Fees freeze crucial to transforming economy
Universities here must attract the best undergraduates worldwide while retaining enough places for local students, says Stephen Farry
Devolution is about giving the people of Northern Ireland, through the Executive and the Assembly, the opportunity to do things differently in line with the particular social and economic circumstances of this region.
The decisions to freeze tuition fees for Northern Ireland-based students in local universities and to otherwise sustain the agreed levels of funding for higher education should be considered in this regard.
The number one priority for the Executive is to grow and transform our local economy. A large element of the productivity gap between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK and indeed, other international competitors can be traced to our skills deficits.
There is an urgent need to upskill our workforce and this includes providing a critical mass of skilled graduates - particularly in economically relevant subjects.
It is also worth stressing the important function that the local universities play in terms of research and development. Compared with other regions, Northern Ireland is disproportionately dependent on the higher education sector.
I want to ensure access to university is not determined by the ability to pay and that we can continue to ensure the participation in higher education of students from all backgrounds. We cannot afford to lose out on undeveloped talent.
An increase in tuition fees for our students was a viable option. It would have enabled a greater independent source of funding for local universities, as is now the case in other parts of the UK. However, such a move may have jeopardised the access agenda.
Instead, there has emerged a consensus across political parties and the community that we would prefer to keep our tuition fees low. Doing so, however, did create a significant gap in my department's budget of £40m per year from 2014/15 onwards.
It was only when the Executive and my department could agree a sustainable funding package to address this deficit that we could confirm the future levels of tuition fees.
This can now be done with careful management and efficiency in my own budget without compromising other frontline services, such as further education and the Employment Service. That said, with any decision to freeze fees, and the resultant reality of differential levels of fees in different parts of the UK, comes a greater risk of distortions in student flows.
Considerable attention has fallen on the proposal to enable local universities to charge higher fees for students coming from other parts of the United Kingdom.
I want to have a diverse student population in Northern Ireland and to attract more students from other parts of these islands and, indeed, internationally. However, I want people to come here for the right reasons based on the quality of the educational experience - not because it is viewed as a cheap option.
We also have to ensure that we retain a critical mass of places for local students. To take no action in this regard risks the local market being flooded by students from Great Britain, resulting in local students being displaced, with some having to go to elsewhere and facing higher fees with the associated risk that they do not return, their talents lost to the local economy, and those from disadvantaged backgrounds squeezed out.
This higher education package is a good result for the Executive and the Assembly. It is the clearest demonstration since the recent election that the institutions can work successfully for local people and the future economy.