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Tuition fees: Executive hailed for 'doing right thing for Northern Ireland'

By Anne Madden

Northern Ireland's two universities have welcomed the announcement that tuition fees are to be frozen so they remain among the lowest in the UK.

They also congratulated the Executive on agreeing to meet the £40m funding gap for higher education in Northern Ireland.

The announcement came late yesterday afternoon as thousands of prospective students attended open days still unaware what a university education would cost them.

Higher Education Minister Stephen Farry said fees would rise only in line with inflation and that the budgets of universities would be protected.

The decision means fees will remain at around £3,500 per year.

Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness said that the £40m needed to freeze fees would be found by top-slicing money from several other departments.

Professor Alastair Adair, pro vice-chancellor of the University of Ulster, said he believed the Executive "has done the right thing".

"The University of Ulster very much welcomes this announcement by Dr Farry because it is in line with what the university argued for - that fees should be kept as low as possible," he said.

The professor said the university would examine the full details when Dr Farry gives a statement to the Assembly on Monday.

He described how there are two main issues still to be dealt with - whether or not the low fees will apply to students from other parts of the UK, and the issue of Northern Ireland having the lowest provision of higher education places in the UK.

"We need to know if the lower tuition fees will apply to students from England and, if so, it makes sense for them to apply for courses in Northern Ireland," Prof Adair explained.

"If that happens it will have a knock-on effect on demand for places here."

Queen's University pro-vice-chancellor Professor Tony Gallagher, who had described yesterday as "D-Day for higher education", was delighted with the announcement.

"This is good news for students, good news for parents and good news for Northern Ireland.

"And I welcome the commitment of our elected representatives to meet this challenge," he said.

"Their decision brings to an end the uncertainty facing prospective students.

"It also recognises the pivotal role of higher education as an economic driver in Northern Ireland, which underpins research and development.

"We must now all get back to the business of ensuring a sustainable and competitive sector where students, from all backgrounds, continue to have fair access to a local world-class higher education system."

Ulster Unionist Assembly Member Sandra Overend, who is a member of Stormont's employment and learning committee, welcomed the announcement.

"While many other universities across the United Kingdom will be charging, quite frankly, extortionate fees of up to £9,000, I am delighted that Northern Ireland's two universities will remain accessible to people from all social and economic backgrounds," she said.

However, she criticised the delay by DUP Finance Minister Sammy Wilson in making the money available.

She added: "Danny Kennedy, as DEL Minister, laid the foundation for this decision - however he was never even offered so much as a suggestion that this extra money was ever going to be made available.

"The question, therefore, arises, just where has this money come from?"

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