Student fees: Universities could charge £6,300 a year, Queen's says
Student tuition fees in Northern Ireland could rise to £6,300 a year, Queen's University in Belfast has said.
It said students should pay between £5,200 and £6,300 depending on the level of government funding available.
Students currently pay £3,925 to study at Northern Ireland universities.
The figures are contained in an internal university document in response to the NI Executive's programme for government (PfG) 2016-21, which has been obtained by the BBC.
In the document, Queen's said the money higher education institutions had received from the executive had reduced from £214m in 2009-10 to £185m in 2014-15.
"This equates to some 13% in cash terms and 24% in real terms," it said.
"The 2015-16 academic year saw a further 10.8% reduction in the higher education budget, totalling £16.1m.
"The impact of this funding reduction has required the university to substantially reduce its undergraduate intake."
Queen's said there is a deficit of £55m between the money universities in Northern Ireland need and what they receive in public and private funding.
An additional £14.6m was allocated to higher education in the executive's 2016-17 June monitoring round, but it is not clear if this funding will be repeated in the future.
Last year, both Queen's and Ulster University announced they were jointly cutting more than 2,000 student places over three years.
There are three costed funding options put forward by Queen's in the document, all of which, it said, would reverse that cut in places.
All involve "moderate levels" of extra public funding and "affordable increases" in tuition fees.
- Additional government funding of £27.5m and tuition fees of £5,200 a year
- Additional government funding of £14.6m and tuition fees of £5,700 a year
- No additional government funding and tuition fees of £6,300 a year
The document from Queen's said the options are fair to students, graduates and Northern Ireland.
"These options are designed to facilitate discussion amongst stakeholders regarding the development of a sustainable model of funding for higher education," it said.
"The options are based on the principles of providing a competitive level of funding for Northern Ireland's universities and the reinstatement of places that have been lost due to successive budgetary reductions."
NUS-USI President Fergal McFerran and Queen's Students' Union President Seán Fearon condemned the leadership of Queen's University for calling for a rise in tuition fees in Northern Ireland.
"This is extremely troubling development because any increase fees could have a devastating impact on students" said Mr McFerran.
"Placing even more debt on students could also significantly damage the economy as well as damaging universities here."
Mr Fearon, said the proposal would only "drive the export of our school leavers to universities elsewhere, increasing 'brain drain' in the region".
Former education minister Stephen Farry said he hoped the executive would find extra resources to fund universities.
"There are changes we can make in our public spending that would allow us to invest in things that are important for the future," the Alliance party MLA said.
"I think we can maintain the balanced approach with fees in the region of £4,000, but only if the executive is serious about putting in [about] £80m per year to make sure we're properly resourcing this."
He added: "If we're serious about growing the economy, we will need more and more people with high-level skills.
"This is not an optional extra - this is an absolute inescapable requirement."
The trade union Unite said arguing for increases in fees was "completely indefensible".
Unite regional officer Sean Smyth said: "Increasingly, a university education is beyond the hopes of many working-class young people.
"It is essential that [the funding budget for universities] is used to prioritise the education of those coming from disadvantaged and working-class households."
A recent study by the former Department for Employment and Learning (DEL) found that Queen's and Ulster University were receiving funding of between £900 and £2,500 a student less than English universities.
University education in Northern Ireland is free at the point of entry, but the vast majority of students borrow the cost of their yearly tuition fee.
They can also take out a maintenance loan for living costs, which is capped at £3,750 if they live with their parents, and £4,840 if they live away from home.
These loans start to be paid back when the student enters employment and earns more than £17,495 a year.
The more a graduate earns, the bigger the proportion of their loan they repay.