Learning curve for North's universities as cheaper fees may create free-for-all

Tue, Nov 29, 2011, 00:00

NORTHERN IRELAND’S two main third-level colleges, Queen’s University, Belfast and the University of Ulster, are in uncharted waters waiting to see how the radical changes to the British fees structures will affect the intake of students.

Will it lead to academic “insularity” or open up possibilities to expand the horizons of the colleges, is the question puzzling Prof Richard Barnett, vice-chancellor of the University of Ulster, and Prof Tony Gallagher, pro-vice chancellor of Queen’s University.

Will it result in disappointed and angry northern students failing to get into the two local colleges because places are taken by students from England, the Republic and other European Union countries? They wonder too whether possible, perhaps likely, forthcoming budget rises in charges for southern students attending universities in the Republic, will increase the number of school leavers seeking to cross the Border to study in Northern Ireland.

Earlier this year Queen’s and the University of Ulster were facing swingeing cuts of £68 million that would put huge pressure on the academic chiefs to bring in increases in fees on a par with the £9,000 fees that now generally apply in England.

However, with the support of the Northern Executive the Alliance Minister for Employment and Learning Stephen Farry found an additional £40 million on the basis that Queen’s and the University of Ulster would hold fees at current levels of about £3,500.

The cuts do mean that Queen’s is seeking to reduce its staff of 3,600 by 200 while the University of Ulster is looking to reduce its staff of 3,150 by 150.

It seems anomalous that English students must pay the full £9,000 to attend Queen’s and £6,000 to attend the University of Ulster while students from the South will pay the same £3,500 as their northern counterparts because these are the rules applying for EU countries. The administrations in Scotland and Wales have capped fees for their native students at about £3,500.

Two cases by English students challenging the higher fees for them in Northern Ireland are before the courts. It could take a couple of years before these are resolved.

Both Prof Barnett and Prof Gallagher agree that the extra charges applying in England raise a serious question about whether more northern students will now seek to attend Queen’s or the University of Ulster rather than study in England — and whether the two colleges will be able to cope with the extra demand.

“It would be a bad thing if we became totally insular, if the only students at the universities were local students. We are keen to expand the number of students from outside Northern Ireland,” said Prof Gallagher.

“There was a time when quite a number of students from the Republic came up to the North, but once fees were put in place in the North the numbers dramatically fell,” he added. “If the registration [fee in the South] starts to rise close to our fees level then we expect the students from the Republic to start looking North again.”

He is also conscious that the law of supply and demand could make life difficult for the two universities, and that many students hoping to attend college in Northern Ireland will be disappointed – including local school leavers.

Prof Barnett has long argued that fees should be as low as possible. “The situation in England is one massive gamble with the future of young people’s lives. Nobody can tell what the impact will be with charges going up from £3,500 to £9,000,” he said.

Queen’s has bursaries in place of up to £2,500 which would reduce costs for English students seeking to study at the college to £6,500. As University of Ulster has capped fees for such students at £6,000 this could have the effect of prompting some English students who don’t want to pay the full £9,000 fees at English colleges to opt for the two Northern colleges.

This in turn could place further pressure on Queen’s and the University of Ulster. The colleges won’t know what the full demand is until mid-January.

There is a cap of about 4,000-4,500 on the number of students each college can take in annually. This cap does not apply to English students and students from outside the EU. Fees from these students provide extra revenue for the two colleges but there is an obvious limit to the number of students each college can cater for. Allowing for undergraduate, postgraduate, part-time and distance students there are some 20,000 students attending each university.

There is also a political dimension to the issue. The Traditional Unionist Voice leader Jim Allister has complained of the University of Ulster being a cold house for Protestant students. Figures he obtained from the Department of Employment and Learning show that in the last academic year Queen’s had an enrolment of 920 students from the Republic compared with 880 from Britain while 2,810 students from the Republic were enrolled at the University of Ulster compared with 625 from Britain.

He said he was particularly concerned at the breakdown of students at Jordanstown in north Belfast and Magee in Derry campuses of the University of Ulster. “At Jordanstown there are just 3,850 Protestant students compared with 6,640 Roman Catholics while at Magee Protestants make up less than one-fifth of the student population,” he said.

Prof Barnett responded that there was absolutely no discrimination at the college. “We are a secular institution, admission is on the basis of students meeting the necessary grades,” he said.

But, by mid-January when demand is known, this political issue could be again thrown into the academic mix. One likely upshot of the differences in fees between Northern Ireland and England is that hundreds of Northern Ireland students won’t be able to go to college in Queen’s and the University of Ulster. They could lose out as a result of higher-qualified students from the Republic, other European Union countries and Britain gaining places at Queen’s and the University of Ulster.

It’s an unpredictable and nervous time for the two Northern Ireland universities as they seek to maintain broad academic reach, range and excellence and also keep local students and their parents and political representatives contented.