Dodds urged to help all students
The Economy Minister has been called on to remove any barriers to extending the £500 COVID-19 payment to all students.
Sinn Fein MLA John O’Dowd called on the Minister Diane Dodds to include all students, including those in further education, part time students, international students and those studying in the south and in GB.
He said the Minister repeatedly said she needs legal powers to do this. “I have asked Minister Dodds to clarify what these barriers are, and it was agreed at the Economy Committee that the Minister should amend the legislation if necessary, to extend the payment. “The Minister must heed this call and ensure that excluded students, particularly in FE are treated equally and given the financial support they deserve.”
A spokesperson for the Department said: “The £500 Covid Payment is for full-time students at NI publicly funded higher education institutions and full-time higher education students at the further education colleges, in recognition of the disruption suffered by students to their studies due to the impact of Covid-19.
“The funding agreed in the financial year ending 31 March 2021, is for NI institutions to support their students. The institutions are administering the payment scheme, including undertaking any validation and certification requirements, and arranging for the payments to issue to students. Both QUB and UU already have existing payment mechanisms established with Student Finance NI, for distributing bursaries to their own respective students. The Department understands that the universities are using these pre-existing facilities to issue the payments to their respective students.
“This same process, however, cannot be used for NI students outside of NI. Under the legislation being used to facilitate the scheme prior to 31 March, the Department does not have the legal basis to issue funding to universities in GB for them to administer the scheme, nor to the Student Loans Company (SLC) for them to make the payments in GB. Moreover, when the Minister previously approached the SLC to enquire as to whether they could issue the payments on our behalf in GB, the Minister was advised that the SLC did not have the capacity to do so. It should be noted the only feasible way in which a payment scheme of this size can be implemented prior to 31 March, is to work through the students’ institutions; that is, either their university or FE college. Changes to primary legislation would be required in order to be able to make payments to NI students in GB and RoI and this would also not be possible before 31 March.
“Universities elsewhere in the UK or RoI have developed their own hardship and financial support schemes, and the administrations there have also announced support packages for their universities and students. In the first instance NI-born students suffering hardship should apply for support from the institution they are studying at.
“Students on further education courses at local colleges are being supported through a range of mechanisms. The Department secured additional funding of £7.7m, of which £4.8m is being used to provide additional IT equipment to allow continued access from home for both college staff and students and to help address digital poverty, including providing almost 1,200 SIM cards, and the remaining £2.9m for an additional 500 devices, and a one-off payment of £60 to eligible full time and part time FE students to help with data costs. Furthermore, the Department has worked with the colleges to increase the flexibility of their policies in relation to student support, to make them more accessible. This has included paying childcare retainer fees during the initial lockdown; FE grants and the Hardship Fund have been updated to facilitate claimants participating in distance learning with an extension to the closing date for grant applications; free school meals and holiday payments for all eligible school-age further education students have been made directly into households; increases to the Dependant Student rate, which provides eligible FE students with an additional £15 per week; and making part time and repeat students eligible to apply to Hardship Funds.”
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