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Govt tells students they may have to return third grant instalment

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University students will be assessed individually and may be asked to return the third instalment of their maintenance grant should they no longer require the monies given the disruption to the academic year and closure of universities.

In setting out the decision to recover the monies, which total around £2 million, the Chief Minister Fabian Picardo said the Department of Education will seek to ascertain the financial commitments of students on a case by case basis.

He underscored that the decision was not intended to create hardship for any student and was made to ensure “budgetary fairness” amongst scholarship students and to “preserve financial equity”.

It also comes after “many students and parents” contacted the Government volunteering to return the money, he said.

The maintenance grant is specifically provided under contract with the students to assist them in respect of their expenses whilst studying abroad and the third instalment was provided in early March 2020.

But speaking at the daily press briefing yesterday, Mr Picardo said the Department of Education was aware that most students had returned to Gibraltar and that universities have made arrangements so that students can complete course assignments and the remainder of the academic year from home.

Many universities have announced that they will be waiving accommodation fees for the last term.

For those students in private accommodation, decisions as to whether rent is payable will be taken by landlords and liability to pay rent may depend on contractual commitments, Mr Picardo said.

“The result of these decisions is that some students will have no maintenance expenses at all during the current term whilst others will continue to have full outgoings, in particular rent,” he added.

“The Government has therefore decided that, in order to ensure budgetary fairness amongst Scholarship students and to preserve financial equity, we must assess each student individually with a view to ascertaining financial commitments outside of Gibraltar during this term.”

Therefore, any sum from the maintenance grant not required to meet those financial commitments will be required to be returned.

Each of the amounts recovered will be donated in the student's name to the GHA Covid-19 fund.

The Scholarship Section will be embarking on an exercise to ascertain the financial commitments abroad for this term and whether the student is entitled to the full or part of the amount awarded for the third maintenance instalment.

“Each student will be dealt with on a case by case basis. This is not a case of one size fits all.
We do not want to create hardship for anyone,” Mr Picardo said.

He added that the Department of Education is seeking information from students at this stage only.

“The deadline for information to be provided was given to students as 1st June but that will be extended to the 1st July as some students are undergoing exams and we do not wish to increase stress or pressure in any way for students.”

The issue surrounding the deadline was a source of contention between the Government and the GSD last night.

The Opposition had criticised the “unreasonable” deadline given that students are currently focusing on exams, and called for this to be reviewed.

Edwin Reyes, Opposition spokesman for Education, wrote to the Minister for Education raising the issue and urging the Government to provide further time for students to reply.

“Nearly all students are at present extremely tied down in preparation for their end of year exams and in order not to be distracted from this important exercise I suggest that a revised date of either 1 or 15 July 2020 be set in order for all relevant information to be provided,” he said.

“I would be most grateful for your urgent consideration of the above and hope this is met favourably in order to relieve students from unnecessary pressures which are distracting them during examinations preparation time.”

But the Government, in response, expressed surprise at the GSD’s comments and insisted that the party was aware that the deadline was to be extended when they issued the statement.

Mr Picardo said students would receive an email informing them that each case will be evaluated on a one by one basis.

“For example students in halls who have had their accommodation fees waived which we understand is most of them will be asked to return their maintenance grants, or those parts, which they will have not used,” he said.

Alternatively, they will be free to keep them in lieu of their September grant for the next academic year.

They will also be told of the extension of time.

There are around 1,000 students and that they have each received about £2,000 as the third maintenance instalment - the total paid out is therefore just over £2million.

“The Department of Education also want to clarify that this is not intended at all for students who have stayed in their University accommodation in the United Kingdom.”

Those students only need to confirm that they have been in the United Kingdom and they have not returned to Gibraltar for the duration of the third term.

Mr Reyes also questioned the “strange” reference in the email to students telling them returned grants would be donated in their name to the GHA Covid-19 fun.

He asked Mr Licudi to confirm “on what legal basis is the Department of Education [is] diverting
student grant refunds to the GHA without a supplemental appropriation.”

According to Mr Reyes, the Minister replied confirming that the deadline would be extended to the July 1 2020 and that the issue of the use of any sum returned will be discussed with the Financial Secretary.