Student hardship fund: Stephen Farry criticised for £1.3m cut
Money made available to the poorest students in Northern Ireland's six further education colleges has been cut by over a third, the BBC has learned.
About £1.3m has been cut from the student hardship fund over five years.
Employment Minister Stephen Farry has been criticised by a student movement over the cuts.
The Department for Employment and Learning said it had invested in other schemes.
Fergal McFerran of NUS-USI said some colleges have set up food banks because of the financial pressures on young people.
"The student hardship fund allows students who are really struggling with their situation to meet their everyday needs. For many students who have to avail of these funds, it is being able to cope on a day-to-day basis," he said.
"It is about feeding themselves and being able to put a roof over their heads in some cases. We have had evidence of some colleges where food banks have had to start. That is really shocking news."
All six further education colleges except the Southern Regional College have seen a decrease in their allocation.
In the 2009/10 academic year £3.46m had been allocated to the overall fund but that figure has gradually decreased and the amount allocated for 2014/2015 year is £2.1m - that is a £1.3m cut over the last five years.
Applications to the fund have decreased in recent years but rose by almost 1,000 last year despite a further cut in funding.
Robin Swann MLA, chairperson of the Deployment and Learning Committee at Stormont, has tabled questions for the minister and will be raising the issue with him in person.
"In this day and age this fund is needed. It is important that support remains where it is most critical."
The Department of Employment and Learning have said the hardship fund is demand led and reduction in applications has led to less money being allocated.
It said funding had been increased for Further Education Awards (FE awards) up to £5.5 million for this academic year.
"While hardship funds have been reducing over time, there has also been an increase in the take-up in FE awards and the two are inter-linked. As such this is not a case of the department cutting funding."
Speaking on BBC Radio Ulster's Good Morning Ulster programme Employment Minister Stephen Farry said he was prepared to listen to concerns and insisted the department had not cut funding.
Colleges NI, the umbrella body for the Northern Ireland's six further education colleges, have yet to respond to the BBC.