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FOI Reveals Minister Harris Discredited Student Voices during Exams

An FOI request put forward by László Molnárfi, Chairperson of Students4Change and Gisèle Scanlon, President of the Graduate Students’ Union, on behalf of the #NoInPersonExams national campaign to Minister Harris’ Office has now been granted. The reason for the FOI request was to ascertain a timeline in which Minister Harris engaged with the 5,000 student and staff signatures of the open letter so that he can make a balanced and fair decision relating to in-person examinations. The #NoInPersonExams open letter is spearheaded by two Trinity students, undergraduate László Molnárfi and postgraduate Giséle Scanlon, and has amassed over 5,000 signatures, which were delivered to Minister Harris in good faith on the 1st of December 2021.

Today we have received the results of this FOI. The correspondance which we received contains 6 records were granted to us after we asked for “Documents, communications regarding the decision of Minister Harris to not intervene in Universities holding in-person exams for Semester 1 of 2021-2022. Any communication between Minister Harris and Donnelly for this issue including the meeting minutes of the meetings that Minister Harris had with
management, staff and student representatives. E.g. the one on December 1st
2021 with the student unions” and “Documents, communications regarding Minister Harris’ and the Department of Further Education “s consideration of the #NoInPersonExams open letter, which was delivered to the Minister’s Office on 52 Stephens Green on the 1st of December 2021”.

As early as November 19th 2021 at a meeting of the Covid-19 TES Steering Group the issue of Semester 1 examinations across Universities and Technological Universities was discussed. Minister Harris said in his opening remarks that “Decisions in relation to examinations should be taken in accordance with the framework in place i.e. on the basis of risk assessment and consultation”, according to meeting minutes.

At the same meeting, the Union of Students Ireland (USI) President Claire Austick raised the issue of having alternative options for students not able to attend in-person examinations, according to meeting minutes of the Covid-19 TES Steering Group.

Dr Joseph Ryan from THEA, the Technological Higher Education Association, brought concerns relating to increasing levels of anxiety surrounding examinations.

The IUA’s representative at the meeting stated the importance of alternative examination arrangements and also access to PCR tests. The IUA is short for the Irish Universities Association and they represent DCU, Maynooth Uni, NUI Galway, TCD, TU Dublin, UCC, UCD and the University of Limerick. The IUA is composed of the Presidents of each of these Colleges.

Just a month later, at the next meeting of the Steering Committee on the 10th of December 2021, in the middle of exams, Minister Harris in his opening remarks is seen to call the student voices, like NUIGSU, who called out instititutions not creating safe exam conditions to be lies. He called upon stakeholders to “debunk misinformation regarding the application of public health advice”. He also said that an agreement was reached that a “one size fits all approach is not appropriate” – this agreement must be referring to the government’s own decision, as meeting minute do not indicate any sort of direct discussion on the topic.

Dr Breda Smyth, is the director of public health for the Health Service Executive in the west, and also is one of the leaders of the Unicov project.

Claure Austick, USI President, after the opening remarks of Minister Harris, reiterated the importance of alternative options for assesment students in light of rising Covid-19 cases.

The IUA suddenly at this meeting agreed with Minister Harris, contradicting students’ and staff’s account on a number of issues, namely the amount of in-person exams, whether these exams are safe and whether there are proper alternative arrangements (e.g. deferral mechanisms) in place. They also claim that whenever an exam was postponed due to Storm Bara, it was moved to a different date “in agreement with local student unions”, but this was clearly not the case for NUI Galway’s Saturday exams.

Stella Griffin from FORSA, an Irish trade union, noted concern for invigilators (since they are older and more at-risk) in exam halls at the meeting.

It does not seem that at these meetings Minister Harris allowed much discussion, either at the November meeting, or at the December one, despite claiming to do so. His Office had already made up their minds before hearing any of the other stakeholders, and the government seems to not have listened to student and staff concerns. It seems that at the November meeting, promises and suggestions were made by a variety of stakeholders that were never implemented by the government. Proper deferral was not implemented across many universities – 86% said they felt pressured into not deferring according to a recent survey, and PCR testing at the time of the Christmas exams was very difficult to access. Eyewitness reports, pictures and videos detail crowded scenes in examination halls. It seems that those in-charge have no clue what is going on on-the-ground.

Following the 10th of December meeting, a document which describes how to answer questions from TDs in the Dail relating to in-person exams was disseminated to government members. It said that the key messaging must be that all stakeholders were consulted. Furthermore, it crafted a reply to possible “opposition attack lines”.

Another meeting was held just between Minister Harris and the USI and different SUs on the 1st of December 2021. The briefing document prepared for Minister Harris for this meeting shows that Minister Harris’ Office essentially let Universities take the blame. This was re-iterated to the representatives at the meeting, who raised the issue of #NoInPersonExams.

Briefing document.

As far as whether the Minister’s Office considered the #NoInPersonExams open letter with 5,000 signatures, they did not. They put it in the government system, but there is no indication that Minister Harris or others in the government took the time to engage with the signatories. This shows a huge disrespect for the 5,000 students and staff who raised the mental and physical dangers of in-person examinations and is an affront to the democratic process.

This was the only communication and document relating to the FOI about whether the government considered the #NoInPersonExams open letter. Branding the Graduate Students’ Union of Trinity a “protest group” just shows how out-of-touch Minister Harris’ Office is with student representation on-the-ground.

Find all the original FOI documents here. Note that for the briefing document mentioned just a moment ago, there were supposed to be “redacted” parts, but the government failed to redact it properly – you can simply copy-paste from the PDF, so we made an unredacted version which describes different issues relating to third-level education at the moment.

We would hope that the Minister has learnt lessons from this, namely that the next time we call to deliver a petition with several thousands signatures and hundreds of thousands of social media interactions, that the Minister will have the good grace to engage with not only the content of the petition, but should extend appropriate respect to the many thousand voters who took the time and consideration to be a part of the campaign.

GSU-S4C Joint Statement on Schols

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                  7th January 2022

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Dear undergraduates and postgraduates

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We are writing to highlight an urgent issue that has come to the attention of the GSU Executive, Students4Change and the Chair of the GSU Board.

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It has come to our attention that the Schols Examinations will proceed on Monday January 10th, 2022 with formal communication being issued as late as late last night Thursday 6th to students this week in relation to these exams. This lack of communication and engagement with the Schols secretary, Schols applicants and indeed student representatives raises deep concerns. We have included here links to all known information contained on the Schols pages of Trinity College Dublin.

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In a GSU Executive meeting held yesterday, several issues were discussed around Schols and the following concerns were raised:

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1. The timing amidst high numbers of Omicron cases in the community does not take into account the risk of illness leading up to or during the exam dates which will disadvantage students. Therefore, we are asking TCD to space out tables and limit room capacity to a lower number and to please distribute FFP2 masks which offer high-grade protection to all those students sitting Schols and to those invigilating exams.
2.We understand that the exams are to run at 60% capacity (similar to the RDS) and will be invigilated by postgraduate invigilators but this raises the same issues which we campaigned vehemently on regarding the safety and working conditions of invigilation staff, such as requiring postgraduate invigilators to clean up Covid-19 storage bags. We would ask College to provide sufficient bin capacity so that students can dispose of their bags that may be contaminated.
3.The GSU and S4C would like to raise concerns about accessibility. The pandemic has further excluded students with underlying conditions or disabilities (there’s no mention of disabled students nor accommodations highlighted on the website pertaining to Schols). We believe that this could easily dissuade students from applying, especially this (as opposed to last) year.
4.Preparing for Schols is the most restrictive aspect of the Schols experience. Many students who are sustaining a job for example, do not have the time to dedicate to studying for the exams and are disadvantaged. This is especially true this year, when those students working will be exposed to the public and could easily become ill or worse bring illness to the exam space to other Schol hopefuls and to postgraduate invigilators.
5.Discriminating factors we have identified with Schols for undergraduates who will eventually become membersof the postgraduate in community (as the funding given extends to a Schol until they are postgraduate students.
6.There has been previous debate on whether Schols should exist – current funding runs over 1.5 million to maintain accommodation, food, and a small stipend, but we believe that academic merit and tradition are important pillars of our student community and should facilitate gender culture, race and disability (both hidden and mental and physical).
7.Last year’s Schols exams were online, which came with its own set of challenges. Accessibility has become one of the central facets in combating the pandemic. Covid-19 has forced each of us to tailor certain practices, in particular towards the online arena, so as to curb its transmission. This year, College has not put in place an adequate hybrid learning environment for students in Semester 1. Contradictory communications, such as backtracking on promised remote access to learning, were issued in the first months of the academic term and resulted in students stuck at home and abroad not being able to prepare for their exams. In addition, with a large share of learning having taken place online, some students might feel unprepared to take in-person handwritten exams. In a recent survey, 66% of students indicated from our College that they had most of their teaching online in the first Semester. As far back as October, students were petitioning to move the Schols examinations online via an open letter signed by students from across departments. When surveyed today, candidate Scholars did not agree on switching to an exclusively-online way of assessment at the last minute, nor did they agree with keeping it solely in-person. From a sample of 52, no majority is for either online or in-person. 19.2% are for in-person and 28.8% are for online, the rest for postponement. Therefore, due to the divided opinions of all those applying for Schols, we are not asking for any shifts structure or time-wise, but we are disappointed at College’s slow reaction to community feedback.
8.As for Proctoring, being monitored and taking a real-time online exam during a pandemic will feed into the extraordinary stress students have been under since this September 2021. The additional stress can result in mental distress or even physical discomfort from headaches to panic attacks. Besides, the stress and discomfort arising from being monitored will affect the students’ performances. Discriminating factors we have considered with Proctorio at the Graduate Students’ Union which we believe would bring undue anxiety and stress:

[a] Infrastructure (affording a computer or internet at home) is stressful.

[b] Living conditions (shared rooms where students can take their exams

without being disturbed and can concentrate. Students might live in

accommodations that are loud because of many reasons from nearby

constructions or motorway to crowded apartments).

[c] Students with caring duties might find it difficult to find someone to take care of their children while they are sitting an exam or making clear that they

are under no circumstance be disturbed which induces anxiety.

The use of online proctoring software such as Proctorio violates student privacy and creates unnecessary barriers to exam-taking. It should not be used in Trinity College Dublin.

9.Whilst we very much appreciate the effort being made by those organising the in-person exams which 898 Schols students are slated to take starting Monday January 10th, 2022 these plans present several issues. Students may not wish to sacrifice personal health and safety by sitting an in-person exam and are then asked to choose between maintaining privacy and maintaining safety during a pandemic. International students who made plans around the holiday and exam period with the exam information given in November are currently abroad or in other countries and may contract the virus whilst returning to sit Schols which leads us to our following ask.
10.To sum up, the issue is one of poor communication and lack of choice… the lack of transparency, coupled with the lack of stakeholder consultation relating to the Schols exams . We held a consultation with several Schols in College as well as potential Schols who will sit the exams next week and the most unsatisfactory issue is if a student becomes too ill to sit Schols between Monday January 10th and Friday January 14th. The students’ only option is to sit the exam in January 2023. This locks a potential scholar out of funding for a whole year of their lives. We are insisting that a second sitting of the exams must take place before Trinity Monday in late June 2022 to accommodate these potential Schols, therefore no-one is left behind.

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The GSU and S4C expresses concern in relation to the upcoming Schols examinations and presents a number of recommendations. The health and safety of undergraduate students and postgraduate invigilators must be of the utmost importance and we hope that College will listen to our concerns and asks to ensure the wellbeing of our Community.

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Gisèle Scanlon, President, Graduate Students’ Union +353864120444

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László Molnárfi, Chairperson, Students4Change +32 470583174

From a University To A Business – The Exploitation of International Students

While issues such as the housing crisis, sky-high tudent fees and underfunded College services affect all students, international students are especially hard-hit.

In 2020-2021, there were 2,509 registered non-EEA students at Trinity College Dublin, making up 13% of the student population. They account for 10.6% of the undergraduate population and 23.21% of the postgraduate population. They pay tuition fees up to €37,613, with most non-EEA fees being higher than €20,000. “The fees go up every year, ” says an international student.

On top of this is expensive student accommodation. Foreign students arriving into Dublin are practically forced either into public or private student accommodation due to not knowing the local rental market.

As reported in the Irish Independent (August 18th 2021), the cost of College can reach up to 14,000 euros a year. This has resulted in the growing inaccesibility of education. 4 in 10 college students say they struggle to afford living expenses, while 88% report worrying about money, according to a survey by SpunOut alongside the Irish League of Credit Unions in 2021.

According to the “Quarter 3 2019 Progress Report on the National Student Accommodation Strategy” report published by the Government of Ireland, from 2016 to 2019 a total of 8,229 bed-spaces were built for student accommodation across the country.

Out of those 8,229 bed-spaces, a staggering 6,900 representing 83% were privately financed. The Irish government has a heavy reliance on the private sector to build student accommodation with only 4 out of 32 sites being built by Universities.

More than 90% of these are only available for 840 € per month or more. This is the type of accommodation that international students are ‘forced’ into.

We all hear the stories of foreign students living in hostels or struggling to afford three meals a day. These issues, of course, affect all students, with the Students’ Union of University College Cork having to open a food bank in October 2021. However, international non-EEA students are affected even worse, due to the high tuition fees and accommodation costs.

In addition, international students have to pay for extra administrative procedures such as 300 € for Visa registration and for healthchare. Since international students do not have European health insurance, they must pay for General Practicioner (GP) visits at a rate of 65 € per session.

“We pay our 20ish thousand euros, plus an administrative fee which is around 250-300 euro for Trinity, then the 300 euros for immigration. Students from India need to pay more as they need an actual Visa. In addition, we are required to get Irish health insurance (even though we have one already), which is like 200-300 euro. We also have to have an Irish bank but have to take our loans in our home country so we loose thousands because of the exchange rate, ” says one student from the U.S.

“Lot of international students, especially American students, pay almost exclusively through student loans which are borrowed from the government and private corporations with massive loan interests. So for us we’ll be paying it off for the rest of our lives, because we don’t have debt forgiveness.

What’s upsetting is that the quality of the education is so poor for the high price that we’re paying, to be honest. And there’s no reduction in fees at all for the past 2 years of online lectures. Like I had to pay so much to travel back and forth from the U.S. to Ireland hoping that I would have in person classes and paying for accommodation here off-campus, because there weren’t enough spaces for international students on campus. We are only allowed to borrow a certain figure per year for our cost of attendance, but it doesn’t change to reflect the high costs of accommodation off campus. So last year I had to leave Ireland months early because I couldn’t afford to pay the remaining sum for my private accommodation, let alone feed myself.

In light of covid, we were essentially left to our own devices to “teach ourselves” more than ever, which I just rationally can’t justify spending 20k for, ” says an international student.

Recently, TCDSU allocated €30,000 from its Higher Education Authority fund to be allocated to support international students’ recovery from the pandemic.

Due to government underfunding, College have taken to using international students as cash cows. In 2019, Trinity College Dublin spent 1.4 million € on international student recruitement from all over the world. For example, there is the Trinity Centre for Asian Studies, aimed at recruiting Chinese students.

In fact, the funding model for specific Schools, the so-called the Baseline Budgeting Model (BBM) entails that however much an individual School manages to recruit in terms of student numbers is how much they’ll get in funding. As per the 2018-2019 Financial Accounts of the College, the College’s Global Relations Strategy 3, the strategy is to further internationalize the College by achieving a “growth in non-EU student numbers from 17% to 18.5% by 2025“.

The more diverse a University is, the better. But we shouldn’t treat our international students like second-class citiziens.

Due to their immigration status, and the lack of immediate family members and expensive access to the Irish healthcare system, international students are 2.5 times more likely to visit the College Health Service. Non-EEA use the psychiatrist 4.5 times more than Irish/EEA.

However, waiting times are long as College services are underfunded. It was reported that last year, during the build-up to exams, counselling services averaged wait times of 40+ days, and last month in November, a student would have to wait one month to get an appointment at the Health Service, according to an international student speaking to Students4Change who was told on a phone call with the Health Service.

“I can confirm having to use the College Health Service more than most. And it’s nearly impossible to get an appointment,” says another international student.

“And the college mental health services are just appallingly lacking. I had a mental health breakdown last year and I wasn’t able to secure appointments until 3 months later, and the neccesary medication until 4 months later,” they continue.

Due to 1.5 years of online learning, language barriers have intensified, which is why Students4Change and the GSU have asked for students to be allowed to use dictionary at in-person exams, as some of us have only ever done online with spell checkers, etc.

In order to get a Visa, one must pay the 300 € registration fee and prove that they have 3,000 € in their bank account to support themselves. The Visa that incoming international students have is the “stamp 2”.

There have been improvements and many are working on reforming the system . Last year, some international students could not go home for Christmas as there were very long waiting times at the Irish Naturalisation and Immigration Service (INIS) and since the government takes the passports of international students while their “stamp 2” Visas are being prepared. This has been fixed, but reveals a further pattern of discrimination.

On March 16th of last year, Trinity instructed all of its residents in Kavanaugh Court to vacate their rooms – giving international students just 48 hours’ notice – before admitting a day later it was “not in a position” to instruct those living in the privately owned accommodation to leave.

But many students living in Kavanagh Court had already booked flights home by the time Trinity acknowledged it did not have the authority to tell them to move out.

They were offered partial refunds, but this incident just shows how little consideration is given to international students as a separate cohort with their own issues and unique situations.

Issues still remain around Visa processing. For example, there are limitations on work. An international student may only work 20 hours per week during the academic term, and 40 hours per week during the holidays. During the holidays, they are a source of labour to make up for the loss as Irish workers go home to their families, whereas international students may not be able to or may not celebrate e.g. Christmas. There is also a black market which employs underpaid and over-exploited international students as per the Irish Council for International Students (ICOS).

In addition, after graduation, an international student can stay in the country for two years to find work. Once they find work and two years pass, their “stamp 1g” visas expire and companies have to ‘sponsor’ them (basically take responsibility for their stay, which they do not want to do). Therefore, they have to go back home despite having built a life here for years. A solution would be to have the years studying and working count towards citizenship (be “reckonable”).

PhD students by default face challenges due to not being on proper employment contracts (but casual contracts) at Universities for the most part, and are underpaid and lack job security.

Non-EEA PhD students (who are also not classified as workers despite being so) are intersectionally more affected by the issues that non-EEA international students face, and that PhD students face.

Students4Change has learned this after attending a meeting of the Non-EEA PhD Students’ Society. For example, non-EEA PhD students tend to be older, so they might have their spouses or children with them. Despite Non-EEA PhD students’ contributions to research and development in Ireland, their spouses are not allowed to work (so they have to e.g. sit at home for years) and their children are not allowed to go to public school, putting further financial pressure on the family as they are forced to pay for private schools.

“With the recent increase in rents, most of us have either to put in additional 20hrs per week to meet living expenses,” says one of their documents. They have a petition ongoing (linked here) – please sign and share.

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