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MLA bids to block fees hike

An Ulster Unionist MLA will attempt to block plans to charge higher tuition fees to students from the rest of the UK coming to Northern Ireland.

Basil McCrea said the plan is neither fair nor equitable. But he is likely to see objections quashed.

Plans for how Employment and Learning Minister Stephen Farry proposes to operate the fees structure are due to be spelt out this week at the Stormont committee which monitors his department.

Under the scheme, due to come into operation from next year, fees for students from Northern Ireland are to be frozen at £3,500 while students from England, Scotland and Wales will be charged up to £9,000.

But the idea could be stymied if the committee unites against it at Tuesday's meeting, forcing the issue onto the floor of the Assembly. Unity is unlikely, however.

Mr McCrea, chairman of the all-party committee, said last night he hopes to persuade DUP and Sinn Fein MLAs to support him in opposing the move.

The Lagan Valley MLA argued: "On the one hand I will be asking Sinn Fein what they would think if it was the other way round and students from the Irish Republic were being forced to pay £9,000.

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"And to the DUP I will be saying it is totally discriminatory when the fact is we are using the taxes we get from the rest of the UK to subsidise our own students and then charging theirs more.

"I would also be warning that the other parties need not expect that there will not be a backlash about this from Westminster."

But Mr Farry said the introduction of differential fees for students in Great Britain had become "an inescapable responsibility for the Assembly".

"To do otherwise would risk a flood of applicants from GB-based students to local universities largely motivated by cost, effectively squeezing out local students from places. This would disproportionately impact on students from lower socio-economic groups forcing them out of Higher Education altogether or requiring them to seek places in GB at a much higher cost," said the Minister.

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