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Minister: tuition fees hike unlikely

Tuition fees rise is ruled out by minister

By Lindsay Fergus

Students in Northern Ireland are set to avoid a rise in university tuition fees, the Employment and Learning Minister has claimed.

But Dr Stephen Farry has warned his Executive colleagues that deciding against a fees increase means a £40m recurring black hole will be left in the Department of Employment and Learning's (DEL) budget.

He said this shortfall could have "catastrophic consequences" for the future funding of further education.

The department's current spending plan is based on the premise that tuition fees in Northern Ireland would rise from the current £3,290 to £4,500 in September 2012.

But in an interview with the Belfast Telegraph, the minister said he believes that the increase is unlikely to gain Assembly support.

He said: "The choices are that if we do indeed go for a level of fees in Northern Ireland at around £4,500 per annum, I suspect that will not find support and I am certainly very wary of it myself.

"I am very minded that a lot of our parties, including our own in the Alliance Party, are opposed to a rise in tuition fees."

Dr Farry's comments come on the final day of the department's public consultation on tuition fees. A number of options have been put out for public consultation which include scrapping tuition fees, retaining them at £3,290, increasing them to £4,500, or hiking them to between £6,000 and £9,000 as in England and Wales.

There is further pressure on DEL's budget as the department subsidises 30p in every £1 of Northern Ireland students' loans, and with fees set to rise to £9,000 at some universities in England, there will be an increased financial burden.

Dr Farry added: "At present the department will support Northern Ireland residents going to study elsewhere in the UK, but now all of a sudden we are going to have the situation where the level of fees are going to rise to £9,000. Now that is not going to be sustainable because even though the loans are taken care of, we subsidise 30% of that."

The minister's officials will present an options paper addressing the shortfall to the Assembly before the summer recess. A decision on fees has to be made by September.

"I would like to think that my colleagues recognise that university funding including tuition fees is a cross-Executive issue and that we have to address the funding gap that has arisen," he said.

"Within that I am not abrogating responsibility for this issue and saying it's purely a collective issue. I recognise that as the Minister for Employment and Learning I have a duty to provide leadership and provide a sense of direction around the debate.

"But at the same time I think it is important to recognise that there are a number of choices available to my colleagues and I will be seeking to inform that debate. Options will include a jump in tuition fees, which every political party is against and is therefore unlikely to win the mandatory Assembly backing for a change in legislation and the Executive making additional funds available to DEL. There is also the choice of charging non-Northern Ireland students higher tuition fees as a fundraising mechanism, similar to Scotland.

The minister explained: "The alternative is that the Executive seek to fund the £40m gap that would arise in my budget on a collective basis on recognition that this is an economic issue.

"In terms of the universities specifically, our two universities are central to the development of the economy in Northern Ireland and both have strong reputations already and it's important that we not only consolidate that current position, but we also seek to expand upon it in coming years."

He added: "A lower rate of corporation tax would be an empty vessel if we are not investing at the same time in the economic drivers. There's no point in trying to attract companies into Northern Ireland from overseas and trying to encourage the fast development of our own local indigenous business if at the same time we do have the skilled workers, in particular skilled graduates, to take up the job opportunities."

Dr Farry has warned that the Executive cannot say no to tuition fees while refusing to make-up the shortfall in his budget without causing "catastrophic consequences".

And he made reference to last year's decision to defer the introduction of water charges, an issue for the Department for Regional Development but a financial burden borne by the Executive.

The minister said: "In the absence of any agreement around an increase in fees and or agreement on collective funding we are in a situation where that £40m has to be absorbed within the department, that brings quite serious, indeed catastrophic consequences for what we are seeking to do.

Asked if he meant the £40m would be passed onto the universities, he stated: "It may well come up as one of the options within the department."

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