Belfast Telegraph

Editor's Viewpoint: Farry needs to give lead on college fees

The whole question of university fees is so complex that most people would need a degree in finance or economics to understand the details. In the very near future, however, the Northern Ireland Executive will be asked to make a firm decision on the way forward.

Their options for increasing the student numbers, laid out by the Minister Stephen Farry, are not simple.

According to an internal document obtained by this newspaper, they include an increase in fees, a requirement for the university sector to address the funding gap and a proposal that the Department of Education and Learning should provide the shortfall. Yet another suggestion is that the Executive itself should fund the additional resources needed. All these suggestions have their merits and demerits, but by setting out such a range of options, the Minister may end up confusing the issue.

It would appear that the Minister favours increased fees or, failing that, for the Executive to meet the overall increase in costs.

This is a time for action, and Mr Farry would do well to demonstrate firm leadership by arguing strongly for his first priority, rather than allowing a series of options to be given varying degrees of merit, with the result that the vacillation at Stormont could continue.

There is one area, however, where the Education Minister is correct. If he and his colleagues get it wrong, the outcome for the university sector in Northern Ireland could be catastrophic.

A major selling points for inward investment is the high quality of our graduates, and any diminution of standards due to a lack of support for universities would be counter-productive.

Mr Farry is also right to point out that this crisis could be turned into a positive opportunity to show what Stormont can deliver, but as the Minister most closely involved, he has a duty to give a strong lead to his colleagues.

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