Proposal to double tuition fees in North


STUDENTS attending universities in Northern Ireland could see fees almost double if a new report is accepted by the Department of Employment and Learning.

Joanne Stuart has recommended in a special report for the Minister, Danny Kennedy, that current fees of about £3,000 should rise to a maximum of £5,750.

Ms Stuart, head of the Institute of Directors in Northern Ireland, said in a previous review that fees should not increase in real terms. Her recommendation follows a Westminster decision that could see fees in English universities treble from £3,000 to £9,000.

Northern Ireland students are generally entitled to loans which they do not begin repaying until they are in employment and earning more than £15,000. Ms Stuart recommends that the earnings level before repayment begins should be increased to £21,000.

Mr Kennedy told the Assembly that no decision would be made ahead of elections in May but that the proposal was a “key consideration” for his department.

There are 16,770 full-time undergraduate students at Queen’s University Belfast, of which 679 are from the Republic, while there are 756 from the Republic at the University of Ulster, which has 15,585 full-time students at undergraduate level.

The Minister said Ms Stuart had made clear that the cost of higher education meant maintaining the status quo was not an option.

It would leave a shortfall of between £40-£65 million a year at a time when the Northern Executive must cut spending by £4 billion over the next four years.

“I am committed to developing a Northern Ireland solution to the student finance issue,” he said. “We have the best higher education participation rates in the UK for those from socially disadvantaged backgrounds and it is important that access to higher education here continues to be based on the ability to learn, not the ability to pay,” Mr Kennedy added.

“Higher education confers benefits and it is right that the beneficiaries should contribute towards the cost. However, we also need to find the balance between the level of tuition fees and how much public finance should be given to the universities.”

Queen’s said the report “recognises that investment in higher education requires to be maintained if we are to deliver economic development and growth for Northern Ireland”.