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Education minister’s £160m funding gap

By Lindsay Fergus

Employment and Learning Minister Stephen Farry has received broad support for his plea that the Executive should plug his total £160m funding gap if tuition fees are not raised.

The DUP, UUP, SDLP and TUV have said the thorny issue should be dealt with on a cross-Executive basis as the universities are a key economic driver. Sinn Fein is the only party represented on the employment and learning committee that believes it is an issue solely for the minister.

Because of every political party’s opposition to a rise in university tuition fees — in particular Sinn Fein, which said it would “block any attempt to raise the level of cap on student fees” — there will be a £40m annual shortfall in the Department of Employment and Learning’s (DEL) budget.

The budget was based on assumptions that university fees would rise from £3,290 to £4,500 in September 2012.

Employment and learning committee chairman Basil McCrea told the Belfast Telegraph: “It seems unlikely that university fees are going to rise and that leaves a funding gap for the department. We cannot expect universities to bear the brunt of this.

“DEL is one of the most important departments. I will be calling for those in charge of finance |to look kindly on applications |for additional funding in the |monitoring bids,” he added. The SDLP’s Pat Ramsey said: “Under the Programme for Government the economy is the number one priority, our universities produce good academics and graduates who meet the needs of industry so there has to be creativity and the money found.”

But economist John Simpson believes that because of the significant reduction in public spending tuition fees will have to rise in the long-term. He said: “No amount of fudging will avoid the Assembly ultimately having to agree to DEL increasing fees. Fees are a problem that will not go away.”

Mr Farry said last night: “The consultation on tuition fees and student finance arrangements only closed yesterday and no decisions have been made. While I accept that there is widespread opposition and ideally no-one, including myself, wants to increase tuition fees, the reality is any decision on the way forward will have significant implications.

“My current budget is based on the premise of tuition fees being increased to £4,500. Therefore a rise in tuition fees for now must remain a default option to be considered. If the Executive does decide collectively not to increase tuition fees then there would be an annual resultant shortfall of £40m that must be addressed.

“If this is not determined collectively, for my department this could potentially have stark consequences for the future funding of universities.”

Story so far

In an interview in yesterday’s Belfast Telegraph, Minister Stephen Farry said he believed any rise in tuition fees was unlikely as the proposal would not gain MLAs’ support. A consultation on proposals for tuition fees ended yesterday. But he also warned that without a rise he would have a £160m hole in his budget and warned of “catastrophic consequences” for his department.

A rare show of Stormont unity against hike in university costs

What the parties say about charges and the £40m annual black hole in DEL’s budget that will arise if fees do not increase to £4,500 in 2012

DUP

Thomas Buchanan, deputy chair committee for employment and learning, said: “We are opposed to a rise in student fees. It is the minister’s responsibility to bring his concerns before the Executive but I have no doubt the Executive will not be found wanting. I do believe there will be an outcome that will bridge this gap.

ALLIANCE

Chris Lyttle, member of the committee for employment and learning, said: “We are against any unfair rise in tuition fees. I recognise the difficult financial position all ministers find themselves in (but) if the Executive is serious about prioritising investment in higher and further education (it) has to fund that sector.”

TUV

Jim Allister, member of the committee for employment and learning, said: “They should be pegged where they are for Northern Ireland students. I want to create an incentive to make students stay here so they will make a contribution to the Northern Ireland economy. I believe it should be a collective funding.”

UUP

Basil McCrea, chairperson of the committee for employment and learning, said: “We are in favour of not increasing fees. You cannot expect universities to bear the brunt of the funding gap. I’m supportive of additional funding and will be making a strong case for DEL to get a substantial portion of money from in-year monitoring.”

SDLP

Pat Ramsey, party spokesperson on employment and learning, said: “We are very clear on our opposition to any increase in tuition fees. We do not want to be an Assembly remembered for closing university campuses. The economy is clearly the number one priority and we have to match that with appropriate funding.”

SINN FEIN

Barry McElduff, party spokesperson on employment and learning, said: “Sinn Fein remain committed to opposing any rise in student fees. The department was allocated an additional £50.6m. It is up to the minister to ensure his spending plan does not include the lifting of the cap on student fees.”

A poisoned chalice of a portfolio

By Lindsay Fergus

Minister Stephen Farry is caught between a rock and a hard place on the controversial issue of university tuition fees.

It’s little wonder the other parties avoided picking the Department of Employment and Learning when whoever was landed with the poison chalice faced immediate tough decisions on fees, funding shortfalls and ever-rising unemployment.

With public consultation over, Dr Farry has the task of putting proposals to the Assembly within weeks. But therein lies the problem, as even if he tables a fees increase, every party is opposed to such a move and so it is unlikely to win support.

That means Dr Farry is left with a £40m annual shortfall.

The likelihood is the onus will fall on Stormont to agree — like water charges — this is a wider economic issue, and then one option is DEL receiving additional funding from the Department of Finance and Personnel.

And our politicians may have to admit that increasing fees to £4,500 may be a price worth paying to ensure our universities remain world class institutions.

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