Northern Ireland's universities urgently need clarity on the numbers and financing of university places next year. At present we send more young people to universities than any other region.
Decisions are needed on the role of the Government in financing undergraduate places. How many students can be financed with student loans drawn from official funds and what level of fees will be charged by the universities?
The Department of Employment and Learning (DEL) faces a difficult financial problem. The funds allocated, as set by the Barnett formula, give DEL a budget constrained by the equivalent budget in England. Since in England, the current funding for universities has been massively reduced, in parallel, DEL has a much smaller budget in the years ahead.
The English universities budget has pushed institutions to rely on much higher student fees. After some individual discretion, the annual fees are, in many cases, above the forecast £6,000 per year and are going nearer to £9,000.
In Northern Ireland, the minister in DEL has paused in making decisions to allow for consultation or, more pragmatically, to delay decisions until after the Assembly election.
Most of the political manifestos oppose any increase in fees. However, that sentiment is not followed by suggestions about how the DEL budget can then be balanced.
Within the present funding, DEL has little real choice. The fees proposed here would need to mirror those in England. Alternatively, the Executive Budget must be re-opened and funds transferred from somewhere else. Northern Ireland does not have the capacity in the Budget to follow the example in Scotland.
The two local universities need an answer. Already, the crisis has led to Queen's University threatening large-scale redundancies; the University of Ulster has argued about the consequences for low-income households if fees rise to the English levels.
Alliance has proposed that students who study in GB would be restricted to fee levels approved here. Presumably that would become a test of whether a family could pay the difference or settle for a place locally.
The new minister may need to explain about Hobson's choice!