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Angry students take protest on tuition fees hike to Stormont

By Lesley-Anne Henry

Around 100 university students have staged a protest on the steps of Stormont to oppose controversial plans to increase tuition fees.

The rally, which included students from all the campuses across Northern Ireland, took place yesterday afternoon as a petition with 10,000 signatures against earlier student loan payments was handed to the Assembly.

The proposal to scrap the current £3,290 cap was put forward in Lord Browne's review of higher education funding in England and prompted then-Stormont Employment and Learning Minister Sir Reg Empey to order a review of the Stuart Report, that previously advised the local cap be retained.

“Our message is that it won’t happen in our name,” said Gareth McGreevy, president of Queen’s University Students’ Union.

“The student movement in Northern Ireland isn’t going to sit back and watch our futures be mortgaged.

“We have the highest level of graduate unemployment here in the UK.

“If we are going to charge our students more, then the department need to look in on this review and really look at the graduate employment in Northern Ireland and look at it in a holistic picture.”

Among those taking part in the picket was Aislin Cowen, from the University of Ulster’s Coleraine campus, who will finish her course next year with £20,000 of debt.

She said the fees issue was one that affected everyone. “I suppose the way you have got to look at it is that this is not just students — it’s their families, it’s everybody who is connected,” she said.

“I am in my final year but my little sister would dream of going to university, and if this is going to be the case she could be coming out with £40,000 or £50,000 of debt. It’s just not viable.”

QUB geography student Erin Rooney said: “By the time a student gets out of university they’ll have about £24,000 of debt.

“Most people wouldn’t want that amount of debt to start off in the working world. ”

Meanwhile, SDLP MLA Pat Ramsey presented to the Assembly a petition with 10,000 signatures opposed to plans that could see university students paying their loans back earlier and at higher rate of interest.

“On May 14, 2010 the Russell Group presented proposals in relation to student loans across Britain,” he told Members.

“There was a campaign that was launched at that particular time in opposition to it and particularly in opposition to graduates being asked to start repaying their student loans earlier and at a much higher interest rate.”

The MLA added: “We need to ensure that access to education is open to everyone.”

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