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Freeze on tuition fees will hit job services: warning

By Lindsay Fergus

The £20m hit to the Department of Employment and Learning's budget following the decision to freeze university tuition fees will have major repercussions on services it provides, the head of its scrutineer committee has warned.

As well as funding universities, DEL is also charged with further education, employment services and skills and training. Its Employment Service, which helps people get back to work, is already overstretched as the number of unemployed people now stands at 60,400 - its highest level in 14 years.

Basil McCrea, chairman of the employment and learning committee, said: "DEL was in difficulty having to find £7m but now it will have to find £20m, which will heap pressure on other services."

Employment and Learning Minister Stephen Farry admitted in June "that perhaps the most critical pressure we have at the moment is what is happening in terms of the Employment Service".

In an interview with the Belfast Telegraph he said the service has the budget and staffing to deal with 35,000 people but because of the level of unemployment it is dealing with 60,000. Mr Farry said: "It means a reduction in the level of interviews and support that can be given to people who are trying to return to work."

That would mean the demand for services will have more than doubled at a time when the minister is faced with having to make significant cuts.

Thursday's decision to freeze fees has been widely welcomed as it will mean students from here who opt to attend university in Northern Ireland will have the lowest fees in the UK.

Every year 4,000 students leave Northern Ireland to study elsewhere and it is hoped the move will incentivise students to stay in the province and stem the brain drain.

Story so far

The Department of Employment and Learning's budget was based on university tuition fees rising to £4,500. Following Thursday's Executive decision to freeze fees at £3,375 it leaves a £40m shortfall in DEL's finances.

The Executive has agreed to fund 50% of the black hole, leaving DEL to make up the difference, which is understood to be around £20m, through efficiency savings and cuts. More details will be revealed on Monday when Employment and Learning Minister Stephen Farry addresses the Assembly.

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