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'Not the way to go' - Sinn Fein's Michelle O'Neill rules out hike in tuition fees

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Michelle O'Neill also questioned how much "new money" was going to Northern Ireland. Credit: BBC

Michelle O'Neill also questioned how much "new money" was going to Northern Ireland. Credit: BBC

Michelle O'Neill also questioned how much "new money" was going to Northern Ireland. Credit: BBC

Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill has said raising tuition fees in Northern Ireland is "not the way to go" to plug any shortfall in funding from the UK Government.

Her comments come just days after First Minister Arlene Foster stated there will have to be a "positive debate" on the issue.

Currently, students pay up to £4,275 a year to study in Northern Ireland, compared to up to £9,250 in England.

Last week, the UK Government announced it was committing an extra £1billion to Northern Ireland as a result of the New Decade, New Approach deal. This is in addition to £1bn that would have always been going to the region under Barnett consequentials.

This news was greeted with anger from the Stormont parties, who insisted the figure was significantly less than what was promised during negotiations. Secretary of State Julian Smith responded by suggesting the Executive needs to raise revenue in order to cover some of the commitments made in the deal.

Speaking on the BBC's Sunday Politics programme, Michelle O'Neill ruled out raising tuition fees.

"We shouldn't be trying to build up barriers to accessing education - we should be trying to break them down," she said.

"I think there are clearly financial challenges facing this Executive and we have to grapple with all of those things, but I don't think any conversation around raising tuition fees is a helpful conversation and it's not the right approach."

Ms O'Neill did, however, say that how universities in Northern Ireland are funded needs to be examined and government should work with them so they can be "creative and innovative" in attracting new funding streams.

"Those things will help grow our economy and help make education more affordable, that is something the new Executive should look at - but raising tuition fees is not the way to go," she said.

The Sinn Fein vice-president suggested raising taxation on the highest earners should be an option and said a commission would be set up by Finance Minister Conor Murphy to examine the tax powers of the Executive.

"We have big challenges ahead of us, the first step has to be the Treasury funding the deal the British government has put on the table," she said.

Ms O'Neill also claimed that, of the £2bn going to Northern Ireland, only around £750m over five years was "new money".

Last week, Julian Smith said Northern Ireland receives "20% more funding than any other part of the UK" and he was "disappointed" Northern Ireland parties had ruled out introducing water charges as a way of raising money.

"The Executive needs to look at its own revenue raising measures as well as coming to the UK Exchequer for cash," he added.

Finance Minister Conor Murphy hit back, releasing a briefing note that "sets out facts" of the proposed financial package. The note states the Executive's budget for 2019/20 is £530 million less than pre-austerity levels in 2010/11.

Ulster Unionist MLA Mike Nesbitt accused the Northern Ireland Office of being "disingenuous" during negotiation and claimed there had been discussions of the Executive receiving £6bn over three years as part of the deal.

Economist Esmond Birnie has suggested around £5bn is needed to get Northern Ireland back up and running.

Belfast Telegraph