Northern Ireland

Farry says student fees decision needed this month

The employment and learning minister has said he hopes the executive can resolve the issue of university tuition fees by the end of this month.

Stephen Farry said school leavers and universities needed "clarity" in the "very near future".

He tabled a paper for Thursday's executive meeting suggesting a number of options on fees, but it was not discussed.

One of the options was to cap fees at £3,200 a year plus inflation.

That is just over a third of what English universities can charge.

However, Mr Farry warned: "Let's not kid ourselves if that is the route we go then there will be consequences for other budgets."

Mr Farry said setting tuition fee levels was not solely his decision, but a collective one for the executive.

He called for "full engagement" by all the parties and said it was important to have a decision "during July".


The next executive meeting is not scheduled until September, but the minister said: "There are mechanisms by which decisions can be taken outside the context of formal executive meetings.

"Discussions will happen over the next few days and we will see where those lead to."

The outstanding disagreements concern how a projected £40m shortfall should be plugged, with the possibility of other department's budgets being "top sliced" so each makes a contribution.

Earlier, the head of the University of Ulster said fees should be kept as low as possible, but the executive should fund the shortfall not universities.

Provost, Professor Deirdre Heenan said: "We have always made it clear that we believe student fees should be kept as low as possible.

"In this context, we believe that the NI Executive should agree that funding the £40m shortfall would be necessary, appropriate and a priority."

Professor Heenan said under a devolved government, rebuilding the local economy was a top priority and that meant a skilled and educated workforce.

Universities also ensure a level of research and learning which makes NI globally competitive, she said.

Image caption It's thought student fees will be capped

"We do not want to deny young people educational opportunities," she said.

Professor Heenan said the cap on the number of full-time students in Northern Ireland should also be relaxed.

Northern Ireland is the last part of the UK to make a decision on fees.

In June, the heads of NI's two universities warned higher education budget cuts would be "catastrophic".

During the assembly election campaign the DUP, Sinn Fein and the SDLP all opposed any increase in the fees.

Although Mr Farry's paper canvassed a number of options, it is thought that a cap of about £3,200 plus inflation would have been the mostly likely to be put in place.

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