Crucial medical, dentistry and social work courses at Queen's University in Belfast could fall victim to government budget cuts, it has emerged.
Professor Peter Gregson, QUB's vice-chancellor, has revealed that discussions are ongoing between the Department of Health, Department for Employment and Learning and the university about whether they will be able to retain the current student numbers in these areas — as they include places funded by the Department of Health.
Prof Gregson has also given his opinion on the controversial Browne Report in an article written for the Belfast Telegraph today.
Lord Browne has proposed that the cap on tuition fees should be lifted which could see some leading English universities charging undergraduates more than £6,000 a year.
Fees for students studying at universities in Northern Ireland currently stand at £3,290 per year.
Employment and Learning Minister Reg Empey is setting up a stakeholder group to consider the implications of the Browne report for Northern Ireland.
A huge gulf has already opened up between Queen's and the University of Ulster after UU vice-chancellor Professor Richard Barnett said the Browne proposals would lead to the privatisation of universities in England.
Speaking on the BBC Radio Ulster's Talkback programme earlier this week, Prof Barnett said Browne's review marked a “disastrous day for higher education”.
And he branded the prestigious Russell Group of universities — of which Queen's is a member — “elitist”.
In an interview with the Belfast Telegraph, the head of Queen's would not be drawn on how high annual tuition fees could go in Northern Ireland but he did say that the money needed for investment in higher education will have to come from somewhere.
“There are some very substantial cuts being talked about,” Prof Gregson said.
“I need to make sure that we shoulder whatever share of the pain while also making sure that this is not to the long term detriment of Northern Ireland.
“It is not clear what a cut in medical student numbers now might do to the number of GPs and consultants available in seven years’ time.
“Any decisions taken in the future will need to be well thought through.”
The Russell Group has warned that unless they are allowed to set their own fees for undergraduate courses, they will lose their world-class reputations.
When asked if Queen’s would set their fees higher than £6,000 if this was given the go-ahead by the Assembly, Prof Gregson said: “It is far too early to predict that.
“There has been no discussion at Queen’s about the level that fees will go up to.
“We are trying to develop a sustainable route for the funding of higher education and student support.
“Under Browne, it is estimated that a graduate earning £25,000 a year will have to repay fees at just £7 a week,” he added.