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Fees fears for poorer students

By Lindsay Fergus

More people from less-well-off homes are attending Northern Ireland’s universities than anywhere else in the UK.

New figures show more than a third (39.1%) studying here come from the lowest socio-economic classes — well above the UK average of 30% and the highest of any region.

But there are fears that the good work being done by the Department of Employment and Learning (DEL) and the province’s universities could be jeopardised by any increase in student fees.

Research from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) shows the University of Ulster admitted the highest level of students (45.1%) from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The figures for Queen’s University were 32.4%, 44.6% for St Mary’s and 30.3% for Stranmillis. Scotland came bottom in the UK with just 25.8% of students coming from deprived backgrounds.

University of Ulster vice-chancellor Professor Richard Barnett (right) said: “The principal aim of the University of Ulster is to work in partnership to promote the economic and social development of this region, and to do so in such a way that we also promote social inclusion.

“And it is because of our commitment to ensuring that access to higher education is based on ability to learn, not ability to pay, that I have a very real concern that a significant increase in student tuition fees in Northern Ireland would deter people from poorer backgrounds from going to university and making the most of their talents.

“Fortunately, it now seems that a political consensus is emerging — in line with our thinking here at Ulster — that fees should not increase substantially, if at all.

“The last thing any progressive society needs is a university system that ends up being the preserve of the privileged.” The province’s universities also topped the table by admitting the highest percentage of young first degree entrants from state schools. The Northern Ireland average was 99.2% compared to a UK average of 88.8%.

And St Mary’s University College in Belfast was the only establishment in all of the UK to have a 100% record of young first degree entrants coming from state schools.

Queen’s admitted 98.4% from a state school and Stranmillis 99.5% while the University of Ulster, which has four campuses, accepted 99.9%.

Renowned universities such as St Andrews in Scotland accepted just 59.4% of young first degree entrants with a state school education.

Sinn Fein’s higher education spokeswoman Sue Ramsey has also welcomed the HESA findings as “positive”.

The West Belfast candidate said: “The Department of Employment and Learning has been involved in this widening participation of universities for a number of years and it’s a step in the right direction.”

However, Ms Ramsey warned that any increase in tuition fees could undermine the good work being done in widening access to universities.

Background

Last month outgoing Ulster Unionist Employment and Learning Minister Danny Kennedy launched a 12-week public consultation on higher-education tuition fees and student finance arrangements.

Higher education tuition fees in Northern Ireland are currently capped at £3,290, but Mr Kennedy told Stormont that new ways of financing higher education needed to be found and backed raising fees to between £5,000 and £5,750 while also making grant aid available to greater numbers of students.

Fees at some universities in Britain have soared to £9,000 per year.

The National Union of Students has said: “The only things that students and their families could expect in return for higher fees are higher debts.”

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