Angry MLAs have again vowed to oppose increased university fees after a revised independent report overturned its initial conclusion that they should stay at current levels.
The original study just five months ago recommended no change, but an updated version yesterday would raise the current fee cap of £3,290 to a maximum of £5,750 — a hike of almost £2,500.
The delayed review by Institute of Directors chair Joanne Stuart said there is no support in Northern Ireland for the UK Government’s effective shift from public to mainly private funding of higher education.
But following the coalition Budget, she argued maintaining the status quo is no longer an option because that would leave the Department for Employment and Learning with an annual shortfall of between £40m to £65m.
Dolores Kelly, chair of the Assembly committee which monitors the department, said there were “startling differentials” from the original report which based its findings on the levels of social deprivation and lower income thresholds here.
“We are keen to know what has changed for such a leap to be made on tuition fees,” she said.
Sinn Fein MLA Sue Ramsey said the question was why an independent study which stated there would be no increase in student fees had been overturned.
Employment and Learning Minister Danny Kennedy told MLAs that while they are “an important element of a process”, Ms Stuart’s recommendations were not necessarily “what will happen to the funding of higher education”.
Urging MLAs to avoid “cheap electioneering”, he said he hopes to develop a “made in Northern Ireland” model which will maintain access levels and the province’s record participation rate for students from socially disadvantaged backgrounds.
But the Ulster Unionist minister also emphasised: “No student, no family will be required to pay fees upfront. This is part of my determination to ensure that access to university is on the ability to learn, not the ability to pay.”
The proposals will now go to the Executive before a consultation paper is drawn up, but a final decision on fees will now rest with the next Assembly.
Sinn Fein and SDLP Members yesterday urged Mr Kennedy to ensure he will include a “no increase” or “fees freeze” option in the consultation document.
In an impassioned plea, the SDLP’s Conall McDevitt urged the minister to get the whole issue “off the agenda” by making clear he is opposed to any fees increase.
Mr Kennedy said: “There is no deliberate intention on my behalf to raise student fees, but against that I am responsible as minister.”
But he also accused Sinn Fein Agriculture Minister Michelle Gildernew of “electioneering” and “an attempt to gain cheap advantage” after she did not apply the inflationary increase to the budgets of agriculture colleges — for the first time in four years.