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I have not yet met the National Union of Students and the Union of Students in Ireland (NUS-USI), but I hope to be in a position to do so in future. My officials meet representatives from that organisation on a regular basis to discuss a wide range of issues affecting the higher and further education sectors in Northern Ireland. Officials from my Department's further education division have met the National Union of Students and the Union of Students in Ireland to facilitate the provision of training for newly elected student members of college governing bodies and attend an annual induction event for all new governing body members. My officials have also met representatives of the body to discuss a variety of issues related to higher education.
Mo bhuíochas leis an Aire as a fhreagra. I thank the Minister for his response. Does he not agree that, given his level of interaction with various universities and the like, it is crucial that he meet the students' representative bodies about issues such as education, for a start, but about the likes of services and fees as well?
As I pointed out to the Member in my initial response, I have no issue meeting NUS-USI, and I hope to do so in the not too distant future. As the Member will appreciate, my diary is busy and could be filled time and time again with the range of requests I get, but I hope to meet NUS-USI in the not too distant future.
I have had a range of discussions with the universities and others about the financing of the sector. I am very clear — I have been on record saying this in the House and elsewhere — that I want to see the higher education sector, which is important not just for education but for the future growth of our economy, financed on a sustainable footing moving into the years to come. There are, clearly, pressures on my budget in higher education, and I want to have a sensible and mature discussion, particularly in the context of the upcoming Budget, about how we might sustainably finance the HE sector in the years ahead.
The postgraduate students whom the Member mentions have been treated disgracefully. Those were postgraduate loans for English-domiciled students that were introduced by the UK Department for this year. They wrongly approved loans to 85 ineligible Northern Ireland students. A review found that 54 were eligible, but there are still 31 who are ineligible, 18 of whom actually received a payment. They are all important, but those 18 are the particularly important ones, because when those people received that payment they spent that money on equipment, accommodation or whatever it might be to help them to do their postgraduate studies.
Whilst it is a matter for the UK Department for Education, Student Finance England and the loans company, it is their errors that have caused distress. I have written to Jo Johnson, the Minister of State in the Department for Education, and to the Student Loans Company asking them what they are going to do to satisfactorily address the issue, which is not in any way, shape or form the making of the students from Northern Ireland who have been affected.
I cannot give the Member a comprehensive list, but I have met Ulster University and Queen's University, and I am meeting the Open University this afternoon. In the broadest definition of the HE sector, I have met quite a few other stakeholders. As the Member will appreciate, there are a huge range of stakeholders across the HE sector, all of whom I will want to keep in very close contact with, particularly our universities, as I grapple with a range of issues, some of which have been mentioned here at Question Time.