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Sorry for the lecture, but Assembly must act

Northern Ireland politicians have to keep higher education open to all who want it

13.12.10. Picture by David Fitzgerald. Graduations yesterday from the University of Ulster in Jordanstown.
13.12.10. Picture by David Fitzgerald. Graduations yesterday from the University of Ulster in Jordanstown.

By Kathryn Torney and Claire McNeilly

The Belfast Telegraph is today calling on the Northern Ireland Executive not to increase tuition fees for our students.

Our ‘Stop Fees Hike’ campaign urges our politicians to find a way to avoid increasing the financial burden on our university students.

Northern Ireland remains the only devolved area of the UK with no agreed policy on tuition fees, leading to fears that students here are facing a large hike in charges which will prevent many from poorer backgrounds from being able to go to university.

The cap on fees currently stands at £3,290 a year but the Government recently gave the green light to universities in England to charge up to £9,000 a year.

In Scotland students pay no fees while the Welsh Assembly recently announced it would pay any increase for Welsh students, wherever in the UK they choose to study.

Now there are growing calls for the Executive to adopt a similar approach to protect our young people’s access to higher education.

Employment and Learning Minister Danny Kennedy has already said he will look at the Welsh system.

Representatives of the student movement and the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Ulster have already thrown their weight behind the Belfast Telegraph campaign, while a series of the best-known faces from Northern Ireland today speak out on why they are opposed to increases in tuition fees.

Professor Richard Barnett, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Ulster (right), said: “I applaud the Belfast Telegraph for recognising the gravity of the challenge.

“At the University of Ulster we believe that a university education should be available to everyone with the ability to benefit from it.

“Raising tuition fees to £9,000 — as is being done in England — will do nothing in terms of encouraging people from poorer backgrounds to come and benefit from higher education.”

Gareth McGreevy, Student President at Queen's University Students' Union, added: “This campaign is realistic and is something that the student movement has been calling for for some time.

“There are efficiency savings to be made within higher level education institutions and we also need a debate on how funding comes into our universities.

“Many local politicians have already told us that they are opposed to higher fees and the public at large also feels very passionate about this issue.”

The Belfast Telegraph understands that the plan is currently for fees in Northern Ireland to be capped at around £6,000 in the future, but it will be next year before a decision is taken.

Further |Education Minister Danny Kennedy confirmed he had spoken to the Welsh Minister for Education and his officials are in close contact with their Welsh counterparts to explore the details of the scheme adopted there.

“What is done in London and Cardiff undoubtedly holds lessons for us, but the point of devolution is to devise local solutions,” he said.

“Devolution is about local politicians facing up to difficult decisions.”

Belfast Telegraph editor Mike Gilson said: “The point about devolution is that a country can decide its own priorities.

“That is why we are joining the call for Stormont to think very hard before imposing English-style tuition fees.

“I am convinced the scale of the debt students will build up will act as a serious disincentive to many thousands of young people entering higher education.

“In Northern Ireland we have a pressing need for a young, intelligent, creative workforce if we are to begin the job of changing the make-up of our economy.

“For that to happen we need as many people as possible from all walks of life being given the chance to reach their potential through university education.

“There is a compelling case for our leaders to be bold and take a different path from London.”

The Alliance Party said that university education in Northern Ireland should not simply become “class and cash-driven”, and its employment and learning spokesman Chris Lyttle MLA also praised the Welsh Assembly’s recent decision.

Mr Lyttle said: “It is good to see one of the devolved institutions thinking outside of the box on this very important issue.

“We also need to find a solution that ensures that our students are not burdened with massive debts which will put them off going to university and hurt our economy in the long-term.’’

Sinn Fein MLA Sue Ramsey said the announcement by Danny Kennedy that he would look at the Welsh system shows a willingness to assist students, but more must be done.

She said: “I am glad to hear today, though, that the minister is at the very least exploring a similar move to that of the Welsh Assembly in freezing fees for students.

“However,” she went on, “it is worth remembering that the Stuart Review, which was commissioned by his department, recommended that fees should not be increased here.”

Belfast Telegraph


From Belfast Telegraph