Belfast Telegraph

What bright spark dreamt up the freeze on fees, then?

The freeze on tuition fees will be at the expense of traditional manual skills, argues Dawn Purvis

On September 12, 2011, the Minister for Employment and Learning, Stephen Farry, outlined his decision on higher education tuition fees and funding arrangements for students in Northern Ireland.

Tuition fees would be kept at current levels, he said, subject only to inflationary increases.

In a statement to the Assembly, Stephen Farry said: "The decisions I am announcing are a clear indication that the Executive is working for Northern Ireland - for our future students and graduates, for their families and for the wider economy.

"Furthermore, this commitment to skills... is a clear signal to potential investors and others that Northern Ireland is open for business."

Tuition fee loans would be available for any Northern Ireland student studying elsewhere in the UK, he added, and legislation would be brought forward to allow our universities and colleges to charge higher fees to students from other UK regions.

That aside, it came to me that there was another piece to the minister's announcement that passed me by and that I only picked up on recently.

According to the departmental press release, keeping the tuition fees low is likely to deter students from studying in other parts of the UK, therefore putting pressure on student numbers here.

So the department will "facilitate a modest increase in the number of student places . . . It is likely that any new places will only be in areas of economic relevance."

Very straightforward and rational thinking? A case of supply and demand? You would think so, but a closer look at what is happening may make you think again.

In their consultation paper, the Department for Employment and Learning (DEL) argues that: "On average, a university graduate earns £100,000 more during his, or her, lifetime than someone who leaves school at 18."

This suggests that graduates have much better employment prospects than non-graduates. This is true, although it may not be in a job best suited to their level of education and maybe often at the expense of the non-graduate.

This is because the jobs for many graduates simply do not exist. Universities in Northern Ireland produce 45% of graduates for at most 18% of jobs requiring graduate skills. This leaves a large number of graduates taking clerical, or menial, work better suited to non-graduates.

This was illustrated recently by the disclosure that many newly-qualified teachers cannot get teaching posts - yet the universities are still turning them out year after year after year.

This begs the question: what skills (and at what skill-level) are needed to meet the needs of the economy and help us compete in the labour market?

It is here I come back to Stephen Farry's announcement about an increase in the number of student places in areas of economic relevance.

Relative to other countries in Europe, particularly strong economies like Germany, the biggest gap in our skills-base is at technician, or associate professional level, and not graduate level.

This is noted in DEL's Regional Strategy for Widening Participation in Higher Education consultation. These are what I would call vocational qualifications.

The same document notes that this level of skills is essential to the future development of the economy. This form of higher education is delivered through further education colleges.

The department's Widening Participation strategy is 'about raising the aspirations and educational attainment of students from disadvantaged backgrounds and students with learning difficulties and disabilities who might not otherwise have considered [higher education] as an option . . . [it] is not about increasing the number of students on full-time degree level courses in Northern Ireland".

The biggest skills-gap in our economy, therefore, is at sub-degree level - ie those courses offered by further education colleges and mostly attended by those from the lower socio-economic groups.

So the department wants to increase the participation of these groups and not by increasing university places; the minister, meanwhile, announces an increase in university places in "areas of economic relevance", when it is not universities that offer the courses required to fill the biggest skills-gap.

All the while, a growing number of graduates cannot get a job suited to their level of education; and many graduates are in jobs at the expense of non-graduates, or those from further education colleges. Confused? I know the feeling.

You would imagine that the main aim of the Department for Employment and Learning was to join up the 'learning' with the 'employment'; to grow and match the skills of individuals to fill the gaps in the labour market and try to ensure that as many people as possible have work and a decent wage.

It would seem, in this instance, they cannot get their strategies to join up and the less well-off and further education colleges will bear the brunt of the freeze on tuition fees.

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