Tuition Fee Increase Back On The Cards?

Tuition fees could be set to rise in Northern Ireland following budget cuts to the Department of Education and Learning. In an interview with the BBC’s Inside Politics, First Minister Peter Robinson suggested that fees could be increased. “There may well be an opportunity for us to look at tuition fees and see whether that cuts some slack to the universities.”

As part of the Northern Ireland Executive Draft Budget for 2015/16, DEL’s funding will be cut by up to 10.8%. The Vice-Chancellors of Queen’s and the University of Ulster responded this week, warning that 1,100 university places could be lost as a consequence. This would undoubtedly lead to more students leaving Northern Ireland and the cuts would limit the Universities’ ability to finance research, a significant economic driver.

The Executive is still continuing its battle for the devolution of corporation tax powers, intended to reinvigorate the private sector. Reducing spending on skills will weaken the profile of local graduates, limiting Northern Ireland’s potential for investors. There are questions over the effectiveness of a reduction in corporation tax in any case but if the gamble is to pay off then we must be in the best possible shape to maximise the benefits.

The two universities have already seen their budgets reduced by 18% over the past four years, while at the same time they are competing with English universities charging the full £9000 in tuition fees.  DEL Minister Stephen Farry had recently warned that job cuts may be required due to the extent of budget reductions. Ulster University Vice-Chancellor, Professor Richard Barnett has said a rise in fees may be inevitable to maintain standards.

Despite the DUP’s consistent stance against an increase of fees, currently included among the policies on their website, it appears change may be forthcoming. In 2011, Peter Robinson said: “The DUP doesn’t need to consult on the issue of student fee hikes of several thousand pounds – the DUP is categorically ruling them out.” Quite a difference from stating that increasing tuition fees is one of the possibilities for meeting the universities’ funding gap and “nothing is off the table”.

Perhaps this sudden u-turn is simply a matter of the current financial realities finally hitting home, or even another example of Robinson’s flair for bluntly dismissing dissent, sending the message to the Vice-Chancellors that either they should accept the cuts or deal with the wrath of thousands of angry students. Whichever is the case it will be of little comfort to students, particularly those from poorer backgrounds who could not afford the cost of living across the water.

As well as the cuts to Northern Ireland’s universities, the Further Education sector faces similar tough decisions. With almost 40% of post-primary pupils not obtaining five A* – C grades at GCSE level, Further Education provides skills to many of these young people who would otherwise have extremely limited job prospects. While a loss of local university places will increase the brain drain, cuts to Further Education will directly impact the levels of unemployment and leave lasting economic damage.

Indeed the Chief Inspector’s report, released this week, highlighted that there are too many variations in the quality of provision and leadership in local schools. There is still too large a gap in achievement between those pupils receiving free school meals and those not. She concluded that Northern Ireland does not have a world class education system. The current Programme for Government prioritises the economy yet, without sufficient investment in skills, our young people will become an economic burden rather than realising their potential to be one of our strongest assets.

A rise in tuition fees will meet strong resistance from students, indeed the QUB Student’s Council passed a motion stating that for the next five years it would oppose any increase. It is however further evidence that the days of the Executive spending at will are drawing rapidly to a close and one way or another revenue will have to be generated.