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Danny's Fees Dilemma

Mark Devenport | 14:18 UK time, Thursday, 25 November 2010

So far so good - we haven't had any equivalent of the disorder experienced across the water over student fees. At a briefing this lunchtime, the Employment and Learning Minister Danny Kennedy paid tribute to the way local students have conducted the debate on the issue (he attended a question and answer session at Queen's University last night). But of course the key difference is that so far the minister has yet to announce a decision on fees, so the students don't have anything concrete to which to respond.

The minister told us that he's asked Joanne Stuart to come back to him with a re-appraisal of the fees question by the end of the year. He then hopes to put proposals out to consultation early in the New Year.

He talks about three broad concerns - affordability (presumably both for students and the devolved government), retention of local students at local universities and preserving the status and reputation of our local universities.

The minister is waiting not just for Ms Stuart's paper, but also for some kind of progress in Stormont's budget discussions. After all there is little point in proposing a policy then finding out you have no resources to implement it. DEL officials say their equivalent department across the water has lost 80% of its university teaching funding. So if that cut is passed on in direct proportion it would be bad news for the minister and for the universities under his umbrella.

DEL are mounting a spirited defence of the universities, and of their other training roles, pointing out that Northern Ireland's ability to attract foreign direct investment is linked to our provision of a young suitably skilled workforce. For example, the recent deal under which the US bank Citi has expanded its operations here depended on guarantees that suitable university courses would be provided to train potential staff.

Nevertheless there are reasons to fear for DEL in any budget agreement. If a large element of health and justice are ringfenced, where will the Finance Minister Sammy Wilson look for savings except in other areas like higher education? And if the crucial political deal over the budget will have to be hammered out between the DUP and Sinn Fein, where will that leave departments headed by ministers, like Danny Kennedy, from other parties?

All of which could mean there's not much money in the pot when the minister has to resolve his dilemma over fees in the New Year.

P.S. During the course of the briefing, Mr Kennedy expanded on the obvious difference between himself and the DSD Minister Alex Atwood over the Conservative Liberal Democrat welfare reforms. In line with Conservative thinking, Mr Kennedy thinks there "must always be an incentive to work". Questioned about Alex Attwood's search for flexibility over the proposed housing benefits changes, the DEL minister added that he wasn't convinced exceptions would be possible without breaking the important principle of parity.

However when pushed further as to whether that was a principle which could never be broken, Mr Kennedy responded in jovial fashion by quoting Groucho Marx "those are my principles, and if you don't like them... well, I have others".

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