Belfast Telegraph

Friday 22 August 2014

Brightest should not pay for political failure

Liam Clarke

You might have thought that the issue of student fees was settled and any increase would be limited to inflation, but you'd be wrong.

"The mood music would suggest that that is the likely outcome, but until it is done, I can't make any announcement," Stephen Farry, the Minister for Employment and Learning, told me.

It is not all Mr Farry's fault; the Executive set his final budget and will decide how the pain of the £40m-plus annual cost should be distributed between departments.

At the end of the last Assembly term, the big parties were briefing that it was in the bag, a nip here and a tuck there would see us home. Unfortunately, it hasn't happened yet.

Ministers have the power to defend their own budgets and have done so. The issue, like many others which involve painful choices, has been pushed down the pipe for another day.

In the case of student fees, that day can't be long delayed. Although any change won't come into effect until the 2012/2013 academic year, this needs to be settled early next month.

Universities are now getting their prospectus together. They need to specify what the fees will be for various classes of student.

If, as most of the parties have pledged, we intend to charge our own students the present fees plus inflation and soak students from other UK regions for the full £9,000 allowed by central Government, we need to make that choice now.

It is an idea borrowed from Scotland, where they have gone one step further and abolished fees for local students altogether.

There is a possible legal challenge to the Scottish system which could affect us - our ministers need to decide whether to risk this, or whether they would rather go back on their election pledges.

There are detailed decisions to be made. If we go ahead with the subsidy for local students, will we give it to those who study at other UK universities? Or just to those who study locally?

Without a firm budget, it is hard for Mr Farry to make that call. October is the deadline for applications to Oxford and Cambridge. Local students who hope to go to these elite - and expensive - institutions need to decide now if they can afford the fees.

These are the sort of hard choices that government is about. In most countries, politicians stand or fall on them.

In our present system of government, the price of failure is not so high; each can blame the other for the slowness of decision-making at the Executive.

The absence of an obvious political price can make inertia attractive, but our politicians must resist that temptation.

In the case of student fees, the price for further indecision will be paid by the brightest and best of our young people and our cherished academic institutions.

Yet this is just one of the challenges which must be met within the next few weeks.

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