Peter Donnelly, Editor
The latest announcement from the Northern Ireland Executive will come as welcome news to students in Northern Ireland whose academic progress has been impacted by the outbreak of the Coronavirus pandemic, since last March.
The Covid Disruption Payment scheme, which forms part of a wider Executive support package of £37.7 million, will see £500 being provided to students in University and further educational institutions. All university undergraduate and postgraduate students in Northern Ireland will be eligible.
Delivering the announcement, NI Economy Minister Diane Dodds said the new scheme would go towards approximately 39,000 students in Northern Ireland. Students attending Queen’s University Belfast, Ulster University, Stranmillis University College, St Mary’s University College and further education colleges including Belfast Met, Southern Regional College, South Eastern Regional College, South West College, North West Regional College and Northern Regional College, will be eligible. Open University students are not included, due to that institutions’ mode of course delivery.
Minister Dodds said: “I am acutely aware that students in local higher education institutions have experienced significant disruption since the onset of the pandemic and that this continues to have an impact.”
President of the National Union of Students-Union of Students in Ireland (NUS-USI) President, Ellen Fearon, who is based in Belfast, said this move was hard won and a long time in the making.
On social media Ms. Fearon said, “Students and students unions have been fighting tooth and nail for this for 11 months. This is only the start and I’m so incredibly proud of the incredible Officers and staff we work with who put massive hours into this win.”
Professor Ian Greer, Queen’s University President and Vice-Chancellor said that the adoption of the scheme by the Executive would “bolster the range of interventions” put in place by the University including the “pausing accommodation contracts.”
He continued, “Queen’s will use its best endeavours to ensure this reaches students as quickly as possible, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, those experiencing mental health difficulties and those who do not have reliable access to digital technology that facilitates remote learning.”
The Department for the Economy further said that the broader package of measures included :
- £8.5million to address student financial hardship, digital poverty and to support student unions with mental health provision;
- £4.1million for the provision of a safe working, learning and research environment; and
- £3.1million to compensate universities for lost income arising from rental pauses and releasing students from accommodation contracts.
On Tuesday, 2nd February, Finance Minister Conor Murphy announced that the £37.7 million would include a special provision of £10.4 million for a Student Hardship Fund.
The Executive had to move quickly, as £430 million had been unspent in 2020; money which, if not allocated would return to the central Treasury.
Since last March, students have faced considerable financial uncertainty. Many who would normally have part-time jobs, had that income stopped when the first and subsequent lockdowns came into effect.
Students who entered rental contracts for private student, term-time accommodation have been unable to stay in the accommodation due to the Coronavirus restrictions.
Appeals have been made to the Executive and Queen’s and Ulster universities to support them in seeking early release from these rental contracts. The latest grant is welcome, however, on social media some people have criticised that the £500 sum was equivalent to being equivalent to two months rent for student rental accommodation.
Queen’s University has extended the ‘rent holiday’ for students, living in University-owned accommodation, to the beginning of March 2021.
In an official message to students on Thursday afternoon, 4th February, Queen’s outlined that “COVID-19 Disruption Grant payments will be issued to students by the University on behalf of the Department for the Economy and the University is working hard to establish appropriate mechanisms to do this as soon as possible. The method/timing of payments will be clarified in due course but the University will make every effort to issue the grant by the end of March 2021.”
Details on the delivery of the scheme will be released by the Department for the Economy within the coming weeks.