An investment in province's future
The decision by the new Employment and Learning Minister, Stephen Farry, to rule out a rise in tuition fees at Northern Ireland's two universities is obviously welcome news for students planning to go on to third level education. As a newspaper we have been sceptical about the proposal to raise fees from the current level of £3,290 to £4,500 in September next year. In England fees are set to go up to £9,000 at some universities. That, in our view, would deter many students - especially those from middle-income families - from going to university.
However Dr Farry's decision could have serious financial consequences for Queen's University and the University of Ulster, whose vice-chancellors warned in this newspaper on Wednesday that they will be left with a £40m 'black hole' in their budgets if fees do not rise and the shortfall is not met in some other way by the Executive.
Their concern must be taken seriously. The universities are major drivers in the local economy, providing the sort of skilled graduates needed to attract high-end jobs to the province, and also conducting a significant proportion of the province's research and development activity. Some of the most successful high-value companies operating in the province have been spun out from the universities' research.
The Executive now faces a number of choices. It could be argued that a modest rise in tuition fees is viable without deterring future students. However most, if not all, of the parties have previously set their face against an increase, making a U-turn unlikely. Students from outside the province could be charged more but that could simply stop them coming here. The most obvious option is that the Executive collectively finds the money needed to meet the budget requirements.
In the great scale of public expenditure it is not a huge sum to find and it can be regarded as an investment in the future economic well-being of the province. We need to ensure that our world-class universities continue to provide talented graduates who can be at the forefront of the drive to rebalance the economy and make Northern Ireland an attractive destination for foreign investors.