Students take legal action over closure of audiology course at Athlone IT

The decision to cancel the country’s first undergraduate course in audiology has been described as a “fiasco”, the High Court has heard.

Students Megan Munnelly, Knockbrack, Corballa, Co Sligo, and Diarmuid O’Connor, Ballyvodock, East Midleton, Co Cork, had just completed the first year of their BSc degrees in audiology at Athlone Institute of Technology when they discovered the course was being cancelled.

In July, AIT said it was canceling the course because the Higher Education Authority would not provide funding for the four-year programme, which includes a year and a half of work placement. The funding would not be provided as the HSE was not prepared to provide the students with work placements.

The court heard the HSE was concerned because Athlone did not consult with it before offering the course. The HSE intends to train audiologists via a two-year postgraduate course.

As a result of the cancellation, the students have brought High Court proceedings against AIT, the Higher Education Authority, and the HSE aimed at quashing what they say is an irrational and unfair decision to cancel the course.

The students also want the court to order that the course be continued, and the students be provided with work placements as part of their course. The action has been opposed.

Ms Munnelly said in an affidavit that the cancellation of the course has had “a terrible effect” on her and that she has been “under extreme stress” about where she will end up in September. “I don’t know whether I will be studying in Ireland or England or what I will be studying,” she said.

She said that unless their action is successful, the students will “suffer financial and emotional damage” and “nobody will be held to account for this fiasco”.

In his affidavit, Mr O’Connor said the alternative course offered to students after the cancellation was “substandard” and was only offered “to try and keep students quiet so we would not make a fuss”.

After accepting the course in Aug 2012, he said Athlone IT informed him in a letter that some problems existed with the course. He added that the letter was “upbeat” and at no stage did he think there was anything to worry about.

The main stumbling blocks were placements, , he said, but he believed that could be resolved.

Mr O’Connor said he was “shocked” and angered by the decision to cancel the course and has been left in “a perilous situation”.

Yesterday, Mark Harty, counsel for the students, said his clients, who are supported by the vast majority of their classmates, had a legitimate expectation that AIT would run the course to completion, and it would be funded by the HEA.

The course was established to address a shortage in audiologists and was targeted at students filling out their CAO forms for the academic year of 2012-13, said Mr Harty.

He said the HSE declined to provide work placements because it wanted to control and determine how and where any proposed audiology training course would be run.

AIT, the HEA, and the HSE have all opposed the action. In their statements of opposition, they deny all the claims against them. It is also argued that the student’s actions are misconceived.

Feichin McDonagh, counsel for AIT, said the college had hoped to continue the course but was unable to due to the HEA and HSE’s decisions.

At the end of yesterday’s proceedings, Mr Justice Gerard Hogan asked if an “ad hoc” solution could be reached between the parties before the case resumes today. The students, “through no fault of their own” found themselves in a difficult situation, Mr Justice Hogan noted.

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