It has been a fast moving week of discussions and announcements around funding for students during the present pandemic.

A motion was passed at Monday's monthly meeting of Newry, Mourne and Down Council calling for support while the Stormont Executive announced £12M of student support funding on Tuesday.

The motion which received universal support from Councillor's called for a student support grant from Stormont, and asked university accommodation providers and private landlords who have not already provided rent waivers when necessary, to do so immediately.

Photo by Aaron Murphy from FreeImages

The motion was put forward by Newry City Councillor, Cllr Gary Stokes and seconded by Downpatrick Councillor, Cllr Dermot Curran.

Years Deleted

Cllr Gary Stokes

Speaking at the meeting Cllr Stokes said "It's different maybe for an adult, none of us are having much fun at the moment. When you get to a certain stage of life one year or the next is maybe not a whole bit of difference but when you are in your late teens or early twenties, you're only 18 once, 19 once, 20 once! These students have nearly had these years deleted out of their lives and they are looking at how they are going to finish their courses, how they're going to pay for accommodation which they're not even living in and they are also thinking about what opportunities are out there for me when I do eventually finish this degree or course" 

Cllr Stokes explained that in many other places including the Republic of Ireland and Wales, students have benefited from specific financial support schemes but unfortunately not yet here.

Taking toll on Mental Health

Councillor, Cllr Roisin Howell welcoming the motion said  "We all recognise the hardship faced by students, none more so than myself. I've three children in third level education at the minute, all of them studying in Belfast so I understand what Gary's saying there, stressful and it takes it's toll on their mental health."

Cllr Roisin Howell

The Slieve Croob Councillor proposed an addition to the amendment which read "And welcome the Finance Minister's commitment to support students and urges the Economy Minister to develop a Student Support Grant"  The addition was accepted.

Severe Financial Strain

Cllr David Taylor

Also speaking on the motion Slieve Gullion Councillor, Cllr David Taylor said  "I've had several family's approaching me over the last number of months regarding this very issue. In one instance one of the students was paying for their accommodation through working in a restaurant and had only really commenced that employment within a number of weeks and was told, obviously because of the restrictions that were implemented after that, that their job was no longer available to them. That placed severe financial strain on the student. A worry and deep anxiety and stress on them and even their family because the family obviously was requiring that bit of work that student was doing to pay towards the costs of University, which was also significant anyway. And there wasn't really much leeway being offered by their landlord at that stage unfortunately. Hopefully something like this would help address that."

Unprecedented Times

Cllr Kathryn Owen

Rowallane Councillor, Cllr Kathryn Owen added "As someone who has been through third level education myself the DUP welcomes this motion brought forward"

"I know the Economy Minister has been in communication with universities and student bodies and I'm sure the minister will be considering all options available to her. Students are facing unprecedented times and difficult times. This is a time where those younger students should be flourishing into independent adulthood and this horrible disease has ripped that away from them. To top it off they are not getting the same familiarity of teaching as previous years as zoom reading is no substitute for the lecture theatre."

Thinking of the many mature students that are in third level education Cllr Owen asked for the words 'young people' to be replaced with 'students' This was accepted by Cllr Stokes who apologised profusely for their 'ageist' oversight.

Cllr Owen added "As someone who has been there myself starting back into education at 35 years of age, these students may well have mortages, children to support while juggling home schooling and self directed study of their own meaning that these mature students are unable to work."

The Motion

"The Covid-19 pandemic has affected all citizens and that the impact on our young people has been severe. This Council recognises the difficulties faced by those young people in full-time third level education, both at universities and further education colleges, who, because of restrictions, are unable to attend classes in person or live in student accommodation which they have paid for. This Council recognises that many university students have found themselves suffering financial hardship which has caused significant distress and led to poor mental health. This Council calls on university accommodation providers and private landlords who have not provided rent waivers to do immediately and calls on the Department for the Economy and Department of Finance to develop and fund a Student Support Grant for all full time third level students, many of whom cannot gain any employment at this time and are unable to claim benefits".

£12M Allocated

Finance Minister, Conor Murphy allocated £12M on Tuesday for Student support. Outlining the allocations, Minister Murphy said: “Many students are facing hardship as a result of the pandemic. The Executive is committed to supporting students and has agreed £10.4 million for student hardship and £1.7 million to meet Further Education student costs associated with remote learning." 

The allocation was welcomed by Economy Minister, Dianne Dodds who added that she intended to announce further support later this week. Minister Dodds said “I have been clear that I am acutely aware of the hardship being faced by students in our local higher education institutions at the moment. My allocation of an additional £10.4million to help address student hardship will enable the higher education institutions to help many more students in financial difficulty.

“It is vital that the institutions distribute this funding to those in need without delay. I will also continue to work for students and seek more financial support for them.”

Newry & Armagh MLA Liz Kimmins has called on Minister Dodds to publish the criteria for students to be able to apply to the £10.4m student hardship fund. "The bottom line is students need money in their pockets not an endless process of form filling and being asked to jump through bureaucratic hoops." said the MLA.

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