, who are in that situation? Absolutely. They would love to go to their university. They can't they don't have broadband access. It's very, very tricky for them. It is.

[00:14:50]

No, and I don't I wouldn't in any way dismiss this. But but to be clear, I mean, this is about this is not a perfect scenario. I mean, this is about keeping people safe. What? Trying to do is maximize the amount of time you can attend college without risking your health or the health of those lecturing and working in the universities as well, our colleges obviously also will be able to apply, I think, common sense rules in terms of ensuring people have access to the library facilities.

[00:15:14]

I saw in Jemmett Golway Mayotte there, they've brought the views Perspex to create these really good pods where people can, you know, take out the laptop and safely work and without being at risk of spreading covid. So there's lots of innovative work going on across the system to help with that.

[00:15:28]

What's going to happen to internships, practical work experience? Is there a plan, a map for that kind of stuff on a case by case basis?

[00:15:36]

So we obviously want people. So give you an example. Obviously, our nurses who would have it, who would have a significant amount of work placement, we obviously would need them back in our in our hospitals. And they've been doing Trojan work throughout the pandemic. So that will happen in some cases. In some cases, it may be more difficult. So it will have to be done on a case by case basis, taking the public health advice available to the college at the time.

[00:15:57]

OK, you tweeted at the weekend that you'll never forget the day six months ago. I think it was on Saturday when the chief medical officer phoned you and said, we have our first confirmed case of covid-19.

[00:16:06]

And you said that you're proud of how we have dealt with covid-19, given that there has been so much criticism of the government when it comes to mixed messaging in recent weeks, are you still proud of what we're doing?

[00:16:18]

So when I said proud, just to be really clear, I wasn't in any way talking in a political sense or prior to the government or though I think everybody in government worked as hard as they could. I talk to I'm talking about being proud of the Irish people who sacrificed so much. And yes, I'm still proud of the huge efforts that people are making. Last week was a rotten week. I mean, last week I just felt last week what happened in Clifton, and it was different to the breaches that had happened before.

[00:16:46]

So you could probably quote tweets there that I've issued maybe in a fit of rage or anger when you see something stupid happening in a bar or something and and well talked about and their stupid acts and their acts that make people angry because you know how much people have suffered. You've talked to people in nursing homes, people who lost their jobs, kids who've missed their grandparents.

[00:17:04]

But what what happened last week was on a different level because what happened last week was a breach of trust. And I must say, I really felt I really felt last week, last week, kind of hirsche and because we had worked and when I say we are, I mean, we all of us in this country and we had worked so hard, I'd worked with Leo Liveright to try and kind of bring people with us to try and create a kind of coalition where we all put our shoulder to the wheel and God people did and they still are.

[00:17:31]

And we need them to still. And when something like what happened last week happens and it creates this them versus us mentality, which we just can't have, which we just can't have, was it just what happened in Clifton that annoyed you so much or was it a combination of that and the messaging which was very mixed up at points?

[00:17:50]

I mean, when we were talking about gatherings in cultural spaces, we were very unclear as to what was happening there. We heard about the comparison between going back to school and using a trampoline or getting into a car.

[00:18:03]

So was it just Clifton or was it more was there more to it?

[00:18:06]

So my comments related to Clifton. But look, I take the point in relation to communications and I also have to be honest here. The communications, the message has gotten more complex and more difficult for all of us to communicate. You know, people often say at the start of a pandemic, you're telling everybody, look, stay at home, stay near your home, please don't leave, except for essential reasons. That was a relatively easy message to communicate.

[00:18:28]

It does get I do accept that it does get more.

[00:18:30]

Yeah, because we had sat in this studio that, you know, the message that you had to communicate was easy, do this, do that. And most of it was, don't do this, don't do that. And now it is more nuanced. Do you accept that Stephen Donnelly, for example, has has a trickier job than you had? Yes, I do.

[00:18:44]

And I think and I look at Stephen Donnelly is working really hard and it can't be down to any one person or comparisons between people. And this is not political. And we all need and want and must make sure that Stephen Donnelly succeeds. And because it's not about Stephen Donnelly or me or Finnegan or Fianna Fail or the government or the opposition, it's about all of our families and our community. So what we need to do as a government and what we're doing and the teashop is leading on this is we're preparing a new national plan as to what do the next few months look like.

[00:19:12]

So I believe I genuinely believe that the plan we had in place at the start served us well. I believe the leadership of Tony Hoolahan, Ronan Glenn, the work of live broadcast shock, really did help show the people of Ireland a pathway to flood the curve. And we did that huge tragedy and absolutely no doubt mistakes. And of course, there will be in a pandemic. I don't take that away. We now need a new plan, though, because this virus is going to be with us for a significant period of time.

[00:19:36]

We need to be able to make sure people can still live some form of life. I mean, I'm not worried about the wellbeing of our people in a whole variety of ways. And we need to actually look at some of those ideas. What I see on the front of the Irish Times today and again, I can't quote everything I read in the newspaper as fact because because it hasn't come to government yet. But, you know, the idea that Minister Martin, the Minister for Arts in.

[00:19:59]

Cultures looking at different ways you might enable people to safely go to some events. I think events without alcohol, I think and again and I'm not the public health expert, but but that's the sort of innovative thinking we need. So we all need to kind of put our ideas in the pot. How can Ireland try and function? How can we try and function as people, as families, as communities in a safe way? Now, let's be honest.

[00:20:18]

We can't do everything and we will be curtailed in what we can do. But I think we have to have a conversation about what is it we want to get done. The TSA rightly decided on coming to office that priority number one, two and three was getting the kids back to school. And I think that was absolutely right. And so that's the big body of work literally underway as we speak. But then as we get to the middle of September, we need to see where the virus is at and what are our options as a country.

[00:20:40]

And we need to try and I suppose press reset on the conversation with the Irish people and try and map out together.

[00:20:46]

What are we going to do over the next year, given the pace that you were working out over the start of the pandemic as Minister for Health? Do you miss it?

[00:20:52]

I'd be lying if I said I didn't, which is kind of a weird thing to say because, you know, most of whom I remember people used to describe health as Angola. And, you know, I had I had a very difficult four years and two months as minister for health. You know, your listeners could tell you all the many mistakes I made. I'm quite sure it's a very difficult brief. It's really intense. But I saw the most incredible people working really, really hard.

[00:21:17]

And the people at the frontline, of course, nurses, doctors, health care assistants, scientists, the people in my department. And I was very proud to be their minister and I'm still very proud of them. So. So, yeah, in that sense, I do. I also understand the I also understand the politics and that it was always going to go from Senegal to Vinifera after the results of the general election. So you get on with it and I'm delighted with the role that I now have.

[00:21:39]

OK, Minister, thank you for joining us. Thank you so much. Minister Simon Harris there speaking to us a little earlier. Lots of text messages on further education and is a teacher in the further education sector. And my colleagues and I still don't have a start date, never mind a timetable. Somebody else says that between their three children, they spent 45000 on college expenses. In one year. There are two middle income earners, absolutely impossible burden.

[00:22:04]

The grant system is far too clumsy. I'm worried about students like my son who saw the Leaving CERT last year, and we're hoping to start college this year. He took a gap year. So will he be at a disadvantage? Is the question of leaving cert grades on average go up? And that's from Dorothee and I suppose Dorothee. The answer to that is we just don't know until the Leaving CERT results are released next Monday and we see what level they're at.

[00:22:28]

And it's the same when it comes to on campus accommodation and off campus accommodation and whether you should book it or not, because until you get your timetable, you don't know what to expect. We're also getting an awful lot of text messages on what happened in Kelani. The selfish actions of the crowds in County Kerry must have all wet. Publican's outraged today and people wonder why the pubs are closed. That's from Stephen in Finless. The activity in Killarney was outrageous and dangerous.

[00:22:54]

It showed no respect for anyone, says Tresh. Although somebody else says, Why are you talking about Kaylani? As though it's a major health issue? Follow the evidence. There has been very low cases in County Kerry for the past three months, despite being packed with tourists and state commissioners five one five one for your comments. Remember, we'll be talking to TMOS O'Shay and Dr Catherine Mother Wei on that a little bit later on. Coming up in just a moment, our reporter Brian O'Connell has been speaking to some workers in the meat processing industry.

[00:23:23]

Text five one five one today with Claire Byrne on RTI, Radio one.