Northern Ireland

Browne plan will 'privatise' university education

Students holding signs reading grants not fees
Image caption No decision has been taken on future course fees in Northern Ireland

The vice-chancellor of the University of Ulster said that the Browne review could lead to the privatistion of university education.

Professor Richard Barnett blamed the proposals on lobbying by a small group of what he described as "elitist" universities in England.

He said their agenda was that students pay more and that university education should "essentially be privatised".

"This is a case of not wasting a good crisis to push through that agenda.

"Fortunately for us higher education is a devolved responsibility, it will be a decision for the assembly to decide.

"But, the scale of the cuts here do not justify the scale of the increase of fees."

Professor Barnett said he and colleagues at UU were passionate about wider access to higher education.

"As we re-balance the economy it's skills that matter. This is an investment in our future and it's important that all sections of our society be part of that new economy. Every country in the world is investing in skills and in universities."

Minister for Employment and Learning Sir Reg Empey was attending an investment conference in the US on Wednesday as the chancellor outlined the spending review.

"Quite clearly yesterday's decisions involve a very substantial reduction of about 40% of the teaching grant that is going to be paid to universities in England by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills," he said.

"What we will probably not know until Friday is the extent of what are called Barnett consequentials, that is what effect that will have on our total block grant."

No decision

Sir Reg said the importance of third level education was stressed repeatedly by potential American investors at the conference.

"The theme running through the entire day was the link between universities and business and the benefit that brings. Business after business expressed that through their representatives.

"I've tried to protect universities up to now and indeed we have the same cuts in Northern Ireland as those that have been taking place throughout the last year on the mainland. I think a lot of people don't realise that Lord Mandelson cut away a lot of money from universities over the past 12 months."

While no decision has been taken on future fee rates in Northern Ireland, Lord Browne's report has prompted Mr Empey to order a review of a regional report that previously advised the local cap be retained.

"We have a legal cap here in Northern Ireland at the moment at the level of £3,290 a year. I will certainly be looking for a middle way because I agree to some extent with Professor Barnett that we have achieved the best participation rates in higher education both in total head count numbers but also from those from economically disadvantaged backgrounds and that's an achievement that I don't want us to lose."

On Tuesday, hundreds of students held a protest against the Browne proposals outside Queen's University Belfast.

Officials at Queen's have said they will take time to study the Browne proposals in full.

They stressed that future funding must be fair for everyone.

"Queen's will seek to ensure that fees and student support arrangements must be fair to students, fair to graduates and fair to taxpayers in Northern Ireland," said a spokeswoman.

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