Several hundred students rallied to protest against proposals to abolish the cap on higher education tuition fees yesterday.
The demonstration at Queen’s University in Belfast followed a meeting of the students' union general assembly in Mandela Hall.
Students gathered to oppose unlimited fee proposals and to call on Northern Ireland politicians to recognise the voice of the student community before any decisions were made at the Assembly and before MPs voted in Westminster.
Fees for students studying at universities in Northern Ireland currently stand at £3,290 per year, but the proposals could see some leading English universities charging undergraduates more than £6,000 a year.
Lord Browne views the proposals on university funding as “progressive”, but the National Union of Students says graduates would be landed with “crippling debt”.
Gareth McGreevy, president of the Student Union at Queen’s, said Northern Ireland politicians’ vote on this issue would influence who students supported at local, assembly and Westminster elections.
“Politicians need to know that students care — that they can't simply be kicked around. Putting debt at the heart of higher education in Northern Ireland is not the way forward,” he said.
“Joanne Stuart’s independent review in Northern Ireland found the cap should be kept, but Reg Empey has asked her to revisit her review in light of Browne. We find that completely unacceptable.
“We are not going to be mortgaging our future here in Northern Ireland. My current student debt is £21,000. If that was doubled, or indeed with universities being able to charge whatever they like, students will be coming out of university with £50,000 of student debt and no job.
“With the comprehensive spending review cuts in higher education in Northern Ireland, it’s practically going to be the students subsidising the cuts that are coming from universities.
“People will be put off applying for higher education courses. We should be widening participation, not detracting from it.”
Cars honked their horns in support of the crowd as they chanted: “Down with Browne”, “No More Debt” and “Keep the Cap”.
The students’ position was also backed by several politicians.
SDLP MP Margaret Ritchie said: “We have a motion down for debate on November 1 and we are saying quite clearly there must be no increase.
“The issue is that students are given the freedom to have the ability to learn. It’s not about the ability to pay.”
Alliance MLA Chris Lyttle said: “Alliance want to see ongoing public investment in our higher education to ensure our young people have access to higher education and we continue to have wider participation in society.”
A spokesman for the Department for Employment and Learning said: “The Browne and Stuart Reports have made a series of recommendations. It must be remembered that no decisions have yet been taken.”