At present, higher education students from Northern Ireland receive their maintenance support payments in three instalments, roughly at the beginning of each term of the academic year. This tri-annual payment system supports students with any upfront costs that they might face at the beginning of term, while also allowing them to budget ahead accordingly.
Concerns have been raised in recent times that large and infrequent payments can heighten the risk of financial mismanagement and, by extension, financial hardship amongst students. It was in response to those concerns that I launched a consultation in August last year to consider options to change the frequency of maintenance payments. The consultation closed on 27 September, and a summary of responses is available on my Department’s website.
There was no clear consensus amongst respondents about which option was preferable, and many expressed concerns over the potential cost of implementing more frequent payments, particularly if that were to detract from other areas of higher education funding. Any decision to invest in a more frequent payment system will, therefore, have to be considered within the context of the overall higher education budget and competing priorities, including, for example, our ambitions to expand student places.
As to the timing of a decision, it has emerged in recent months that the Student Loans Company has become overburdened by the demands of other Administrations — that is, England — and the earliest year in which changes could possibly be implemented will be 2017-18. In principle, I am open to change, but the timelines are such that it will fall to a future Minister to take a final decision on the matter, and he or she will have to do so within the context of the overall higher education budget.
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Mo bhuíochas leis an Aire as na freagraí a thug sé go dtí seo. I thank the Minister for his very comprehensive and detailed response. In his final deliberations, will he ensure that students' best interests will be at the heart of his decisions?
Very briefly. The Member needs to define what he means by students' best interests. Some will say that it is more frequent payments, and others will say that it is more places being available locally, because we are displacing too many students outside of Northern Ireland, where they pay more in fees. We have to take it in the round. Is that quick enough?