Queen’s standards or keep fees down? To govern is to choose

Northern Ireland MPs were united in their comfort zone yesterday to oppose the big rise in university tuition fees, a position said to be endorsed by leading business woman Joanna Stuart conducting a review into the local scene. But what about Queen’s which is committed to keeping its place in the elite Russell Group as a leading research and teaching university? While Peter Gregson the Queen’s vice chancellor has stayed mum as far as I can see, Russell Group reaction to yesterday’s vote was firmly in favour of the huge hike and it’s highly unlikely that Queen’s, left to its own devices would want to settle for the existing 3k cap, rather than join the pack and go for between 6 k and 9K per year. Sadly the tuition fees controversy has split NI’s two universities as Mark Devenport has noted – and no wonder.

 Following the example of the MPs, will the Assembly and the Executive back the students and keep the cap, thus risking  Queen’s position as a leading university? I presume they will.  If so, Queen’s is bound to lose out.   This looks like a circle that can’t be squared.

From their arguments in the Commons yesterday NI parties sound committed to sticking with their usual blame the Brits posture. Sammy Wilson ( DUP East Antrim, NI Finance Minister) led the attack against what local MPs represented as yet another example of Westminster’s lack of respect for devolution – a charge to which Westminster would reply – the choice is yours.

People may say, “What’s this got to do with people from Northern Ireland, because after all, under devolution, it is up to the devolved Administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to decide their higher education policy?” but that is factually incorrect, because ahead of this vote the Government decided that resources that would have been taken out of higher education were taken out of devolved budgets. Northern Ireland will therefore lose more than £200 million as a result of a decision made on the basis of a vote that has not yet been taken. That restricts the ability of devolved Administrations to set their own policies.

Alasdair McDonnell ( SDLP South Belfast including the Queen’s area)  highlighted the special problem of the brain drain.  Might a fees hike turn out to be the ill wind that keeps talent at home?

A large number of students from Northern Ireland, particularly from my own constituency, undertake their studies at universities in England and will therefore be subject to the higher fees. Indeed, in Northern Ireland nearly a third of our students move outside Northern Ireland; in my constituency, that percentage is even higher.

I was once a medical student, but I cannot imagine any medical student or student of architecture-as the hon. Member for Ipswich (Ben Gummer) suggested-now emerging from university with debts of less than £100,000.

A fearsome thought. You might  think that this is a policy ripe for an election winning boost of £2 – 3 billion. You might be right, but note that Labour leader Ed Miliband has refused to fall into a Lib Dem type trap and make a pledge he can’t keep. In that case, Queen’s, alone of UK universities, could face a bleak outlook.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London

  • The Word

    Did I hear Sinn Fein telling students to take the loans and then “default” on them whenever convenient?

  • fitzjameshorse1745

    Memorably I heard a speech at QUB where a senior person said that if they climb the league ladder Queens would attract a better type of student and lecturer.
    Which is probably not the best thing to say in the Whitla Hall ……to an audience of students and lecturers.

    But would it actually make any real difference to anybody in real terms if QUB was not in the Top 20 (effectively a self ordained Premiership)?
    I suggest not.
    The only reason the Russell Group exists is because it “sounds” good.

  • Reader

    The Word: Did I hear Sinn Fein telling students to take the loans and then “default” on them whenever convenient?
    If SF started to encourage large numbers of its more educated supporters to leave NI to avoid paying fees it might get support and encouragement from a number of other parties.

  • The Word



    But Brian’s point about the reversal of the brian drain is also suspect in that high loans will encourage emigration to USA, Canada and Australia et al as well as to the south and especially of the graduates of the longer courses such as medicine.

    I see that the leader of the BNP is on the BBC news tonight quoting almost verbatim Gerry Adam’s line: He said: “We’re not going away, you know”.

  • joeCanuck

    I am the son of a working class man and woman. If it hadn’t been for the grant (340 pounds per year back then) and my summer earnings, I could not have gone to university.

  • JAH

    The Russell Group collectively account for 80% of research funding in the UK. A lot of employers simply won’t look at graduates outside of the group for interviewing (and that’s personal experience as well).

    There’s a lot at stake here: do we really want two division 2 Unis?

  • John Ó Néill

    I wonder what sort of cost benefit analysis could be produced for Queen’s if it was asked to justify how and where the fees would be spent.
    I suspect that the bulk of this money is to prop up the vanity of a handful of world class professorships and their research rather than supporting the vast majority of the teaching staff and students. The hike in fees effectively covers a cut in education funding – if governments believed the universities are so important they would fund them directly from the exchequer via the standard mechanisms. If society as a whole benefits from training doctors and the other specialists needed for the social and industrial infrastructure it also recoups that money in taxing those individuals over their career (nevermind their actual contribution to society).
    There have to remain areas of society were for-profit modeling and market driven mechanisms are considered unsuitable.

  • Reader

    John Ó Néill : If society as a whole benefits from training doctors and the other specialists needed for the social and industrial infrastructure it also recoups that money in taxing those individuals over their career
    We have a National Health Service, within which General Practitioners are paid over £100,000 per year. The country may tax GPs, but first we stuff their pockets with money. They will barely notice the repayments.
    So, nope – I won’t have sympathy for the graduates launching onto professional careers. I am sympathetic towards those who will go out to non-professional, or even non-graduate, careers.

  • fitzjameshorse1745 @ 10:38 pm is partly correct to suggest QUB in the “top twenty” is self-ordained posturing.

    For the record:
    The Times rates QUB 31=/113 UK institutions;
    The Sunday Times 37/119;
    The Guardian 46/117;
    The Independent dropped QUB from 28 to 34.
    The Daily Telegraph and FT have dropped QUB from their listings.

    The Russell Group, though, is mainly about being a research institution. Finance for research is not the nub of the present undergraduate-fees issue.

    Reader @ 10:09 am again misunderstands just how misguided and regressive the ConDem policy is.

    Let us assume that all students acquire a similar debt through an undergraduate course: quite frankly, one would be a fool not to take the maximum loan available, need it or not, and reinvest it if one had other means.

    Loans disappear once they are paid off; so a graduate with a trust fund (or going into one of those high-octane, high-bonus City employments) will be free of debt rapidly, and suffer little in the way of interest charges.

    The graduate who comes out with a £50,000 or more debt-burden is more likely to go into one of the less-well paid professions: teaching or nursing or administration, perhaps. Here salaries are just above the threshold for debt repayment; but insufficient to pay off quickly. Result: the debt continues indefinitely (and may well increase if the debtor’s income is immediately up to the repayment threshold), as do the repayments.

    Students going into medicine or law are unlikely to be earning in excess of £21,000 immediately. Meanwhile, the debt is growing.

    That £21,000 is simply the £15,000 threshold figure, introduced in 2005/6 by Labour, and always meant to be inflation-adjusted every 10 years, projected to 2015/16.

    When the LibDems come out of their fox-holes, they proclaim that £21,000 is a marvellous number: Nick Clegg put out a press release with the claim:

    … a nurse with a starting salary of £21,000 increasing to £27,000 in real terms over 20 years would pay an average of £7 a month over 30 years. Under the current system, they would be paying back at least £45 a month immediately.

    The confusion of pronouns is the well-educated Clegg’s, not mine. Notice that weasel-word “average”, which further confuses the calculation. In fact the £7 per month/£45 per month is the same 9% of earnings: the difference is that projection to the 2015/16 updating.

    Now put that hypothetical nurse (who doesn’t seem to advance up the promotion ladder in all his/her years in nursing) on London weighting. The repayments are then £2,000 a year from day one of employment, but the total repayments over a career are three times higher.

    The ConDem proposals cost the Treasury three times more; they deny universities 80% of present funding (which either QUB will now get from the NI Assembly budget or be forced to go to £6,000+ fees); and are profoundly regressive.

  • joeCanuck

    Counties that devalue education, which is what this enormous increase in fees will do, are setting themselves up for a huge decline.

  • aquifer

    Ireland has been exhausted by emigration of the best, with intellect fattened for export. A world class university attracts the best people and makes the locals even better. Presumably membership of the Russel Group is not conditional on any minimum level of fee, so QUB may end up setting a premium over UU that attracts able students from elsewhere and still retains locals from families that tend to have lower incomes than in say the South East of England. QUB has real problems recruiting the best staff to Belfast, so needs some leeway to pay more. Great universities can pay their way in terms of spin-out companies, setting a cultural tone that attracts creative industries, and in providing top class talent for politics and business. Don’t say we do not need that, and that it is not worth paying a bit more for. At 18 students should not have to make a cost benefit calculation about salaries. If they do the wrong course or none we all lose.

  • Reader

    Malcolm Redfellow: Let us assume that all students acquire a similar debt through an undergraduate course: quite frankly, one would be a fool not to take the maximum loan available, need it or not, and reinvest it if one had other means.
    Loans disappear once they are paid off; so a graduate with a trust fund (or going into one of those high-octane, high-bonus City employments) will be free of debt rapidly, and suffer little in the way of interest charges.

    Contradictory paragraphs! Is the interest low enough to make the loan tempting, or high enough to make people want to pay it off early?
    Also, I understand there are penalties for early repayment; a policy that seems vindictive to me, but ought to please you, since trustafarians can’t escape repayment charges so easily.

  • Alias

    This isn’t education: it is career advancement. If people invest in acquiring skills in order to increase their earning potential in employment then they will recover their investment in a few years.

    I see no reason why third parties should donate a portion of their incomes via taxation to finance that investment in other peoples’ careers and earning potential.

    It costs the taxpayers in Ireland 90k to train one nurse, and over 90% of them leave the country after the taxpayer has funded their training, thereby depriving the taxpayer of any benefit from that investment.

    The article mentions that it costs 100k to be trained as a doctor. That’s a great investment for a student to make in increasing his earning potential. Indeed, if he invested a little more in his earning potential by acquiring more specialist knowledge, then he’d be paid a minimum of 220K a year if he moved to Ireland after he has made the necessary investment.

    Instead of looking for other people to finance their careers, these folks will simply have to adjust to the reality that it the onus is with them to finance their own careers. Look at it for what it is: the pursuit of money.

  • Reader @ 6:12 pm:

    Martin Lewis (at moneysavingexpert) knocks down your early repayment clause. You are relying on a off-the-cuff quotation from David Willetts. The rest of Lewis’s objective argument is worth a view, if only because he effectively demolishes much of the faff that the ConDems have generated, and too many unthinking propagandists faithfully parrot.

    Your airy and misguided dismissal of my valid point ignores compound interest.

    For most low-paid graduates, who are not in a position to repay early, even interest rates as proposed are breath-taking. For example: a “middle-manager” earning £35,000 is facing a total marginal rate of tax, including National Insurance and loan repayments, not greatly different from that of someone in the higher tax bracket, who has afforded to pay off any loan. Lest we forget: the rate for older student loans has already been hiked. Future rates, even punitive ones, are at the discretion of any government, any time.

    Again, comments like those of Alias @ 6:18 pm wilfully and grossly distort the issue. Go to salarytrack to see what “average graduate salary” means.

  • Alias

    Then why do people attend private colleges to advance their careers? Because they like to throw their own money away?

    Let’s look at the US where self-funded career-related college is the norm. The average salary for those with a professional degree is 3 times higher than those without a degree.

    As the slogan goes, the more you learn the more you earn.

    As that is particularly true in Ireland where the minimum income for medical consultant is 220k per year.

  • Alias @ 7:33 pm:

    I return from a highly-enjoyable (and very alco-hic-holic) birthday party to discover you still are incapable of answering your own rhetorical questions.

    Do not apply US dollars and numbers to the UK model. The US has a highly-developed and prestigious private Higher Education nexus. The UK doesn’t (though the ConDems are forcing it on us.)

    Do not assume the handful (give us numbers) of RoI medical consultants represent either the income levels of the bulk of medical graduates, or (even more so) of graduates.

    Yes: I have seen near-illiterates with money-bags throw squoodles of lucre at a university degree. Consider the Bullingdon Club.

    Next point?