There are no plans to reduce tuition fees for university students in the new academic year, despite fears they will be unable to take up courses due to the lack of part-time hospitality and shop jobs to supplement their income.
Alliance MLA Kellie Armstrong has called on the Economy Minister to do more to support school leavers who are about to head off to further their studies.
Many students rely on part-time jobs in the hospitality sector, working in bars and restaurants to help afford the cost of courses and accommodation.
In the 2020/21 academic year, no students had their course fees reduced by universities, despite spending much of the year working remotely with no face to face lectures.
Many more faced having to continue to pay for their accommodation despite studying at home.
Now, with the service and hospitality industries just re-opening after months of closed doors, and facing a long road to recovery, another avenue of financial support is in danger of being cut off for those preparing to go to university in September.
But Diane Dodds poured cold water on any hopes of a reduction in fees for those about to head to university at the end of the summer.
“I have no plans to amend university fees for the 2021/22 academic year,” the Economy Minister confirmed.
“However, my Department delivers financial support to eligible Northern Ireland students through Student Finance NI in the form of maintenance loans and maintenance grants as a contribution towards students’ living costs during the academic year.
“Prospective students should ensure that they look online at www.studentfinanceni.co.uk for all the financial assistance to which they may be entitled.
“Students at Northern Ireland’s universities who find themselves in financial hardship may also be eligible to receive an award from the Support Funds made available by the Department, and managed by the higher education institutions.”
Ms Armstrong has urged Mrs Dodds to consider further ways of supporting students.
“I would expect the Economy Minister to take an interest in how many students will take up university places and if our local universities are taking steps to enable students, who have been through so much, to move forward in their education,” the Strangford MLA said.
“I would encourage the minister to discuss with the universities how they are planning on supporting school leavers who have been through the trauma of Covid.
"Currently she is not delivering for our students.”
The news will come as a further blow for students, who are already facing a summer of uncertain finances on leaving school. Almost half of those seeking summer employment have no faith they will be successful, according to a survey by the Secondary Students’ Union of Northern Ireland.
Leading student's union, the NUS-USI, said that while some have been able to get access to the Covid disputation grant, the fact that so many more students have received no financial support has left many in difficulty.