The University of Ulster’s vice chancellor has poured scorn on plans to hike student fees which he said would result in “the privatisation of higher education”.
Professor Richard Barnett also appeared to take a swipe at the Russell Group of universities — of which Queen’s University is a member — which advocates being able to increase and set their own student fees.
Professor Barnett delivered his damning verdict on Lord John Browne’s proposals for student finance reform before a high-powered delegation of MLAs on the Assembly’s Employment and Learning Committee, who were meeting at Magee.
Prof Barnett said: “What these fees proposals are about is the privatisation of higher education.
“That is what a small, self-appointed group of self-serving universities have been pushing for over a longer period, and they may now well be getting their way in England.
“They recruit largely from private schools and do little for widening access.
“The envisaged scale of increase in fees — to £7,000 and beyond — is not justified. Higher education is the responsibility of the Assembly, not of Whitehall.
“We have the opportunity to set our own agenda and serve the community as a whole and refuse to follow an elitist agenda.”
Prof Barnett pointed out during the meeting that the proposals under Browne would see grant aid to students reduced from its current 60% to 20%.
Meanwhile, students’ contributions to fees would double from 40% at present to 80%, while for many courses, students would be forced to cough up the full 100% of the costs.
Prof Barnett spoke out in Derry yesterday after the Russell Group warned that unless they are allowed to set their fees for undergraduate courses, they will lose their world-class reputations.
Queen’s vice chancellor Prof Peter Gregson said last week that the money needed for investment in higher education will have to come from somewhere.
“There are some very substantial cuts being talked about,” Prof Gregson said, adding: “We are trying to develop a sustainable route for the funding of higher education and student support.
“Under Browne, it is estimated that a graduate earning £25,000 a year will have to repay fees at just £7 a week,” he added.
Hundreds of students gathered at Queen’s this week to protest against the proposals to abolish the current cap on fees, with placards reading ‘Down With Browne’ and ‘Invest In Education, Not Debt’. Prof Barnett said ability, not income, should dictate who was awarded a place at university.