Assembly Written Question 12927/17-22
Question: To ask the Minister for the Economy whether she has had any engagement with the UK Department for Education or HM Treasury regarding temporarily reducing tuition fees and providing additional support for students as a result of COVID-19.
Answer: Higher Education is a devolved matter and my Department is responsible only for determining the annual maximum tuition fee level that can be charged by higher education institutions in Northern Ireland. It is a decision for the higher education institutions to determine what they wish to charge Northern Ireland and EU domiciled students, up to that maximum level. However, I will be writing to Northern Ireland’s universities, on behalf of students, asking them to review their compliance with consumer law and provide assurance that, in implementing their response to the Covid-19 pandemic, they have given due regard to relevant consumer protection law. Institutions must be clear with new and returning students about how teaching and assessment will be delivered and the circumstances in which changes might be necessary. I will therefore ask the higher education institutions to: confirm that they have been, and will continue to be, sufficiently clear with new and continuing students about how teaching and assessment is delivered, the circumstances in which changes might be made, and what those changes might entail; confirm that, in their assessment, students received, during the autumn term, the teaching and assessment they were promised and might reasonably have expected to receive based on the information provided; and confirm whether their current plans for the spring and summer terms will ensure that students receive the teaching and assessment they were promised and might reasonably expect to receive based on the information provided. If new or returning students were not provided with sufficiently clear information about how teaching and assessment would be delivered in 2020-21, or that teaching and assessment were not delivered as promised, I will expect the institutions to actively consider their obligations under consumer law for tuition fee refunds or other forms of redress. I will also ask Northern Ireland’s universities to consider how they might support students by engaging with their private accommodation providers, as well as reviewing their own accommodation policies (where applicable) to ensure they are fair, transparent and have the best interests of students at heart. I am aware that the Office for Students (OfS) have written to English institutions along similar lines. Any Northern Ireland students experiencing financial hardship should first of all ensure that they have applied online at www.studentfinanceni.co.uk for all the financial assistance to which they may be entitled. My Department delivers financial support to eligible Northern Ireland students through Student Finance NI, and by the end of November 2020 had provided £84m in maintenance loans and a further £37m in maintenance grants as a contribution towards students’ living costs during the academic year, including the cost of accommodation. Students at Northern Ireland’s universities who find themselves in financial hardship may be eligible to receive an award from the Support Funds made available by my Department, and managed by the higher education institutions. Earlier this financial year, I secured an £1.4m from the Executive and a further £1.4m from the Department’s own budget for these Support Funds, making a total of £5.6m available to support students facing genuine financial hardship. On top of this, I have more recently brought forward proposals for an additional £10.4m for student hardship, to be allocated between Northern Ireland’s institutions on a pro rata basis. If approved, I will ask the universities to take a highly proactive approach to the publication and promotion of these funds to their students, and in particular vulnerable students, to ensure it reaches them as quickly as possible. I will also stress to Northern Ireland’s institutions that problems linked to accommodation contracts can be considered a legitimate contributing factor to financial hardship. My remit only extends to the provision of hardship funds for students at Northern Ireland institutions. However, I am aware that last month the OfS wrote to English institutions to advise them of additional, one-off funding totalling £20m to be distributed to higher education providers in the financial year 2020-21 to address student hardship. As such, any Northern Ireland students studying at institutions elsewhere in the UK, and who are experiencing financial hardship, may wish to apply for this funding through their individual HE institution.