The announcement from Stormont of investment into student services was initially welcomed by Ellen Fearon, President of the NUSI-USI, the national union of students in Northern Ireland. “The £40million investment to combat digital poverty, mental health intervention and investment into Student Unions helped around 40,000 students and I know a lot of students went to bed feeling relieved due to this financial relief.” However, it soon became clear that many students are not eligible for financial support in the form of a one-off £500 payment.
Excluded groups include part- time students studying within Northern Ireland, Non-EU national students studying within Northern Ireland, and students from Northern Ireland who are studying in the Republic of Ireland and elsewhere in the United Kingdom. “Every single one of these groups have faced the same number of hardships, in come cases even more so than students needing the grant who received it. If we look at part time students, they are more likely to have caring responsibilities, they are more likely to be working sometimes full-time jobs on top of studying. We have had a lot of students that have had to pull their studies back to part time due to financial issues. They are some of the most in need students and to not extend the grant to them is really disgraceful,” Ellen explained. Additionally, “Non-EU international students are paying a ridiculous amount of fees and were not in a lot of cases able to access hardship funds because they are not originally from here.”
Eabha Lynn, a second-year medical student from Northern Ireland studying in Lancaster is excluded from the payment. “Initially I was really happy that Stormont was offering some support for students. I was hopeful it was going to be extended to me. I face the same issues as my friends studying in Northern Ireland. I pay more in fees and the cost of living is more expensive. It did not make sense to me why my friend studying the same course as me in Belfast is entitled to the payment but I am not.”
Both the public and Stormont are applying pressure to the Executive to extend the £500 payment to these excluded students. Sinn Fein MLA John O’Dowd proposed a motion to the Assembly for the extension of the grant which passed unanimously. The responsibility now lies with the Minister for the Economy, Diane Dodds.
Caitlin Byrne, a final year Biomedical student from Derry studying at Manchester Metropolitan University expressed her disappointment in the progress that the Minister for the Economy has made. “I emailed Diane Dodds and I did get a response and she said we could love to extend the payment but as it is being distributed through the universities themselves we have no way of extended it as we cannot go through each individual institution. She claimed this was also because the Student Finance Northern Ireland would not take responsibility for the payments. I felt like if that was the case then fair enough. But then it did come out that students in Northern Ireland were receiving the payment through Student Finance Northern Ireland and it felt like a slap in the face really.”
Ellen Fearon praised the progress being made in the Assembly to raise student issues “We have definitely seen a change in the last year in MLA’s finally starting to understand student issues and not brush them under the carpet,” Ellen stated. “However I would say that the Executive and Minister have not done enough. The public has spoken, students have spoken and the Assembly has spoken yet the Minister still refuses to act which I just think is disgraceful.”
The NUS-USI is committed to maintaining pressure on the Executive and the Minister for the Economy as they have now released a written statement to the Minister demanding a meeting regarding this issue. “We have written to the minister to request a direct meeting with her to ask what her plan is to extend the payments because it is clear that she has to. There is a public demand for it and an Assembly demand for it. I think with the amount of student issues we have faced this year it is incredibly disappointing. We are yet to have a response from the Minister. I am hopeful that we will get a meeting and if not it is telling of how much the Minister for the Economy really appreciates student issues.”
Minister for the Economy Diane Dodds responded, “I recognise that many Northern Ireland domiciled Higher Education students are enrolled in universities in Great Britain and the Republic of Ireland and that these students have been adversely impacted by the pandemic, just as those in local institutions have been. It is important to note, however, the funding agreed by the Executive was for Northern Ireland institutions to support their students. Payments are issued directly from the institutions, not from the Department. My Department does not have the legal power to make payments through public bodies outside of Northern Ireland, such as a Great Britain or Republic of Ireland university or the Student Loans Company. Universities elsewhere in the UK or Republic of Ireland will have developed their own hardship and financial support schemes, and the administrations there have also announced support packages for their universities and students.” Going into the future, the NUS-USI is hopeful that they can resolve this issue. “If this is all the support we see it is a bit of a sticking plaster because there are so many more long term and immediate issues that need dealt with. The likes of students still in rental contracts, paying thousands for houses they will never see. We need to see the extension made so that we can start dealing with every other issue students are facing and start preparing for the next academic year and the return to campus.”