COVID-19: Universities and FE Colleges

Members' Statements – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 10:30 am on 14th September 2021.

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Photo of John O'Dowd John O'Dowd Sinn Féin 10:30 am, 14th September 2021

I welcome the opportunity to speak on an important issue: the return of further education college and university students and lecturers, professors etc to campus, which is very welcome. Last year, there was huge disruption to student and academic life for many. Those whose first or second year it was did not get the opportunity to experience university or college as others have done over many years.

The challenges faced by our schools estate are also faced by our further education colleges and universities. I suspect that, in the coming weeks, we will see those challenges manifest on campuses. It also has to be said that we are dealing with a different age range: we are dealing with the return of young adults and older adults. There is an opportunity for vaccinations. I encourage everyone returning to university or college to have their vaccination. There is also the opportunity to use the pop-up vaccination clinics, and other resources are being made available. Hopefully, that will minimise disruption to that sector.

There is also the question of investment in ventilation and in support for the mental health and well-being of our student population. I raised that matter last year, and it has not been rectified. The mental health and well-being support for our students and staff in our universities and further education colleges has not been fully provided for. I hope that that will be in place this year for that sector.

One area of disappointment is the continued failure to fund the £500 COVID disruption payment for all students. Not one, not two, but three DUP Ministers refused to provide all students with the £500 COVID disruption payment. Students who are studying full time in a further education college have not all received that payment. Part-time students have not been supported. Students from here who are studying in Britain and across the border have not been supported. Large sectors of our student population felt discriminated against and left behind as a result of that. If an opportunity arises for those students to be supported in the next financial year, I hope that they will be supported.

I will end on this point. Just as the best place for pupils is in schools, in a safe environment, the best place for our student population is on the campus. I hope that the lessons have been learned from last year. I hope that the Economy Minister and the Executive support our universities and colleges in remaining open. I hope that everyone who has had the opportunity to take measures themselves, such as vaccination, social distancing and handwashing, will all do their part to ensure that our students have a proper and full education this year.