| 26.1°C Belfast

Balancing education budget shouldn't penalise the poor

Education has always been highly valued here. We are justifiably proud of the strong academic performance of our young people. But while there has been much to celebrate across all sectors, educators have been acutely aware of the barriers those from low-income backgrounds face in trying to fulfil their academic potential.

Now politicians and the public are confronted with a report - the revised Stuart Review of Tuition Fees - whose impact, if it were to be adopted, could put higher education beyond the reach of a new generation of students and leave those who go to university saddled with long-term debt.

Northern Ireland, of course, is not alone in focusing on the important role education can play in social mobility. China and India are investing heavily in educating their children earlier and longer.

By contrast, the UK Government has savagely cut back investment in the teaching grants to higher education institutions and, on the back of a report last October by Lord Browne of Madingley, has chosen to penalise those from poorer backgrounds by shifting the responsibility for funding away from the state to students and their families.

It would appear that Northern Ireland, while not going the whole hog, is likely to follow the English path opposed by our MPs at Westminster.

While tuition fees are unlikely to reach the £9,000 level Cambridge and other Russell Group universities are eager to charge students, the revised Stuart Report holds out the possibility that fees in Northern Ireland will rise from £3,300 to somewhere between £5,000 and £5,750.

Coming from a university with a strong record in widening access to higher education, my colleagues and I have a very real fear that this will deter people from poorer backgrounds entering higher education.

Daily Headlines & Evening Telegraph Newsletter

Receive today's headlines directly to your inbox every morning and evening, with our free daily newsletter.

This field is required

Let us be clear. The rise in fees will not mean additional cash for universities. It will not mean investment in enhanced services for students, nor will it result in additional funds for research and development. It will simply plug a £40m hole in the budget the Executive allocated to Danny Kennedy's Department for Employment and Learning (DEL).

Those who, like us, say fees should not increase need to say how this will be funded because it is not clear, as things stand, that there is sufficient money in the DEL budget to make up the shortfall.

It is, of course, appropriate in these challenging times that universities make efficiency savings.

However, it is incumbent on the Assembly to examine whether the cuts being demanded of our universities will hamper the delivery of the Executive's stated aim in the Programme for Government of growing the Northern Ireland economy. Northern Ireland already has the smallest higher education sector per head of population of all the UK regions and it is clear, with higher fees in England and elsewhere, that more students will look to study at universities closer to home.

Ministers and MLAs must, therefore, ask themselves whether the current cap, which limits the number of full-time student places in Northern Ireland, is in the best interests of those students and the universities themselves.

Approval by the Executive of the University of Ulster and DEL's bid for extra full-time students at our Magee campus would go some way towards addressing the inevitable increase in demand for places.

While our MLAs face a challenging task in balancing the Budget, it is vital that those savings do not penalise the most vulnerable in society - nor restrict our ability to compete in the global economy.

Top Videos