It is “almost inevitable” that the cap on student fees in Northern Ireland will be increased, the new Employment and Learning Minister has warned.
Danny Kennedy, who replaced Sir Reg Empey as minister last month, was unable to predict how high annual fees could go here but stressed he felt university attendance should be based on “ability to learn, not ability to pay”.
The cap currently stands at £3,290 per year. The coalition Government has already decided that universities in England will be able to charge up to £9,000 a year in the near future.
The Belfast Telegraph understands that fees in Northern Ireland are more likely to be capped at around £6,000, but it will be next year before a decision is taken.
In an interview, Mr Kennedy warned that his Assembly colleagues will have to be involved in the fees decision.
“Ultimately, the Assembly will decide,” he said.
“I would caution some political parties and political representatives who seem to think that this burden will be one that Danny Kennedy as minister will solely carry. People need to be careful that they do not get themselves into a difficult political position.
“We have asked Joanne Stuart to undertake a review of her work (an independent review of fees in Northern Ireland) and we expect that to conclude around the end of the year. We will then put this out to public consultation early in the new year.
“I will then — in consultation with my officials — bring forward a paper to the Executive for consideration. The Assembly will have the final verdict.
“It seems to me almost inevitable that that cap will rise. I think most people understand that.”
He continued: “We need to ensure that we retain the status and world-class reputation of our two universities and we also want to attract the best students, who will in turn reinvigorate our economy.
“We are also proudly top of the league in UK in terms of participation rates of students from socially deprived backgrounds and we want to maintain our position there.”
The minister said he was heartened by the reaction of local students to the violent student protests over fees in London.
“They condemned the unlawful and illegal activity and the unacceptable scenes that we saw in the nation’s capital,” he said.
“I think that most reasonable people understand that actions like that almost destroy the credibility of the argument that most of the students are attempting to put forward.
“I met with the students here on the day that they arranged their protest at Stormont. I met them at my request, we had a good meeting and I indicated to them that we want them to be part of the consultation process and to be involved in looking at these serious issues.”
The minister also confirmed that the department’s ‘C’Mon Over’ campaign has been suspended as a result of the recession.
The high-level marketing campaign aimed to encourage skilled people to consider Northern Ireland as a place to live and work.
A Facebook page for the campaign has 2,000 ‘fans’, but the department’s work on the campaign has ceased since the start of the economic downturn.