Northern Ireland

'Tuition fees plan is about plugging a financial hole'

A proposal to raise annual student fees to almost £6,000 is about 'plugging' a financial hole, the acting Provost of the University of Ulster has said.

Professor Deirdre Heenan, said the proposals were "unjustifiable".

She was speaking in response to a government review of tuition fees by Joanne Stuart which suggests fees should rise to a maximum of £5,750.

Ms Stuart said in an earlier report for the Department of Employment and Learning that fees should be frozen.

Professor Heenan, who is also the universities Dean of Academic Development, said the proposals were "deeply disappointing".

"The proposals outlined today represent no new additional funding for universities. It represents a shifting of responsibility away from the state onto the individual and their families," she said.

"Universities will not get more money. What we are being asked to do is to plug a hole.

"The last thing any progressive society needs is a university system that ends up being a playground for the rich."

A consultation on student finance will be launched next month.

Employment and Learning Minister Danny Kennedy told the Assembly that Ms Stuart's update will be a "key consideration" for his department.

Mr Kennedy said "the option of maintaining the status quo" has been rejected in Ms Stuart's updated review as it would "not address the deficit in higher education funding".

"Based on the calculations and assumptions made in the Stuart update, there would be a short fall of between approximately £40m and £65m per annum upon roll out to a full three-year cohort.

"Instead, Joanne Stuart recommends an increase in the maximum fee cap of between £5,000 and £5,750."

Upfront fees

The review also recommends aligning the maintenance grant thresholds for household income levels to those in England.

That would see the current £19,000 household income qualifying threshold in NI rise to £25,000.

Ms Stuart also recommends NI adopts the UK government fee structure for non-NI domiciled students.

That would mean setting the basic fee level at £6,000, with a maximum cap of £9,000 for students coming to study in NI from the rest of the UK.

Her updated review also recommends increasing the student loan repayment threshold to £21,000 from £15,000.

Mr Kennedy said he was making a pledge to the Assembly: "I am determined to ensure that no student, no young person, no family will be required to pay upfront fees and access to university will continue to be on the basis of the ability to learn, not ability to pay," he said.

"I ask all parties to join with me in achieving a 'made in Northern Ireland' solution which secures fairness, affordability and excellence."

Mr Kennedy said any final decision on whether university tuition fees will increase will be made by a new assembly, after the May election.

Responding to the minister's statement, Professor Richard Barnett, Vice-Chancellor at the University of Ulster said: "Given the pressure on the executive's budget and the budget allocation to the Department for Employment and Learning, 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."

More on this story