Northern Ireland

Arlene Foster: Raising tuition fees issue needs 'positive debate'

Arlene Foster Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Arlene Foster said the issue of tuition fees needed to be debated in "a positive way".

First Minister Arlene Foster has hinted that increasing tuition fees may need to be looked at by the executive when it comes to raising revenue.

On Thursday, Secretary of State Julian Smith said he was disappointed that the parties had ruled out introducing water charges and other rates increases.

Stormont is getting an extra £1bn as part of the deal to restore power sharing after a three-year impasse.

Finance Minister Conor Murphy has said the level of funding is not enough.

'No to water rates'

Speaking on BBC Radio Ulster's Inside Politics programme, the DUP leader said the executive was "at one" in its opposition to water charges.

"I don't see the issue of water rates coming back onto the table again," she said.

She added that she did not want people who could not afford to pay them to be punished, and said there needed to be a wider look at what measures can be taken.

'Positive debate'

"These are all policy debates we need to have, but I do think we need to have a look at, for example, universities and how they're funded," she said.

Asked if that meant higher tuition fees for students, she was not definitive but said it needed to be debated in "a positive way".

Image copyright Rattankun Thongbun

"We can look at other issues as well - it doesn't mean we decide one way or the other.

"Government costs money and when people say: 'I want to have all these things dealt with,' we have to say: 'Where are our priorities?'"

The first minister added that she was up for having the discussion about whether more revenue needed to be raised, how the executive could do that and who it would impact.

Reacting to Mrs Foster's comments, president of the NUS-USI, Robert Murtagh, said the debate on tuition fees "has been had", and that "additional financial burden on students is not the answer".

He added: "Students already pay close to £4,000 per year to attend university.

"Tuition fees are a barrier to accessing education, particularly for students from lower socio-economic backgrounds.

"The future of Northern Ireland hangs in the balance, particularly with Brexit on the horizon. It is therefore key that we eradicate barriers to accessing higher education rather than raising them."

You can hear this interview in full on Inside Politics on BBC Radio Ulster on Friday 17 January at 17:30 GMT and again on BBC Sounds.

More on this story