THE decision to freeze student fees here seems to be going down well, but it won’t come without cost. And that cost – half of it – will be borne by the Department of Employment and Learning. It would be difficult to argue that learning should come at the expense of employment services in the middle of a recession when the jobless total is almost twice what the department is budgeted to deal with.
As the Minister said in June, there is already “critical pressure” on the Employment Service. Minister Stephen Farry said that “the service has the budget and staffing to deal with 35,000 people but because of the level of unemployment it is dealing with 60,000”.
To pay for holding fees down, DEL will contribute £20m of the £40m shortfall by 2014/15. That’s a big chunk to absorb, which suggests a new revenue stream will be found. Other departments – excluding health, education and justice – will fork out the other half. Since the Minister has “no plans to take any further savings from the universities”, he must find £20m from elsewhere. Possibly we could follow the Scottish model and charge higher fees to British students from outside this jurisdiction – a concept that’s already being legally challenged.
And there’s another potential problem, as the BBC’s Jim Fitzpatrick outlines:
The executive’s decision to subsidise degrees here for Northern Ireland students will undoubtedly make them more attractive. That increases competition for places and means the grades needed will go up.
Students with weaker results will miss out and have no choice but to pay more across the water – not just in fees, but also in living costs.
The executive’s market intervention could disproportionately penalise poorer students and benefit the well off who might otherwise have taken a degree elsewhere had the price incentive not kept them at home.
But these are the kinds of tough decisions Alliance vowed to take responsibility for as it plays its role in the Executive. As Pete has already mentioned, the Minister plans to make a statement to the Assembly on Monday, so I guess we’ll learn more then.