Coronavirus (COVID-19) advice for students in higher education

Guidance has been developed to assist students in higher education about coronavirus (COVID-19).

On 14 October 2020, the Executive announced a range of significant time-bound interventions to curb the spread of COVID-19 in Northern Ireland. This included advising that universities should deliver distance learning to the maximum extent possible, with only essential face-to-face learning where that is a necessary and unavoidable part of the course.

The spread of COVID-19 is a public health issue, and the universities are expected to follow all public health guidance.

All of Northern Ireland’s Higher Education institutions have confirmed that the health, safety and wellbeing of their staff and students is their first priority.

Student safety and travel

Safety of students on campus

Institutions are aware of their duty of care to, and pastoral support for, learners, and are prioritising support for vulnerable learners including international students. Colleges and universities have student services teams who are leading on this, and should be the first port of call for further information.

Individual risk assessments should be carried out for any student who is considered vulnerable to consider how to adapt their learning environment before term start and as and when the situation changes. You are advised to discuss your circumstances with your institution.

Practicing social distancing with housemates

Your university may set up an extended household (sometimes called a ‘bubble’) for you, and you must practice social distancing with anyone who is not in your household or your extended household.

It is important that you keep updated with the current rules and guidelines about COVID-19, as these may change regularly. Social distancing is an important way to stop the spread of the virus and everyone must obey the rules. You should carefully review the guidance available.

Your university should also provide you with information to help you socially distance.

Travel at weekends and/or returning to the family home

Current advice from the Public Health Agency (PHA) is for students to avoid travelling home if possible.

You should take a sensible approach and be mindful of the risks of spreading the virus by travel, particularly to others who may be more vulnerable because of their age or underlying health condition.

Stay within the guidelines to keep yourself and your family safe by following social distancing guidance, good hand hygiene, and being alert to the symptoms of COVID-19.

The PHA advises that you should not travel if you are experiencing coronavirus symptoms or are self-isolating.

If you do intend to travel, you should make sure that you are basing any decision on the most up to date guidance.

If you intend to travel you should make sure that you do so safely.

Self-isolation in halls of residence

You must self-isolate for 10 days from the last time you were in contact with the person who has tested positive.

  • do not get tested unless you develop symptoms
  • a negative test does not change your need to isolate
  • no-one else in your house needs to self-isolate, but everyone should take extra care with hand hygiene and social distancing, and be vigilant for the symptoms of COVID-19

Support for self-isolating students

Students who remain at university should observe rules and guidelines

The universities have support in place for students, including international students, who are self-isolating in their accommodation. You should contact your institution to see what support is available for you.

Travelling if you test positive for COVID-19

If you test positive for COVID-19, the Public Health Agency (PHA) advises that you must remain at your term-time address.

  • you should not travel home
  • You must self-isolate for 10 days from when your symptoms started (or from date of test if you had no symptoms)
  • everyone at your address must self-isolate for 10 days
  • inform your college or university, refer to their website for details

Student finance and support

Refund on tuition fees

As a result of the coronavirus pandemic, universities and colleges in Northern Ireland have had to adapt their teaching practices by developing a blended learning package in order to continue to deliver their commitments to students. This means that a course may be different from what students originally expected.

Fees are a contractual matter between student and provider and students should discuss any issues with the institution and the Northern Ireland Public Services Ombudsman if that if that is necessary. If students have any issues, they are encouraged to discuss these with their higher education institution.

Student finance payments

Student Finance NI has maintained operations throughout the pandemic, with payments continuing to be made to students as normal.  

Student Finance payments will continue to be paid, as long as providers continue to confirm students’ attendance to Student Finance NI. 

Higher education providers are responsible for the planning and delivery of their provision. They are  expected to consider the needs of students in providing alternative and accessible formats for both teaching and assessment. Students should be able to leave with qualifications that are a fair reflection of their abilities, whilst maintaining quality and standards. No student should be penalised unfairly for studying at this time and provision has been adapted accordingly.

If you are having to study online from home in 2020 to 2021 rather than attending your course on campus at your university or college, your student finance will be paid to you as normal, as if you were studying on site at your university or college.

Withdrawing from a course and tuition fee implications

Each university or college will have their own ‘cut off’ date after which a student is charged a tuition fee for their first term. 

If a provider charges a fee, this period counts as 1 year attendance for the purposes of determining eligibility under previous study rules.  However, if the student withdraws before the provider charges fees, the student may be treated as having never attended.  The student would be required to repay the first instalment of any support provided to them, but this period would not be taken into account under the previous study rules.

It is recommended that any students who are considering withdrawing from their course contact their university or college, and Student Finance NI as soon as possible to discuss their options, and the impact on their student finance.

Support for students with financial problems

Students who are experiencing financial problems should first and foremost ensure that they have applied for all the financial support to which they may be entitled through www.studentfinanceni.co.uk.  Students who continue to face financial problems should contact the Student Services team in their university or college. They will be able to provide information on what support is available, which may include Student Hardship Funds.

Refunds on accommodation if students leave early

Students are advised to speak to the accommodation office or private landlord, as applicable, as accommodation rental agreements are between the student and the university/private landlord. Institutions should communicate clearly with residential students on rents and take a fair and transparent approach to the administration of accommodation provision.

Student finance for students who are ill or self-isolating

If you are ill or self-isolating you should always contact your university or college and let them know.  They may be able to provide you with advice and other support.  Student Finance payments will continue to be paid as long as providers continue to confirm students’ attendance to Student Finance NI.

Maintenance support for students who change living arrangements

If your circumstances have changed and you’ll now be living at home with parents rather than in your own accommodation, you’ll need to update your living location details in your online account at www.studentfinanceni.co.uk.  

You’ll also need to update your details if you were supposed to be studying abroad this year, but will now be staying in the UK to study online with your overseas provider.

As part of your student finance agreement, you must keep Student Finance NI up to date with where you’ll be living each term, as this may affect how much you have to repay and when.

Disabled Students’ Allowance

Flexibility in the application and administration of the Disabled Students’ Allowance (DSA) has been introduced by Student Finance NI for academic year 2020/21 in light of COVID-19.

DSA applicants and current recipients can contact the DSA Team within their local Education Authority Office for further information.

Support for students without access to computers at home

Each of Northern Ireland’s institutions is taking action to ensure all learners can access e-learning, for example through loaning laptops to learners who do not have facilities at home.

Students should be able to get further information from their institution.

Student loan repayments

Student loan repayments are income contingent, with borrowers repaying 9 per cent of their income above the earnings threshold of £19,390 in 2020/21.

If your income falls below this threshold, no payments will be taken.

Student health and welfare

Support for students suffering anxiety and stress

Institutions have effective processes and procedures to care for the wellbeing of learners, and are providing online support wherever possible.

Students who are experiencing anxiety and stress may wish to contact their student welfare services at their provider. 

You can find more information on taking care of your mental health and wellbeing during the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak.

Alternatively additional support is available at Lifeline

Support and advice for international students

As the rules on overseas travel and quarantine restrictions are currently changing rapidly, international students must ensure they check current travel advice on whether they are required to quarantine on arrival to the UK. Students should contact their university for full guidance, advice and support services available.

Policy on visas rests with the Home Office.  From the 5 October 2020, Tier 4 was replaced by the new Student Visa .

Further information and advice can be found from the UK Council for International Student Affairs (UKCISA).

Exams, placements and graduations

Examinations and assessments

Higher education institutions are responsible for the planning and delivery of their provision including providing alternative and accessible formats for both teaching and assessment.

Students should be able to leave with qualifications that are a fair reflection of their abilities, whilst maintaining quality and standards.

No student will be penalised unfairly for studying at this time and provision has been adapted accordingly.

Graduations

Graduations will be an issue for the individual institutions to manage based on Public Health Agency guidance, and regulations at the time.

Student placements

Placements, field research and other practical elements of courses are the responsibility of the higher education providers. Students should contact their provider if they have concerns about being unable to complete practical and/or vocational forms of assessment.

Useful links

Further information for students is provided in the Public Health Agency (PHA) factsheet Information for students

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