Time, Money and Guidance in Higher Education

There was a welcome announcement last week of a package of supports for further and higher education institutions and students in Ireland to cover costs incurred by third level institutions during the Covid-19 pandemic and enable further and higher education students to return to college this September.

There wasn’t much sign of any help at all coming under the previous Government, so this is perhaps a sign that the new Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science might be a force to be reckoned with in the new administration.

If this funding is to achieve its aim, however, it will have to reach its targets very quickly. The new academic year is to commence at the end of September, which is just two months away. The slice that is intended to go directly to students to help them buy laptops or tablets can probably be spent quite quickly, but the money intended for colleges and universities to buy equipment will take much longer to filter through.

Speaking for myself, as Head of a Department of Theoretical Physics I’d say we desperately need better video equipment for both live and recorded material. At present we have no lecture capture facilities at all in any lecture theatres. We also need graphics tablets to help lecturers show mathematical working via remote means. There is likely to be a big rush for this sort of thing between now and September, and no guarantee we will have it in time for the start of lectures.

You might well ask `why don’t you buy this stuff now?’. The answer is simple: I haven’t got the money!

Things are even tougher for schools. Here there is another big support package on the way, this time of €350 million to allow them to open at the end of August. Getting kids back to school is obviously important not only for their education but also to allow their parents to return to work. However, the time available to prepare all the things necessary is just a month, even shorter than it is at third level.

Among the funds being made available is €75 million for `building works’. I’m sure that investment is very welcome, but can it do anything between now and the end of August? It’s actually rather difficult to spend money that quickly if due process is followed. Just look at how the UK government has squandered tens of millions on phony contracts, such as the £12 million it blew on a Covid-19 tracing app that never worked.

On top of that 1000 new schoolteachers are going to be provided. Will they be recruited in time?

Another announcement to appear last week contained guidance for further and higher education on returning to on-site activity in 2020. This guidance has been interpreted in the media in a rather unhelpful way, causing many of my colleagues to go into a panic. This, for example, from the Irish Times:

Physical distancing rules of two metres will apply on college campuses from September in a move which will severely limit the ability of universities to hold lectures and graduation ceremonies.

A strict requirement of 2 metre distancing at all times would indeed severely reduce the capacity of lecture theatres, but if you look at the guidance it is considerably more nuanced than this. The real problem with this guidance is that it is so vague. We can only hope we get something a bit more concrete soon so we can plan for September. Alternatively we could just wing it. All of it. At the moment this seems the only viable strategy.

3 Responses to “Time, Money and Guidance in Higher Education”

  1. ‘Just wing it’ seems to be the UK government policy. It works as long as you can do your U-turns fast enough.

  2. an alternative to graphics tablet is a bluetooth smartpen, particularly since these new models are browser-based and don’t need faffing with additional apps etc (although those are available for other recording types). The browser option makes it easy to share in Collaborate, Teams, or whatever else you use.

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