Proposals to increase student tuition fees in Northern Ireland were forced through to fill a “black hole” in the public finances, it has been claimed.
Joanne Stuart denied she was pressurised by the Department for Employment and Learning into recommending increases in fees from about £3,000 to a maximum of £5,750 a year during a Stormont evidence session.
Her report calculated that if the status quo was maintained it would leave a shortfall of £40m to £65m a year.
SDLP Foyle MLA Pat Ramsey insisted her hand had been forced.
“It was a done deal and a fait accompli for yourselves and the department created a black hole and you were forced to fill that hole. The department forced your hand to go down this route,” he said.
Students would not be required to begin repaying the loans with a higher limit of up to £5,750 a year until they were earning £21,000 a year, added the report from Ms Stuart, chairwoman of the Institute of Directors in Northern Ireland.
More students would benefit from a maximum grant, which should be maintained at £3,475 to ensure participation of less well-off groups.
Maintaining the status quo was rejected as it would not address the deficit in higher education funding.
The review was ordered by the Department for Employment and Learning following changes to the student support system in England and Wales.
It said the department should adopt the UK Government's fee structure for students from outside Northern Ireland who study in the province, with a fee cap of £9,000. For most full-time undergraduates the fee cap could be between £5,000 and £5,750.
Ms Stuart disagreed with Mr Ramsey during an evidence session before the employment and learning committee at Stormont.
“I can assure you I was not pushed (by the department) in a particular direction. I did know what the draft Budget was,” she said. “The result I came up with was based on that, or what was my understanding of it.”
Ms Stuart updated her original report — Independent Review Of Variable Fees And Student |Finance Arrangements — on the request of former Employment Minister Sir Reg Empey.
Current minister Danny Kennedy will consider the report's recommendations.
Ms Stuart added around £65m needed to be saved.
“I believe I have put forward a fair and sustainable model that is for Northern Ireland and that is not just a repetition of what has happened in England and Wales,” she said.
She continued: “This has been considered and defined, a lot of work put in to understand the specifics in Northern Ireland.”
In England and Wales universities can charge £9,000 a year. Andrew Hamilton, deputy permanent secretary at the Department for Employment and Learning, said the return from a university education was generally better paid jobs.
He warned: “The more the taxpayer pays there is an issue where lower paid taxpayers are paying for the tertiary education of graduates who are going to be earning significantly more.”
He said savings in higher education funding were proportionate and asked where the extra money to keep tuition fees down was going to come from.