Families across Northern Ireland are facing up to the costly possibility of a massive rise in university tuition fees.
Education and Learning Minister Sir Reg Empey yesterday announced a review of a recommendation that tuition fees in Northern Ireland should be kept at their current rate following the Browne report which suggested sweeping changes to the university funding system in England.
This means that young people planning to attend university in the region in the near future could be hit by a major hike in fees if the Minister adopts the controversial proposals put forward in England.
The Coalition Government plans to at least double annual tuition fees — from their current level of £3,290 to £6,000.
But in the meantime local parents, students and universities have been left in limbo while Joanne Stuart, chair of the Institute of Directors in Northern Ireland, updates the report she compiled earlier this year which recommended that the cap on fees should remain.
The Minister is establishing a stakeholder group to examine university finance in Northern Ireland and public consultation on the issue is due to get under way in February.
As well as removing the cap on fees, Lord Browne has also recommended that graduates should pay a higher rate of interest on loans. However, they would only begin repaying them when they reach annual earnings of over £21,000 a year, up from £15,000 under the current system.
Middle-class families, already reeling from child benefit cuts, are likely to be the hardest hit if the proposals are implemented here.
Parent Moira Murray (45) from Cookstown, whose daughter is at the University of Ulster, said: “I think it is going to get very tough with this review and these other cuts in benefits that they are talking about.
“It will end up only those who are financially well off will be able to go to university, which is just not fair.”
Dolores Kelly, SDLP MLA for Upper Bann, has helped two daughters through university and is hoping to send a third daughter through third-level education.
“I wouldn’t want to deny our third daughter the opportunity that our other children had,” she said.
“These recommendations will be just devastating for a whole generation of young people. It has the potential to create educational elitism.”
Addressing MLAs yesterday, Sir Reg (below left) warned that the assembly would soon face “difficult decisions” on the issue. But he said it was not “inevitable” that Lord Browne's proposals would apply.
“It is a devolved matter,” he said.
Joanne Stuart, who is now reviewing her original report into university funding in Northern Ireland, said: “I need to look at the detail of the Browne Report and what the impact would be for Northern Ireland.
When asked if it was likely that she would now recommend lifting the cap on fees here, she said: “At this point in time I really can’t say. I need to talk to the universities and the students first.
“It is really impossible to say what the outcome will be but we are not just going to take Browne and apply it to Northern Ireland.”