29/10/2004

UU Vice-Chancellor hits out at government proposals

Professor Gerry McKenna, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Ulster, today expressed his “disappointment and concern” following the announcement of government proposals for the funding of higher education in Northern Ireland from 2006.

In the proposals, Employment and Learning Minister Barry Gardiner said the government planned to introduce variable deferred fees in line with those in England, set at £3,000, up from £1,100.

The main elements of the draft legislation will see:
  • providers of higher education wishing to charge higher fees must have in place an approved plan for increasing participation by under-represented groups, including those from low income households;
  • the requirement for providers of higher education courses charging variable fees above the basic rate to have their plans approved by the Department for Employment and Learning and to abide by those plans;
  • that students taking a gap year in academic year 2005/06 will pay fees at the rate that would have been in place had they started their course in 2005.
Responding to the proposals, Professor McKenna said: “As they stand, the proposals will deter, not encourage, many thousands of talented people from enjoying the benefits of a university education.

“They represent a failure to understand the disadvantaged position of Northern Ireland, not only in Europe but as one of the 13 regions of the United Kingdom. Government has failed to take the opportunity to invest in local people. We must dismantle the barriers to higher education, not erect new ones.”

Other proposals which are not part of the legislation will see from April 2005 the starting point at which former students begin to repay their loans will increase from £10,000 to £15,000.

For students starting their studies in 2006 or later the government will write off all student loan balances left unpaid 25 years after they have left their course.

Despite this the Vice-Chancellor warned that Northern Ireland’s lack of skills base was to the detriment of the local community and economy.

“Northern Ireland is one of the most disadvantaged regions in the European Union,” Professor McKenna said.

“Only 1 in 10 of our people has a first degree and only 1 in 20 has a postgraduate qualification. This is not adequate to meet the skills base of a competitive innovation-driven knowledge economy in the 21st century. The University of Ulster’s package of proposals would address those realities.

“I call upon the Minister to look at them again and I call upon Northern Ireland’s political leaders and those in industry, commerce and the professions to support the University of Ulster’s common sense package,” he added.

(MB/GMCG)

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