STUDENTS relying on Universal Credit and other benefits have claimed that miscalculation errors have left them struggling financially.
Several students who claim benefits, and a benefits expert, have told The Detail there are serious problems with misinformation.
And they said errors by the Department for Communities (DfC) have put some students under severe financial pressure.
While the vast majority of students cannot claim Universal Credit or other benefits if they are studying full-time, those with disabilities or children are eligible to claim.
Colette Ansell, (36) from Ballymoney, Co Antrim, a postgraduate student at Ulster University, said her Universal Credit was miscalculated.
She had to use her credit card to pay for essentials, including heating oil, after she was asked to repay money which was given to her in error by the department.
“I got a letter saying I had been overpaid,” she said.
She added: “I'm currently paying back at the rate of £25 a month, to the tune of £3,600 in total, because of being treated as a complex case.
“They overpaid me because of my undergraduate studies. I gave them all the right information at the right times, and they calculated it wrong.”
Ms Ansell has a disability and a young child with a disability.
While studying as an undergraduate, Ms Ansell was entitled to tuition and maintenance loans from Student Finance NI and other grants.
During her assessment for Universal Credit, Ms Ansell’s maintenance loan was deemed as income.
Since maintenance loans are only payable during the academic year, Ms Ansell’s income fluctuated during the summer and her Universal Credit contributions were adjusted.
“I thought everything was fine because I was on the reduced rate during term time and then in the summer payments would go up, like (the DfC) said it would,” she said.
“They never give you any amounts, the specific amounts you are entitled to.”
Ms Ansell’s situation is not unique. Statistics published by the DfC show that, since 2020, around 1.7% of Universal Credit claimants have been overpaid in error by the department.
A spokesman for the DfC said it is “committed to working with anyone who has an overpayment, including reviewing the amount and repayment schedule”.
“If anyone is experiencing difficulty repaying an overpayment, they should contact the Department’s Debt Management team to discuss,” he said.
One student who wished to remain anonymous said her experience with the benefits system was “horrendous”, prompting her to consider dropping out of university.
“I was told at one point that as a single mother my rent element would be taken away, and I was also told that I would lose my carer element, my son is in receipt of higher-rate care DLA,” she said.
Higher Rate Disability Allowance is granted to guardians of children with significant disabilities, which means the child “needs care or supervision frequently throughout both the day and night”.
“Unfortunately, I believed the advice I received from the department and made a change of circumstances, which left me quite short,” the woman said.
“It was a horrific time, I was so scared by all the misinformation that I was going to withdraw my place.”
Declan Kerr, the Ulster University Students’ Union Advice and Welfare Coordinator, said he has seen a rise in the number of ‘non-traditional students’ - including those with disabilities and mature students - who are seeking advice.
“A lot of the time, with non-traditional students, I would find that they would be referred to myself from Ulster University Student Wellbeing service,” he said.
“And it’s panic stations because they are enrolled on a course, maybe they are a single parent who was in receipt of a housing benefit or Universal Credit.
“And now it's all up in the air. And they don’t know if they should be claiming, or where to go for information. It’s a huge dilemma.”
Mr Kerr added: “Students are just looking for direction and reassurance.”
“Communication with the department is always the best thing, and that is what we would always advise,” he said.
“But I have also found that the information provided by the Department for Communities has been confusing.”
Mr Kerr said he did not believe students were being given enough clear information.
“The language around the benefits system, for example, is very difficult to understand,” he said.
“And I think the process can be cumbersome and bureaucratic.”
Jenni Millar, a postgraduate student at Queen’s University Belfast, said she was so stressed by trying to secure her benefits that she considered giving up her dream of university.
Ms Millar, who has disabilities, said she tried to get advice from NI Direct, the official government website and helpline service, and the DfC.
“Everyone was helpful but lacking in knowledge,” she said.
“At one point I was advised that I would get the fees loan (from Student Finance NI), but they would stop my benefits, and I was thinking what do I live on?”
“With only getting finance for the fees I was at the stage that I even gave up looking at degrees because with disabilities I can’t work and study.”
Ms Millar added: “It took a very desperate email to an officer in the Students’ Union at Queen's who knew exactly what the situation is and that it’s permissible to have a fees loan and keep your Employment and Support Allowance as normal”.
A spokesman for the DfC said: “The Department engages with a range of stakeholders, including student representatives, to ensure that Universal Credit staff guide and support customers throughout their Universal Credit claim.
“Advice regarding entitlement to Universal Credit whilst a full-time student is available online.
“The Department is committed to providing the right advice at all times.
“When the Department becomes aware of incorrect advice being provided, a full review will be completed.”
Flávia Gouveia is a freelance journalist