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Universities urge Stormont to fulfil promise on fees

By Lindsay Fergus

Northern Ireland's two main universities have made an eleventh hour plea to the Executive.

Both Queen's University and University of Ulster have appealed to ministers to make a decision on fees today as they get round the table for the first Executive meeting since the summer recess.

Tony Gallagher, Queen's pro vice-chancellor, said: "Decisions on the appropriate funding of higher education are urgently required if our universities are not to be damaged beyond repair."

University of Ulster vice-chancellor Richard Barnett said: "It's essential the Executive makes a decision today. Essential for all the young people in Northern Ireland - and their parents - who are preparing to make choices about higher education."

The call comes as thousands of prospective students descend on Queen's and the University of Ulster today for their open days.

Queen's open day runs from 9.30am-2pm, meaning it cannot inform would-be students of the level of fees as the Executive is not due to meet until 2.30pm.

Adam McGibbon, vice president of Queen's Students' Union, said: "School students are coming to Queen's today with no idea about funding arrangements for next year - or whether some of the courses that they're coming to study will be cut or not."

Just two months ago First Minister Peter Robinson spoke of the importance of retaining world-class universities for the benefit of local students and how it was critical for the Executive to find a solution to the funding crisis.

"Today we look to Mr Robinson and his colleagues around the Executive table to fulfil that promise," said Prof Gallagher.

It is believed tuition fees will rise only in line with inflation. The majority of parties made pledges to freeze them at around £3,290. That decision would, however, create a £40m black hole in the Department of Employment and Learning's budget, which was based on fees rising to £4,500.

It is unclear whether the shortfall will be made up by Executive departments making further cuts, DEL axing some of its services or the higher education sector having to make additional savings.

Sources have told the Belfast Telegraph that tuition fees are on today's Executive agenda, however the Office of the First and Deputy First Minister refused to confirm what is up for discussion, saying it was "confidential".

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