08/02/2011

Policy U-Turn Heralds Tuition Fee Hike

Tuition fees for university students in NI are to rise - despite an earlier report that said they should be frozen - and has quickly led to accusations of 'elitism' from a senior figure in a major NI university.

The NI Employment and Learning Minister Danny Kennedy has told the Assembly today that a 'second round' report from the Institute of Director's Joanne Stuart would be a key consideration for his department.

In an earlier report - also commissioned by his Department - Ms Stuart said fees should be frozen, but has now overturned her own recommendation that fees should be kept at the current level.

The fees currently are about £3,000 per year, but Joanne Stuart has recommend they rise as high as £5,750.

The Minister will launch a consultation on student finance next month and also said a rise in tuition fees is almost inevitable.

Professor Richard Barnett, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Ulster has described as 'regrettable' the recommendations of the (second) Stuart Report on university tuition fees.

He also slammed a recent review of higher education in England and said that it had more to do "with a small group of vice-chancellors from universities more interested in attracting students who will be able to afford high fees....than helping people from low income backgrounds entering higher education".

Earlier this morning, the Ulster Unionist Executive Minister had explained the Stuart report to fellow MLAs and said: "I am extremely grateful to Joanne Stuart for her hard work and commitment in producing her original report and subsequent update.

"Joanne Stuart's update will be a key consideration for my Department, and will obviously inform the forthcoming public consultation document," he said.

He also noted that the original report made a number of recommendations in relation to future higher education fees and funding.

However, she also explicitly indicated that the recommendations would need to be reviewed in light of the outcomes of Lord Browne's review in England once they were known, particularly if the recommendations of that review could impact on student flows between Northern Ireland and England.

To inform her update, Joanne Stuart was asked to consider the Browne Review and the outcome of the Comprehensive Spending Review.

The Minister said: "I am committed to developing a Northern Ireland solution to the student finance issue.

"We have the best higher education participation rates in the UK for those from socially disadvantaged backgrounds and it is important that access to higher education here continues to be based on the ability to learn, not the ability to pay.

"Higher education confers benefits and it is right that the beneficiaries should contribute towards the cost. However we also need to find the balance between the level of tuition fees and how much public finance should be given to the universities.

"This needs to be done within the context of the current financial and economic realities, particularly those that face my Department," he said this morning, noting that he intends to launch a public consultation document through which he will seek views on proposals for future student finance arrangements.

Professor Richard Barnett, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Ulster has described as 'regrettable' the recommendations of the Stuart Report on university tuition fees.

Speaking after a statement by Minister Kennedy in the Assembly, he said: "In her earlier review, Joanne Stuart concluded there was no reason for tuition fees to increase in real terms. The University of Ulster agreed with that assessment.

"However since then we have had Lord Browne's review of fees in England, the subsequent substantial reduction in public funding for universities there and the shift to higher student fees. This has had a significant knock-on effect for the Northern Ireland Executive's budget.
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"Given the pressure on the Executive's budget and the budget allocation to the Department for Employment and Learning (DEL), the latest recommendations of the Stuart Review come as no surprise.

"It is regrettable that it would appear there will be a marked increase in tuition fees in Northern Ireland despite the University of Ulster voicing concerns that such a rise could act as a deterrent for people from low income backgrounds entering higher education," the top academic continued.

"We are not sure how an increase in fees of this magnitude fits in with the Executive's commitment to growing the Northern Ireland economy and the importance of all sections of society having access to the high skills needed for the development of an internationally competitive economy.

"People should be in no doubt that these recommendations are a direct consequence of Lord Browne's review of higher education in England, who was egged on by a small group of vice-chancellors from universities more interested in attracting students who will be able to afford high fees."

Also responding today, local medical students have expressed their disappointment and concern at the proposed increase in university tuition fees.

Final year student Neil Cunningham, Chairman of the BMA's Medical Student Committee in Northern Ireland said: "The proposed rise in tuition fees comes as a bitter blow to the next generation of doctors.

"Attending university should not be based on an individual's ability to pay. BMA has real concerns that future doctors will be put off from studying medicine due to the high levels of debt that they will acquire over the five year course.

"Our figures show that an increase in tuition fees to £9,000 will lead to a student debt starting at £70,000. The proposed rise to almost £6,000 will therefore see debt rise to £46,000," he said.

Dr Paul Darragh, Chairman of the BMA's Council in Northern Ireland added: "The starting salary of a junior doctor is just over £22,500, bringing young doctors starting out their careers above the proposed repayment threshold.

"Having to put a significant proportion of this income toward massive loan repayments will only exacerbate the worry that debt brings.

"There has to be a better way of meeting the shortfall in higher education funding than penalising our future workforce," he said.

The DUP Employment and Learning spokesperson Jonathan Bell has said access to university should be based on ability to learn.

"We need a richly educated population not an educated rich. The DUP is proud that Northern Ireland holds the British record for the greatest number of people from a less well-off background accessing university per head of population in the UK.

"Northern Ireland will be best served when we balance the twin aims of ensuring and protecting access to university on the ability to learn while resourcing our British universities adequately to compete at the world class level," he said.

"I accept the thesis that those who out-educate us today will out-compete us tomorrow. It is vital that employment and learning remains at the heart of a jobs led economic recovery.

"There is a great fear that Con-Lib coalition cuts will price working-class young people out of university places. The DUP has opposed such steps in Parliament and we will oppose such steps in Northern Ireland as well."

A Sinn Fein Member of the Employment and Learning Committee at Stormont is also highly critical of the news and said: "Why was an independent report commissioned that stated there would be no increase in student fees but within the space of three months this was overturned - despite there being no provision made within this Department's budget that would indicate a rise in fees.

"Danny Kennedy's decision is following the lead set by his 'Tory masters' in Westminster," she fumed.

See: NI Uni Students Need Help - Not Fees

(BMcC/GK)

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