Press Release

Better Way Forward Needed for Higher Education, says Committee

Session: 2011/2012

Date: Wednesday, 09 February 2011

Reference: E&L 10/10/11

Options for funding higher education must take account of local needs. That message emerged as the Northern Ireland Assembly Committee for Employment and Learning took evidence from Joanne Stuart whose report on the university tuition fees was published on Tuesday.

The report, which proposes that the Department for Employment and Learning increase higher education fees cap to a maximum of £5,750, was commissioned to take account of the Browne review into funding for higher education in Great Britain.

Chairperson of the Committee, Dolores Kelly MLA said: “We are deeply concerned about how these proposals might translate into lost opportunities for our young people. Increasing fees, even if they are not paid up front, could well deter our young people from applying to university. There is a fear of debt amongst people here – even if payment is postponed to some future point.

“Increasing the skills base in Northern Ireland is vital if we are to improve the economic prospects in our economy. We understand that the Stuart report is a response to the student fees issue that takes account of the deficit in the Department for Employment and Learning’s budget for the next four years. However, we believe that the proposed budget—which is still in draft—should be revisited.

“It is not good enough to spread the Department’s spending more thinly. The Committee believes that better targeting might allow for a more efficient allocation of funding and this could mitigate against higher fees. We ask that the Minister and the Executive to revisit this issue urgently.”

Notes to Editors:

Joanne Stuart’s updated review of variable fees and student finance was presented in a statement to the Assembly on Tuesday 8 th February by the Minister. Joanne’s original report was published in October 2010. Joanne undertook to update that original report in light of the outcomes of Lord Browne’s review of student fees and university finance in England and the comprehensive spending review (CSR) position in which the Department for Employment and Learning finds itself. In her original report, amongst a number of other findings, Joanne indicated that, at that time and based on the evidence available, she could see no compelling evidence that the introduction of variable student fees have impacted negatively on the numbers of young people applying to universities here, nor the range of socio-economic backgrounds from which they come.

In her updated report, Joanne has made some key recommendations:

  • The basic fee should be retained at its current level of £1,310 – this fee is generally applied in the Further Education colleges;
  • An increase in the fee cap to between £5,000 and £5,750 from the current cap of £3,290;
  • Alignment of the maintenance grant thresholds for household income levels to those in England and maintain the higher maximum of £3,475;
  • Increase the salary repayment threshold to £21,000 from £15,000 (to take effect from 2016); and
  • Adoption of the UK Government fee structure for non-NI domiciled students studying at NI HEIs* - basic fee level of £6,000 with a maximum fee cap of £9,000

(*HEIs = Higher Education Institutions)

The Committee Chairperson is Mrs Dolores Kelly MLA

Deputy Chairperson: Mr Jonathan Bell MLA

Committee members: 
Mr. Sydney Anderson MLA 
Mr. Paul Butler MLA 
Rev. Dr. Robert Coulter MLA 
Mr. Chris Lyttle MLA 
Mr. John McCallister MLA 
Mrs. Claire McGill MLA 
Ms. Sue Ramsey MLA 
Mr. Pat Ramsey MLA 
Mr. Peter Weir MLA

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