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Student Support Payments

Oral Answers to Questions — Employment and Learning – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:30 pm on 19th January 2016.

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Photo of Megan Fearon Megan Fearon Sinn Féin 2:30 pm, 19th January 2016

T7. Ms Fearon asked the Minister for Employment and Learning when he will bring forward changes to the way in which students receive their student support payments. (AQT 3347/11-16)

Photo of Stephen Farry Stephen Farry Alliance

At this stage, it is difficult to put a timeline on that. We are having difficulties with the Student Loans Company, and the Member may have been listening to the comments that I made to Alban Maginness recently. One of the other difficulties that we have with the UK Government is that they have overburdened the Student Loans Company with changes to student support. We are being advised that the 2017-18 academic year will be the first year in which we can introduce such changes.

The Member will be aware that we have carried out consultation on the frequency of student support. In principle, we can change our frequency of payments, but there will be a cost, and it will be a six-figure sum. The issue is whether Members are prepared to divert resources from other aspects of higher education to see more frequent student support. I leave that as an open question, but that, in turn, will potentially put pressure on actual student places, and some people may miss out on higher education as a consequence. A choice has to be made. I am open to that debate, but I rather suspect that it will fall to a future Minister to make that decision. That is the timeline around which a decision can be taken in that regard.

Photo of Megan Fearon Megan Fearon Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for his answer, although I do not accept that it is a toss-up between places and the way in which we change student support payments. Does he agree with me that the current system, whereby three payments are made over the course of the year, is not the best way forward?

Photo of Stephen Farry Stephen Farry Alliance

We have had the consultation, and I have an open mind to change. Powerful arguments for change were made by a number of stakeholders, so, all things being equal, we will probably want to have that move, but I stress again to the Member the issue of cost. Indeed, although extra money can be brought into higher education from elsewhere, whether from my departmental budget or the Executive's Budget, it is worth pointing out that we have major structural deficits in higher education. We still fund too few students in Northern Ireland. We have other priorities. It is not simply a case of protecting what we have versus investment in more frequent payments; we also have to look at investing in more student places. We send too many people away from Northern Ireland owing to a lack of options here. All of that has to be taken in the round, but it is something that can be done. The policy work is there, so a decision can be taken if someone is minded to do so.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP 2:45 pm, 19th January 2016

That is the end of the time allocated for questions to the Minister for Employment and Learning.