Belfast Telegraph

Editor's Viewpoint: Clumsy fees move exposes Stormont

The headline news is good for Northern Ireland's higher education sector and students after yesterday's Executive meeting which decided to freeze tuition fees until 2015, rising only in line with inflation.

That means students here will pay less in fees than other students from the province going to study in universities elsewhere in the UK. The higher education portion of the Department for Employment and Learning will also be ringfenced bringing much relief to the universities.

But that is the end of the good news for the decision to freeze fees means that there is a £40m black hole in DEL's budget, half of which the Minister will have to bear himself, the rest being found by top-slicing the budgets of some other departments. That inevitably means a reduction in services and training opportunities for young people and the unemployed. At a time when youth unemployment is running at record levels and there is an urgent need to reskill many of the jobless, this will be a big blow.

DEL Minister Stephen Farry must wonder if he has been the victim of something of a carve-up by the big parties. His budget is being severely trimmed to produce a popular decision and time will tell if it was the correct approach. What will he tell all those other people who are looking to the employment side of his function for hope for the future?

It was ironic that the fees' decision came late on the very day that Queen's University and the University of Ulster were holding their open days for new students, ensuring they were unable to tell them with certainty either what they would have to pay to attend or what courses could be provided.

It was a case of the Executive acting once again at the 11th hour - it is the last devolved administration in the UK to set fee levels - and another example of the dysfunctional nature of the power-sharing set-up.

It certainly needs to sharpen up its act.

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