It is vital that higher education institutions do everything possible to support students, Economy Minister Diane Dodds has said.
The Minister today met Queen’s University Belfast and Ulster University, and has written to all the local higher education institutions, to remind them of their responsibilities regarding student welfare and to ask them to take all possible steps to ensure students are receiving the support they need.
The Minister said: “I am very conscious of the hardship that so many students are facing as a result of the pandemic. My priority is to support the wellbeing of students and enable them to complete their courses and secure excellent outcomes.
“I am working to secure significant additional funding, as soon as possible, that will benefit students directly. This money will be allocated across the five local providers. I have asked the institutions to ensure that they make every effort to target this additional funding at those most in need and to make the process for accessing financial support as simple as possible.”
In her letter the Minister calls upon the higher education providers to take account of students being trapped in accommodation contracts which they can no longer use, and to take action such as providing rental holidays or release from contracts for halls of residence.
Furthermore, the Minister has emphasised to providers the need for them to support students’ mental health and to give strong communication and signposting around any changes to teaching provision and the range of support services available to students.
She said: “I have been contacted by many students, parents and others regarding the negative impact the current situation is having on students’ mental health. Not only are they worried about their financial situation, they are also expressing concerns around value for money for the fees they are paying and changes to teaching methods having an impact on the quality of provision.
“To this end, I have asked the providers to make sure students are aware of the mental health support available to them, and to take practical steps including consulting with students at an early stage about plans for assessment. I also want them to consider appropriate ‘safety nets’ for students affected by the pandemic through, for example, implementing policies on mitigating circumstances.
“Finally, I have reminded all of the higher education providers of their obligations under consumer protection law. Providers must give clear information to new and continuing students about how teaching and assessment is delivered during this period. Refunds or other forms of redress must be considered where appropriate under law.”
The Minister concluded: “I know all of the higher education providers have carried out much hard work in adapting to the challenges brought by the pandemic and I thank them for their continued efforts. I will continue to investigate how my Department can provide support to benefit students as we all navigate this difficult period.”
The five NI higher education institutions are: Queen’s University Belfast, Ulster University, Stranmillis University College, St Mary’s University College and Open University.