Northern Ireland

Report recommends no change to tuition fees in NI

A report into tuition fees in Northern Ireland has recommended they stay at their present level.

The finding was contained in a report commissioned by the Education and Learning Minister Sir Reg Empey.

Joanne Stuart of the Institute of Directors, who compiled it also recommended that more students in NI should receive help through maintenance grants.

Sir Reg has asked for her report to be updated after the Browne review.

Lord Browne's review of the higher education system in England recommended sweeping changes to the university funding system.

Sir Reg has now asked Ms Stuart to look again at her recommendations for universities here, taking into account what is proposed in England.

Sir Reg said it was not "inevitable" that Lord Browne's proposals would apply in Northern Ireland.

"It is a devolved matter," he said.

"The one major component part that we've got to get clear before we know how to proceed is to see next week's financial settlement because that will determine the degree to which we can take our own independent stance here in NI," he cautioned.

Ms Stuart was appointed independent chair of the review of variable fees and student finance arrangements in NI, by Sir Reg in December 2008.

Her review found "limited evidence" to change the current system.

It also said it was too early to gauge the extent to which student loans are being recovered and which graduates are able to pay.

The review also recommends an increase in maintenance grant income thresholds for means testing and to maintain the differential that is currently in place in terms of the maximum amount.

Northern Ireland students from households with incomes above £41,065 are not entitled to any maintenance grants.

Ms Stuart said she recognised that there will be a need to review her findings following the publication of the Browne review.

"I'm now considering his report. The steering group is coming together again," she said.

"I'll be meeting with all stakeholders to get their feedback on the Browne report and that will include politicians as well."

Earlier on Tuesday, Sir Reg told the Assembly that he is to set up a group to consider the best way to fund university education in NI.

He said it would be made up of people interested in higher education to help develop future student finance policy in Northern Ireland.

The first meeting will be held in November.

The minister said at a time of grave economic difficulty, "cheap words and easy promises" from the Assembly would betray the responsibility to demonstrate real leadership.

Higher education and student support are devolved issues which mean their levels can be set locally.

However, the fees are collected by HMRC and taxation is not a devolved power, therefore it is likely any changes in England could be mirrored in Northern Ireland.

The Department of Employment and Learning (DEL) said it will have to consider the Browne review of higher education, which was published on Tuesday before it launches a public consultation on tuition fees.

In his report Lord Browne recommended that universities should no longer be restricted in how much they can charge in tuition fees.

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