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No plans to raise student tuition fees in Northern Ireland, civil servant reveals

By Rebecca Black

A senior civil servant has confirmed there will be no increases in tuition fees during the interim period for 2017/18.

Andrew McCormick made the pledge in a letter - seen by this newspaper - to student campaigner Gary Spedding.

Northern Ireland's purse-strings are currently being controlled by a top civil servant because a budget for the 2017/18 financial year had not been agreed by the Executive before the Assembly collapsed earlier this year.

Last month David Sterling, permanent secretary at the Department of Finance, took control of the Stormont budget during the interim period while talks continue between the parties.

Under Section 59 of the Northern Ireland Act, Mr Sterling will be in charge of allocating funding to departments until a new budget is in place.

Mr Spedding wrote to Mr McCormick, as permanent secretary at the Department for the Economy - which looks after higher education - to ask whether there were any plans to increase student fees.

Mr McCormick wrote back to say his department had no plans to change policy.

"It is for the Department for the Economy to ensure that key public services are maintained until such time as a Minister for the Economy is in place to make decisions in regard to the department's budget", he wrote.

"In the absence of a minister and a confirmed budget, the department is not, at this time, planning to deviate significantly from policy positions of previous ministers.

"This position will of course be subject to review, depending on the views of an incoming minister, or further confirmation of the department's 2017/18 budget."

He also confirmed that, as has been the position since 2012, the maximum tuition fee for Northern Ireland and European Union domiciles studying at local higher education institutions will remain static, subject only to inflationary increases up to the 2017/18 academic year. Mr McCormick additionally said the postgraduate loan scheme will also be available for eligible students.

Mr Spedding welcomed the letter, describing it as "very significant" for students who are deciding whether to enter the higher education sector for study this September.

"I'm certain that the student movement in Northern Ireland will continue to monitor the situation closely as it develops and ensure that commitments made in this letter and other correspondence are upheld by government departments at this time of political instability," he told the Belfast Telegraph.

Fees for Northern Ireland students studying at local institutions are currently £3,925. Fees are up to £9,000 to study in England, Scotland or Wales.

However, both Queen's University and Ulster University say they need more funding. Former Employment and Learning Minister Stephen Farry said last summer that he hoped the Executive would find extra resources to fund universities.

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