Tuition fees - the ripple effect of policy

When I was at university back in the 1980s the Union was either a left-wing student organisation involved in boycotting South African goods and backing nuclear disarmament, or - given I went to Cambridge - a debating society where would-be MPs dressed up in dinner jackets and bow ties, trying to impress their peers and any celebrity visitors with the exuberance of their verbosity.

Now, in the new era of devolution, prospective students may pay more attention to the Union as a constitutional entity.

Certainly where you or your parents reside in the UK looks set to have a big impact on where you might study and what you might pay for your third level education.

There is no surprise that Northern Ireland is the last region to determine its future tuition fees. The Good Friday Agreement may have offered society here a degree of stability and an alternative to conflict - what it has not delivered is speedy or straightforward decision making.

I am writing ahead of Thursday's Executive meeting. Whether or not ministers reach a decision today, the First and Deputy First Ministers have promised a virtual freeze in fees, with any increase pegged to inflation.

Some fears have been expressed that setting the fees so low could attract students from elsewhere in the UK, thereby increasing the competition for local university places.

This is likely to be countered by setting a higher fee for English, Scottish and Welsh students, so that no dramatic saving would be made by picking Queens or the University of Ulster.

Firing line

This option, if approved, could bring Stormont into the firing line for the human rights lawyer who has already announced plans to challenge a similar regime in Scotland as discriminatory http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?sectioncode=26&storycode=417198&c=1.

But setting that legal challenge to one side, a low local tuition fee could change the market for degrees amongst home grown students.

Back in February http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/thereporters/markdevenport/2011/02/a_degree_in_uk_studies.html I reported on the figures contained in Joanne Stuart's report which showed that whilst there were only 165 English first year students at Northern Ireland universities, there were more than 8,000 Northern Ireland students enrolled at universities across the water.

If prospective students are more reluctant to travel in the future it would put pressure on places at the two local universities.

The tuition fees issue shows how a policy pursued in one area of the UK often has repercussions for another.

It is the kind of dilemma which the Commission of "independent non-partisan experts" set up by the government to look into the "West Lothian" question will have to examine http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-14831619.