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Executive could face legal challenge over fees from GB students

By Lindsay Fergus

The Executive could face legal challenges from students in England, Scotland and Wales who will be charged up to £9,000 to study at Northern Ireland's universities, it has been warned.

The move revealed yesterday by Employment and Learning Minister Stephen Farry (below) means students from the rest of the UK could be paying £5,535 more for the same degree course compared to their Northern Ireland counterparts.

However, the move, which will require a change in legislation, will have to be rubberstamped by the Assembly's employment and learning committee.

Its chairman, Basil McCrea, has expressed concerns about the fees differential after a legal challenge was mounted following a similar move in Scotland.

The Scottish Executive faces a court battle over fees that some lawyers claim breach discrimination rules.

Mr McCrea said: "We are leaving ourselves open to an equity challenge. It is not fair that someone from Doncaster doing chemical engineering here pays up to £9,000, someone from Dundalk pays around £3,000, and someone from Dromore £3,000."

Both the University of Ulster and Queen's University have welcomed the news, which will allow them to raise additional revenue. Under the new fees system coming into operation next year whereby English universities will be charging an average of £8,600, it would mean by 2014/15 universities here would suffer 10% less investment in comparison.

The University of Ulster has revealed it is planning to charge GB students between £6,000 and £8,000 in tuition fees from September 2012. It is hoping to finalise the exact level of fees in the coming weeks but has indicated that library-based degrees such as arts and humanities will be around £6,000 while laboratory-based degrees such as science and engineering will be approximately £8,000. Queen's has yet to make a decision on its tuition fees structure but its pro-vice-chancellor Tony Gallagher confirmed it will also be implementing a sliding scale structure.

The deadline for Ucas applications for courses such as dentistry and medicine is October 15, so Queen's will need to have its fees for GB students finalised within the next four weeks.

Tuition fees for students from Northern Ireland and Europe, including those from the Republic, will be £3,465 next September. Mr Farry, who unveiled his plans to the Assembly yesterday, said: "This commitment to skills, research and development and a knowledge-based economy is a clear signal that Northern Ireland is open for business."

Professor Richard Barnett, vice-chancellor of the University of Ulster, said: "It is already difficult enough to get into university in Northern Ireland, because of the shortage of places - which is why we made the argument to expand full-time undergraduate numbers at our Magee campus by at least 1,000 over the next few years."

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Students attending universities here from 2012 will make different loan repayments depending on where they come from. Local and EU students, whose fees over three years will average £10,400, will repay when they earn above £15,795. English students, whose fees will be up to £27,000, will repay when they earn above £21,000. Scottish students, who are facing fees of up to £27,000, will have an earnings threshold of £15,000. Welsh students, who will also be charged up to £27,000, will however only be liable for around £10,400 in repayments as their government is meeting the cost of fees above £3,465.

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