Peter Donnelly, Editor
Following an email communication circular on Thursday afternoon, 4th March, eligible Queen’s University students are set to receive the one-off £500 payment by the end of March.
Students from Northern Ireland studying in both Britain and the Republic of Ireland, as well as Northern Ireland-based international and part-time students, remain dissatisfied with their non-inclusion in the Department for Education scheme.
At the beginning of February, the Department for the Economy announced that the COVID-19 Disruption Payment would be allocated to Northern Ireland-based UK and EU students enrolled in the region’s universities and Higher Education institutions.
Further education institutions and universities in Northern Ireland are facilitating delivery of the payment on the Department for the Economy’s behalf. In February, the Department said that the one-off payment of £500 would go to approximately 40,000 students studying across Northern Ireland.
The short circular, issued by the University’s recently established administrative unit to manage the roll out of the payment, said that the University was “working towards making the payment before the end of March 2021.”
It went on to say that student’s will receive the payment via Student Finance NI. “The payment will be made to the bank account through which you receive your maintenance loan from Student Finance NI.”
The Gown understands that students at Ulster University also received a similar communication on Thursday afternoon.
Delivering the announcement, last month, the Department said that the Disruption Payment, costing £22 million, formed part of a wider package of measures which included :
- £8.5million to address student financial hardship, digital poverty and to support student unions with the provision of mental health services;
- £4.1million for the provision of a safe working and research environment; and
- £3.1million to compensate universities for lost income arising from rental pauses and releasing students from accommodation contracts.
Concerns for ineligible students
The announcement from Northern Ireland Economy Minister, Diane Dodds MLA, was received negatively in some quarters, where students from Northern Ireland studying at universities in other UK regions and in the Republic of Ireland would not be entitled to avail of the scheme. International students and those students who study on a part-time basis are ineligible for the NI Executive scheme.
Hannah McGlade, Master’s student at Queen’s University, said that the £500 payment did not go far enough. Writing in The Scoop, last month she said, “for every experience, friendship and penny that has been lost during this pandemic, £500 doesn’t seem to make a dent in the grand scheme of it all.” The NUS-USI, the body reprsenting students in both Northern and Southern Ireland, have been running the campaign, ‘Students Deserve Better,’ which amongst its core aims wants an island-wide “strategy to support students throughout the pandemic, and clear guidance from government.”
Many of the candidates running for student office in the 2021 Queen’s Student Union Elections pledged, within their campaign objectives, to push the University to implement the COVID-19 Disruption payment scheme to international students and those who study part-time, even if the Department refuses to extend the scheme’s reference.
Queen’s University said they are encouraging those students who are not entitled to payment under the scheme to access the University’s own financial support, which includes the University’s Student Support and Hardship funds. The University of Ulster also provide a similar service to its students.
Political action in the NI Assembly has supported the extension of the existing Disruption Payment. The SDLP’s colleges and universities spokeswoman, Sinead McLaughlin MLA, sent a letter to Diane Dodds attached with the signatures of 7,000 Northern Irish students studying in Britain and in the Republic of Ireland, urging for the scheme to be extended to meet their urgent needs.
The student situation in England
Students in England have been particularly vocal in their grave concerns about the state of their individual student finances and where the impact of the Coronavirus pandemic, and the accompanying series of lockdowns, will leave them for the future.
One student summarised the depth of concern students enrolled in English universities are experiencing. He told BBC Radio 5 Live that his student peers were growing increasingly “angry” having been “screaming out for support” since the commencement of the first academic term in September of last year.
In January, The Gown along with its student publication counterparts in the other twenty-three Russell Group universities wrote an open editorial letter to the Group calling for the implementation of a “no detriment or safety net policy.” The letter also emphasised the precarious position in which students had been placed, with many succumbing to mental health problems which had impacted upon all of society since the first nationwide Coronavirus lockdown was introduced in March 2020. The joined effort, between the editorial teams of the universities’ resident publications, came as a direct result of the Russell Group’s announcement that a no detriment policy was not under consideration this 2020-2021 academic year.
The Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, has taken steps to ensure that £70 million worth of funding support would go towards university hardship funds in England. Also, the Office for Students, the Government’s university regulator for England, on Mr. Williamson’s instructions, has increased its monitoring of the quality of academic tutition “where it is clear that quality and academic standards have dropped.”
Co-Editor-in-Chief of Bristol University’s student publication The Epigram Teddy Crawford spoke to The Gown. He highlighted how students in England are feeling underrepresented and have been lost in the resulting chaos of the Coronavirus pandemic.
He said students do not “dispute that others have struggled, possibly even more over the last twelve months or so. Quite simply though universities in England have continued to charge the same for a substandard service. Dr Tim Bradshaw of the Russell Group and numerous Vice Chancellors have come forward with the line ‘it’s not worse, just different.’”
Mr. Crawford continued, “We’re the consumers in this sadly transactional arrangement we have with Higher Education providers now and almost every student I speak to says they just aren’t getting value for money. The attempt to put continuous false disguises over all of it through terms like ‘blended learning’ or ‘hybrid learning’ — much of which the majority of us now won’t have until after Easter, at least in Bristol — is false, inauthentic and patronising. COVID-19 has shifted much of life around. Universities have tried desperately hard to pretend it hasn’t for us, all for the sake of their profits.”
Online lectures and tutorials have been the predominant student experience of university teaching across the UK and Ireland, throughout 2020 and will largely continue to be, for the remainder of the 2020-2021 academic year.
Covid-19 Restrictions: The Escape Route?
The United Kingdom is one of the countries leading the global vaccination effort, with 21 million people receiving their first Covid-19 vaccination jab. There is no doubt that the once dim light of hope is now almost at full glow as we enter Spring.
The Northern Ireland Executive has announced that the Health Protection Coronavirus Regulations will remain in foce until at least 1st April. On 2nd March, the Northern Ireland Executive published its step-by-step blueprint to easing lockdown restrictions, ‘Moving Forward: The Executive’s Pathway Out Of Restrictions.’ The plan contains no firm dates for the reopening of businesses, leading commentators to highlight the Executive’s ‘once bitten, twice shy’ cautious approach of not wanting to repeat the mistakes of the past.
In England meanwhile, the Prime Minister, announced that the phased approach out of lockdown would commence on 8th March, with schools and colleges reopening and the return of university students taking practical courses. Provided that the Coronavirus rate of transmission continues to decline over the Spring and early Summer months, most restrictions on physical contact will conclude on 21st June. The Scottish Government revealed its plans to ease the current highest level (level four) of restrictions, beginning with a gradual return of school pupils and contact sports for children aged between 12 and 17.
Northern Ireland COVID-19 Disruption Payment: More Information
For further information on the COVID-19 Disruption Payment please refer to the Finance section of Queen’s University’s COVID-19 FAQ website.