Students at HECA member higher education institutions are to be excluded from the public health free rapid antigen tests. HECA, representing approximately 12% of the higher education student population in Ireland, has been informed by the DFHERIS that the Exchequer funding for the free rapid antigen tests is only for public funded HEIs. It is both frustrating and disappointing that the DFHERIS are discriminating between public and private higher education students in relation to COVID-19 safety measures.
Students, their families and staff at private higher education institutions are appalled that the DFHERIS would distinguish between public and private students in what is a tool in the armoury against COVID-19 transmission. It is more worrying that this decision is made at a time of high COVID-19 numbers in Ireland and amid the growing concerns of the increased transmission of the Omicron variant. COVID-19 does not discriminate and the perception that only students at State funded HEIs require increased COVID-19 vigilance and awareness does not make public health sense for the higher education sector or the broader community.
It is also unfair in relation to Exchequer funding distribution. Students and their families at private HEIs pay into the Exchequer but are to be excluded from the rapid antigen test roll-out, yet the Exchequer will provide free rapid antigen tests to international and EU students (studying in public funded HEIs) who may never pay into the Irish Exchequer.
Students studying on public funded Springboard programmes in private HEIs will also be excluded from the free rapid antigen tests while their fellow students on Springboard programmes in the public HEIs will receive the tests.
HECA members, Hibernia College and St Nicholas Montessori College, have been asked to release their students to ease the staffing crisis in public primary schools and in early years settings, yet these students are also excluded from the free rapid antigen tests.
HECA member HEIs have actively engaged with the DFHERIS on COVID-19 issues in higher education since March 2020 and have consistently supported the safe return to on-campus teaching, learning and assessment. HECA has always followed the recommendations to ensure that on-campus has strong COVID-19 prevention measures in place. HECA members, Griffith College, Dublin Business School and St Nicholas Montessori College were active participants in the original higher education rapid antigen test pilot but are now excluded from the free rapid antigen tests for students.
Other public COVID-19 funding initiatives such as PUP and EWSS are targeted at the general private employment sector, with no discrimination. However, students studying in private HEIs on QQI validated programmes are excluded from targeted COVID-19 higher education support.
Finally, making a distinction to exclude a section of higher education students from an initiative that aims to reduce the transmission of COVID-19 on the basis of general funding is an injustice to students and the staff at these HEIs. Our students, their parents and families and staff, cannot understand why they are being treated differently. HECA member colleges urge Minister Harris, who has a strong record of promoting inclusion in Irish society, to reconsider this discriminatory policy and to INCLUDE all HECA students in the free rapid antigen test roll-out for students.
Patricia O Sullivan
HECA, Higher Education Colleges Association
M: +353 86 170 8453