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

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