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Editor's Viewpoint: Government must tread softly on tuition fees

Published 13/10/2010

Once again Northern Ireland finds itself behind the gain line on a major policy issue.

Lord Browne's blueprint allowing universities in England to charge whatever level of tuition fees they like - a recommendation likely to be introduced here if accepted by the Westminster government - was unveiled on the day that a report was published here recommending fees should stay at their present level.

Now, higher education minister Sir Reg Empey is to ask the author of the report, Joanne Stuart of the Institute of Directors, to look again at her recommendations in light of Lord Browne's suggestions. But that review will not be sent out for consultation until February and there is likely to be only limited support for removing the cap on fees from Stormont ministers with local government and Assembly elections looming next year. Sir Reg should find a way of speeding up the review process given the concern of parents, potential university students and the universities.

Lord Browne's proposals are not guaranteed to gain acceptance at Westminster and there is bound to be an outcry from the middle-classes. For it is those parents and children who will bear the brunt of this massive shake-up in how third-level education is funded. The poorest families will be protected and the rich can afford the new fees whatever level they are set at.

Essentially the proposals will lumber the next generation with the debts created by this generation. For the shake-up in funding is in part due to the huge national deficit at the moment which means that state funding of universities will be slashed. Removing the cap on fees is one way of making up some of the shortfall.

The proposals also put social mobility at risk with many potential students being deterred from going to university and then being saddled with huge debts after they graduate. People who could make a big contribution to society in the future will therefore not be equipped with the skills they need. This issue could be a defining moment for the Westminster coalition government.

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