Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 19 April 2014

Fees rise move 'to fill black hole'

Pat Ramsey

Proposals to increase student tuition fees in Northern Ireland were forced through to fill a "black hole" in the public finances, it was claimed.

Joanne Stuart denied she was pressurised by the Department for Employment and Learning into recommending increases in fees from about £3,000 to a maximum of £5,750 a year during a Stormont evidence session.

Her report calculated that if the status quo was maintained it would leave a shortfall of £40 million to £65 million a year.

But SDLP Foyle MLA Pat Ramsey insisted her hand had been forced.

"It was a done deal and a fait accompli for yourselves and the Department created a black hole and you were forced to fill that hole. The Department forced your hand to go down this route," he said.

Students would not be required to begin repaying the loans with a higher limit of up to £5,750 a year until they were earning £21,000 a year, added the report from Ms Stuart, chairwoman of the Institute of Directors in Northern Ireland.

The review was ordered by the Department for Employment and Learning following changes to the student support system in England and Wales.

It said the department should adopt the UK Government's fee structure for students from outside Northern Ireland who study in the province, with a fee cap of £9,000. For most full-time undergraduates the fee cap could be between £5,000 and £5,750.

Ms Stuart disagreed with Mr Ramsey during an evidence session before the Employment and Learning Committee at Stormont.

"I can assure you I was not pushed (by the department) in a particular direction. I did know what the draft budget was. The result I came up with was based on that or what was my understanding of it," she said.

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