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NI universities get £2m to handle Covid hardship fund for students


Economy Minister Diane Dodds

Economy Minister Diane Dodds

Economy Minister Diane Dodds

Around £2m is being paid to universities in Northern Ireland by Stormont to administer the £20m student Covid support scheme.

All students attending universities here are eligible for the scheme, which provides a £500 grant.

But to ensure the students receive their funding, it has been revealed that universities have been awarded a 10% handling fee in the process.

With over 40,000 students due to receive the Covid hardship grant - many having missed out on face to face lectures yet still having to pay rent on accommodation they couldn't stay in - the scheme was announced by the Department for the Economy in February.

Economy Minster Diane Dodds told the Assembly: "The Covid disruption payment was a unique opportunity to support students who attend institutions within Northern Ireland.

"Of course, in order for us to be able to give that payment out we had to ask the universities themselves to do that since they would have access to the appropriate information to make the payment."

She said that the arrangement had necessitated a handling fee.

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"It is important that we acknowledge that universities would incur a cost in relation to that and that they are remunerated in relation to it."

SDLP MLA Justin McNulty said that would amount to £2m, money which would have been better spent trying to assist more students, including those studying in the rest of the UK and in the Republic of Ireland.

But Mrs Dodds said the Executive was not in a position to fund grants for those students from Northern Ireland studying elsewhere.

"We did take advice on that," the Economy Minister said.

"We supported the students in the institutions that we publicly fund here in Northern Ireland.

"Students in GB and Northern Ireland will be able to claim funding from the universities they attend."

Some £30m additional was made available for student hardship in Scotland, £50m in England and around £40m in Wales.

There are currently around 200,000 students in third level education in Northern Ireland.

But three-quarters are excluded from the grants as they are studying in Further Educational colleges where they are only eligible to receive a one-off payment of £60 to address digital poverty.

In March, Stormont passed a motion calling on the Economy Minister to extend the Covid Disruption Payment to include all those previously excluded, but President of the National Union of Students-Union of Students in Ireland Ellen Fearon said many had been left feeling undervalued.

"All students have faced severe disruption this year, and all students deserve better than the support this government has provided for them," she said.

"The Economy Minister has said multiple times that she believes that developing skills is vital for building Northern Ireland's future, so why isn't she making sure that the people who are developing their skills in further education colleges across the country have the financial backing they need?

"The NI Assembly passed a motion calling on this payment to be extended and it's now imperative that the Minister follows this through."

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