08/04/2004

Gardiner launches 'study fee' proposals

Employment and Learning Minister, Barry Gardiner today announced proposals to allow Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) the opportunity to introduce variable deferred fees, while at the same time safeguarding the interests of the less well off students and their families.

The plan would bring the maximum cost of a three-year degree from £3,500 to £9,000, however, the Government was keen to point out that the fees would only be payable after a student graduates and is earning a salary higher than £15,000.

Launching the public consultation, the Minister said: "Northern Ireland’s higher education sector makes an invaluable contribution to the social, economic and cultural life of Northern Ireland and its influence extends well beyond these shores.

"Our universities and higher education institutions provide graduates with wide ranging skills of the highest level, and the quality of their teaching and research benchmarks well against national and international standards.

"If they are to sustain, and build upon, these high standards in an increasingly competitive global higher education sector they need the extra investment that these proposals will bring.

"It is important to recognise that 30% of our students study across the water in England. Unless we act now to introduce a deferred fee system they will be forced to pay £3000 up front each year from 2006."

Making it clear that he was fully committed to the policy of widening access to students from disadvantaged backgrounds the Minister added: "These proposals will maintain student support arrangements as favourable as those which currently apply – but with the addition of Access Bursaries from the institutions to students from lower income families."

Vice-Chancellor of the University of Ulster, Professor Gerry McKenna, said he “welcomed the reversal in the decline of public investment” in higher education but expressed deep concern that the proposals for Northern Ireland would lead to “a two-tier system based on affordability and not academic ability”.

He said: “The University welcomes the abolition of up-front fees and the much needed investment in our universities. We feel that university students should contribute towards their education because of the many benefits of graduate status. These include much higher salaries, wider career choice, better health and other social advantages.

“However, we are deeply concerned that the proposals as they stand replicate the defects of the widely criticised higher education funding proposals for England. Under the proposals, independent evidence has shown that many graduates would leave university with debts in excess of £30,000."

Professor McKenna asked for a full and proper process of consultation to ensure that the final proposals were suited to the particular needs of Northern Ireland. The views of the Northern Ireland community and its political representatives must be listened to, he said.

(MB)

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