In the UK student financial support is determined by your home nation, and funding for universities determined by the nation where your university is based.
That’s thrown up a few anomalies this year, because in-year Covid-related student hardship funding has been routed through universities rather than through the SLC.
If you think, for example, about the massive disparity in help for students between Wales and England, the 25,000 or so students from Wales studying in England have good reason to feel completely abandoned by their home nation.
It’s an issue that’s been particularly acute in Northern Ireland. You may remember that back in February, Economy Minister Diane Dodds announced that students studying in Northern Ireland would receive a £500 “Covid Disruption” payment in recognition of the disruption they have suffered as a result of the pandemic, as well as £8.5m to address student financial hardship, digital poverty and to support SUs with mental health provision, and £3.1m to cover university rent rebates.
But things started to get difficult almost immediately. Not only was the £500 payment not available to international students, it also wasn’t available to the 11,000 Northern Ireland students who study elsewhere in the UK, nor to the many thousands more who study in the south.
When questioned, the NI Department of the Economy has repeatedly said that it “does not have the legal basis to issue funding to universities in GB for them to administer the scheme”, nor to “the Student Loans Company for them to make the payments in GB”.
And tellingly, when the minister previously approached the SLC to enquire as to whether they could issue the payments on its behalf in GB, “the minister was advised that the SLC did not have the capacity to do so”.
It feels fairly shocking that the devolved administrations have no way of financially supporting students who happen to have chosen to study elsewhere in the UK, and fairly damning that the SLC can’t be asked to just top up some loans without complaining about “capacity” a whole year into the crisis.
Did it not occur to anyone at the SLC that this might become a requirement?
To bring things to a head, yesterday Sinn Fein launched a motion into the assembly on the issue:
That this Assembly welcomes the recent announcement of a £500 COVID disruption payment for students studying full-time higher education courses; believes that the exclusion of full-time students studying further education courses and students studying higher education courses in the Republic of Ireland or in Britain is unfair; acknowledges that the difficulty for part-time students facing financial hardship also needs to be addressed; and calls on the Minister for the Economy to address these inequalities and ensure that all students who are currently excluded from the COVID disruption payment receive the £500 payment.
DUP MLA Gary Middleton was sent out to to amend the motion with the “we don’t have the powers” line:
Notes with regret the absence of legal powers in the Department for the Economy to extend this support to all full-time students studying further education courses and students studying higher education courses in the Republic of Ireland or in Great Britain; acknowledges that the difficulty of part-time students facing financial hardship also needs to be addressed; and calls on the Minister for the Economy to raise with her counterparts in Great Britain and the Republic of Ireland the desire to ensure that all students who are currently excluded from the COVID disruption payment receive comparable and much-deserved support.”
A fascinating debate then ensued that mixed together both awful tales of students being refused hardship funding, and questions over how much effort Dodds had actually put in to addressing the barriers.
By the time it got to her’ summing up, the parties holding the balance of power had made their position pretty clear. She attempted to defend the position, rattled off a list of payments to students which are already made to students outside of the context of a massive global pandemic, and said something about consumer protection law for students where promises hadn’t been kept. Where have we heard that before?
If new or returning students were not provided with sufficiently clear information about that teaching and assessment, and it was not delivered as promised, I expect the institutions to consider their obligations under consumer law for tuition fee refunds or other forms of redress.
And then she got to the legal issues on the payment:
My officials and I had discussions with the Student Loans Company (SLC) to explore the possibility of making a payment through it to all Northern Ireland-domiciled students. Such requests must be agreed by the four UK Administrations before they can be taken forward by the SLC. Accordingly, a request was formally submitted to shareholders for agreement. Subsequent legal advice received by my Department, however, indicates that the Financial Assistance Act 2009, which is the vehicle that was used to make that and other COVID financial assistance payments, would not give the Department the powers to make payments to public bodies outside of Northern Ireland.
All of that may be true. But as NUS-USI pointed out:
The NI Exec sets the level of student funding. Student finance comes from NI’s budget. But in a national emergency NI cannot increase the level of funding to Northern Irish students?. Doesn’t sound like devolution to us.”
That the motion passed and the amendment was defeated doesn’t automatically solve the problem. But it is remarkable that this is a problem at all – and it’s only going to get worse as the four higher education systems continue to diverge.