The Chancellor of the University of Ulster has warned that the Assembly needs to make a decision on tuition fees quickly for the sake of local students seeking a place in third level education.
Yesterday Further Education Minister Danny Kennedy recommended that university tuition fees in Northern Ireland should be doubled to almost £6,000 a year.
But no final decision will be taken before the May election, and instead Mr Kennedy has launched a public consultation document on student finance arrangements. He told the Assembly he had been handed five options ranging from total abolition of fees to charging students £9,000 a year, in line with England and Wales.
Fees are currently capped at £3,290. However, Mr Kennedy told Stormont new ways of financing higher education were needed and backed raising fees to between £5,000 and £5,750, while also making grant aid available to greater numbers of students.
The Ulster Unionist minister said the final decision would fall to politicians after the Assembly elections on May 5, but he appealed for parties to hold a mature debate on the controversial issue.
But University of Ulster vice-Chancellor Professor Richard Barnett said it was important that a decision was made sooner rather than later.
Professor Barnett said: “It is vital that a decision is made by mid summer, otherwise students wishing to attend Northern Ireland universities in 2012 may be denied access to loans by the Student Loans Company.”
Mr Kennedy’s consultation document has indicated that the recommended hike would generate an additional fee income of at least £40m, depending on where the cap is struck.
Sinn Fein has already said it will block a fees hike at the Executive, while other parties have echoed its concern that higher fees may deter students from deprived backgrounds.
The minister told the Assembly: “It is widely acknowledged, and I am well aware, that tuition fees are a contentious issue.
“I would like to stress that it is very important not to consider the level of fee in isolation, but also to recognise all of the elements of the student support package, including maintenance grants, loans and the repayment arrangements.
“I make no apology for reiterating that the underlying principle in bringing forward options in this consultation is that access to higher education is based on the ability to learn, not the ability to pay.
“Should, following this consultation, the new mandate of the Assembly decide that tuition fees should increase, then I believe that the whole area of repayment is a critical one, which we really need to make sure that students, their families and others fully understand.”
“Students do not need to pay up front to participate in higher education and I intend to ensure that this continues.”
The public consultation period runs from March 15 to June 10.