The student movement in Northern Ireland has called for an urgent debate on university funding amid growing fears over the possible cost of a graduate tax.
Ciarnan Helferty, president of NUS-USI which represents 200,000 students throughout Ireland, was speaking after it emerged professionals could end up paying tens of thousands of pounds more for their degrees if the coalition Government introduces a graduate tax system.
Research by the University and College Union (UCU) found that nurses could be hit for around £36,000 over their career if a levy was set at 5% of total earnings, rather than £10,000 under the current tuition fee system.
Costs for secondary school teachers would rise to £46,000, while doctors would face a bill for more than £70,000.
When asked for a comment, a spokesperson said the Department for Employment and Learning had “no comment to make at this stage” on the proposal.
The spokesman added: “The Secretary of State himself has said that there is a long way to go on this debate. The department has always made clear the Browne review in England will need to be considered before any final decisions are taken in Northern Ireland.
“It is proposed that the public consultation on variable tuition fees and student support will take place this autumn although this is dependent on the timing of the Browne review. Any changes to legislation as a result of the consultation would be for academic year 2012-13 at the earliest.”
But Mr Helferty said: “We need to have a discussion now about how we are going to fund higher education in Northern Ireland in the short and medium term.
“This needs more than just a Government discussion document. NUS wants all of the options to be considered.
“We genuinely want to enter into open dialogue on this issue so are greatly saddened that during the biggest debate in higher education, the silence from the Department for Employment and Learning is deafening.
“We need more than just a holding statement from the department and would like to see the minister being more proactive.”