I am wholly opposed to the Department for Education England's intention to impose a student number control on full-time undergraduate English domiciles at Northern Ireland's higher education providers in the coming academic year. I am shocked that another jurisdiction in the United Kingdom is seeking to control student numbers in Northern Ireland and concerned about the impact that it may have on our local sector. This intention runs contrary to what had been agreed amongst the four UK Administrations at the beginning of May on a number of measures relating to admissions for the coming academic year under the UK admissions package.
Local institutions will have already started to determine their recruitment of English domicile students without any indication that the Department for Education England restrictions would be imposed on them. For the proposal to be brought to the fore at this stage in the recruitment and admission cycle is not just unfair but unprecedented. Five local institutions are impacted on by the decision: Queen's University Belfast, Ulster University, St Mary's University College, Belfast Metropolitan College and South Eastern Regional College. I have raised my opposition to the action directly with the Secretary of State for Education, Gavin Williamson, and the Universities Minister, Michelle Donelan. On the basis of legal advice, it appears that neither I nor my Department can stop the Department for Education England introducing the measure. However, I continue to raise the concerns of the local sector with the Universities Minister and seek a solution for any local institution negatively impacted on by the decision.
Thank you, Minister, for the answer to that important question. This year, the academic year has been hugely disrupted. Our every way of life has been hugely disrupted, but the academic year for students has been disrupted from start to finish. Has any consideration been given to the waiving of tuition fees for the students affected this year? Has your Department had any engagements with the universities on that? Student debt is a big issue, and I do not see why students should incur that debt, given that they have not benefited from the full educational opportunities.
This is a very important issue for students. However, universities are autonomous financial bodies. It is up to the universities to decide whether they wish to pursue any return on the fee charged. In fairness to universities in Northern Ireland and unlike many universities in GB and the Republic of Ireland, Ulster University, Queen's and others have allowed students to opt out of their accommodation contract. They have not been charged for the third term of that accommodation. Universities have also been conducting a lot of online courses and online teaching. We have ensured that student loans will be paid in the third semester. We have also ensured that provisions for those in training or other similar programmes will be paid. Universities have done a significant amount to alleviate student hardship. Of course, in the last monitoring round, I was allocated £1·4 million from the COVID hardship fund, and, with the reprioritisation of resources in my Department's budget, I have been able to double that. An additional £2·8 million is going into the student hardship funds, and the universities will administer that because they know best the students who attend their universities.