University maintenance grants: No decision made on scrapping scheme, says Farry
No decision has been made on whether to scrap university maintenance grants in Northern Ireland, the minister for employment and learning has said.
The chancellor has announced in his budget that grants for lower income students in England and Wales are to be scrapped from September 2016.
George Osborne said the grants had become "unaffordable".
But as the grant powers are devolved, Stephen Farry has to decide whether to end them in Northern Ireland.
Unlike tuition fee loans and maintenance loans, maintenance grants are means-tested and do not have to be repaid.
In 2015/16, students from families with annual incomes of £19,203 or less get the full grant of £3,475 a year.
However, students from families with annual incomes between £19,203 and £41,065 get a partial grant.
In the most recent figures available, from 2013/14, 60% of students in Northern Ireland received a maintenance grant.
A full maintenance grant was given to 38% of students, and 22% got a partial grant.
In 2012/13, according to assembly figures, the Department for Employment and Learning (DEL) spent about £72m on maintenance grants.
The cost to the government is much higher in England.
More than 500,000 students in England receive a maintenance grant from the taxpayer, worth in total £1.57bn a year.
Mr Osborne said the cost of this was set to double to £3bn in the next decade as the cap on student numbers was lifted.
There was a "basic unfairness in asking taxpayers to fund grants for people who are likely to earn a lot more than them", he said.
Instead of a maintenance grant, students in England will be able to take a larger loan to meet their living costs, at £8,200 a year.
The DEL minister will also have to make a decision on whether to follow England's lead in increasing student loan amounts.
In Northern Ireland, students can take a living costs loan worth £3,750 a year if they live at home, and £4,840 if they study away from home, outside London.
Tuition fee loans and maintenance loans only have to be paid back when a student enters employment and is earning over £17,335 a year.
In a statement, a spokesperson for DEL said any changes to the grants in Northern Ireland "would require careful consideration".
"The minister intends to launch the Big Conversation in September, firstly to inform people about the benefits of higher education and how our existing funding system works and differs from other parts of the UK.," the spokesperson said.
"The second stage will discuss the various approaches to creating a sustainable and world class higher education sector in Northern Ireland."
Fergal McFerran, the president of the National Union of Students and the Union of Students in Ireland, said Mr Farry's discussion on higher education funding had to deliver positive results for students.
"If it does not, Northern Ireland risks creating a lost generation who feel they have to move away to access study opportunities and jobs," Mr McFerran added.