Empey to establish tuition fees group for long tem plan

University graduates on graduation day Effectively interest-free student loans may no longer be available

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Education and Learning Minister Sir Reg Empey said he will set up a group to consider the best way to fund university education in NI.

Sir Reg also asked for an update of a DEL commissioned report into tuition fees in light of Lord Browne's review.

The Browne review recommends there should be no limit on fees charged by universities.

The DEL report is understood to favour keeping the current fees and improving maintenance grants.

Speaking to the Assembly Sir Reg said it was "too early" to make a full statement on the Browne review.

Sir Reg is to set up a group of people interested in higher education to help develop future student finance policy in Northern Ireland. The first meeting will be held in November.

Unlimited fees

"The idea is to develop a long term strategic plans for students in Northern Ireland," he said.

The minister said at a time of grave economic difficulty, cheap words and easy promises from the Assembly would betray the responsibility to demonstrate real leadership.

Higher education and student support are devolved issues which mean their levels can be set locally.

However, the fees are collected by HMRC and taxation is not a devolved power, therefore it is likely any changes in England could be mirrored in Northern Ireland.

The Department of Employment and Learning (DEL) said it will have to consider the Browne review of higher education, which was published on Tuesday before it launches a public consultation on tuition fees.

In his report Lord Browne recommended that universities should no longer be restricted in how much they can charge in tuition fees.

The National Union of Students-Union of Students in Ireland (NUS-USI) said they reject both the content and sprit of the Browne Review.

NUS-USI President, Ciarnan Helferty said: "Lord Browne is dangerously out of touch with the pressures faced by students and their families.

"The NI Assembly government must categorically reject these proposals and recognize that higher fees would be a disaster for students and families," he said.

"Students simply will not tolerate local politicians loading an entire generation with additional debt to pay for others' mistakes."

Sir Reg said is to set up a group of people interested in higher education to help develop future student finance policy here in Northern Ireland.

The first meeting will be held in November. The minister says at a time of grave economic difficulty, cheap words and easy promises from the assembly would betray the responsibility to demonstrate real leadership.

UK TUITION FEES

  • England, Wales, Northern Ireland: Max £3,290 pa
  • Scotland: Free to Scottish and EU students, £1,820 pa to other UK (£2,895 for medicine)
  • Students from elsewhere in the EU pay the same as those locally
  • Students from outside the EU pay whatever the university charges

Instead it proposes a free market in fees - setting out models of charges up to £12,000 a year for a degree course.

However, Lord Browne's review makes clear that universities that charge more than £6,000 a year would lose a proportion of the fee to help cover the cost of student borrowing.

The report also suggests that only the least well-off graduates should continue to enjoy subsidised loans

Students would pay nothing up front and only begin repaying when their earnings reach £21,000 a year.

Lord Browne estimates that only 40 % of the top earners will pay back all the money the government has paid on their behalf.

Sir Reg has hinted that the financial crisis could affect any moves to be more generous to students.

"This is a devolved matter, we have to look at our own circumstances," Sir Reg said.

"The Executive has to prioritise resources and my department can only spend resources if we get them.

Students in Northern Ireland pay around £3,300 a year in tuition fees - that figure could double by 2012, and in the future students could face unlimited fees.

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