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.


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  • Bryan Magee

    NI should try to maintain student numbers or slightly expand them, to encourage more students to stay in NI than to go to GB. If they go to GB then they have to pay the fees anyway, and they’re less likely to stay, so cutting places here just forces people to go elsewhere to pay fees. Better to raise fees a little here and maintain places. The evidence strongly shows that the fee system in England has not deterred students, especially those from low incomes.

    The Labour party first introduced fees. The idea was that the most important place to concentrate scarce government spending was on early years education – primary and secondary – and to allow people who benefit from a Uni education (in terms of higher salaries) contribute a share of the cost of that education (once their salary rises above a fairly generous threshold). The analysis shows that pupils from low incomes seem not to have been put off, indeed the numbers going to university did not fall after fees were introduced.

  • just watching

    if any more proof was needed that the DUP is well in the bed with the tory party hear it is he is repeating what Jeffery Peel said during the week .

  • Ulick

    “This would undoubtedly lead to more students leaving Northern Ireland and would limit the Universities’ ability to finance research, a significant economic driver.”

    Undoubtedly? Okay so perhaps you’ll explain the link between undergraduate tuition fees and research funding? If the two local universities are funding research via tuition fees then then they are seriously misrepresenting the purpose of the TUITION fee.

  • Yes, finance is a little misleading there. Facilities would certainly suffer as a result of reduced student numbers, which would have an impact on research but it is the budget cuts that will have an effect on funding research.

  • Pavel Iosad

    University research, especially outside the biomedical sciences, is largely done by teaching-and-research academic staff. Having fewer UG places means that the universities may struggle to finance even existing staff, let alone recruit any more. In extreme cases, insufficient student numbers may lead to (or be used as pretext for) closures of entire subjects/departments.

  • Rapunsell

    It’s no bad thing that many students leave NI. Are we so arrogant to think that if it’s cheap enough people will stay. The reasons for people leaving are many – some come back, many don’t. For those that come back – we benefit from them having been away – god knows why many do come back – family connections is the main thing I’d say. It’s not for the quality or stability of the government, the career prospects or the education system! People return not because of these but in spite of them!

    We truly are a conservative, backward shit hole and I often wish I’d left at 18. Mind you I’m here now to stay and I love where I live and connection to family. Both siblings live abroad – and certainly wouldn’t entertain coming back here

  • NMS

    Bryan, there are two parts to the issue, quality and the other quantity. I agree that whatever slight chance the UKNI economy has of development will require graduates, lots of them and with a high standard of education. Increasing numbers without ensuring that the quality is not also improving, is no answer.

    The fee system based on loans is not running for long enough with the newer high fees in England to tell whether those on lower incomes will stay applying in the same numbers. Also it is my understanding that dropout numbers have increased.

    In Ireland there is a group in the middle, above the grant level, but not particularly well off, whose attendance has been dropping off. Certainly I have been told by a guidance counsellor that the pressure is getting worse. She mentioned that a family may be able to bear the burden of one child at third level, but are not able to support a second.

  • chrisjones2

    Why do we have so many universities and colleges with all the diseconomies of scale. We only have a population of 1.7 million

  • Bryan Magee


    NI (1.8m) has just 2 universities.

    Scotland (5 million) has 15 universities, Wales (2.5m) has 9.

  • chrisjones2

    That doesn’t address the issue.WHy do we need two

  • NMS

    Chris, Can I suggest that the issue is not so much the number of colleges, rather the overlap in courses. There is a process of amalgamation taking place within the Irish Third level sector, but from what I hear, it will not tackle the overlap, I.e. colleges offering the same courses to small numbers, rather than amalgamating and just having the one course. The Dublin Institute of Technology is “amalgamating” (taking over) some of the other ITs in the Dublin region, but certain courses may be offered in more than one location, probably with different qualification requirements!

    I wonder what is the level of cooperation, not just between the UKNI colleges, but between them and other UK institutions or Irish colleges. For example are similar courses available in L’derry and Letterkenny?

    Do the colleges make joint applications for research funding or to they fight among themselves?

    Rather than worrying about the number of colleges, I think these points are more relevant.

  • Croiteir

    Good question – but lets us ask it in a more fundamental fashion, why is this region needing any? Then work your way to how many

  • Ian James Parsley

    There is a broader issue here that the DUP’s policy doesn’t make logical sense.

    I did challenge a senior DUP adviser on why there were no revenue-raising measures in the Budget and he said the last thing you want to do in a stuttering economy is take money out of people’s pockets.

    Let us leave aside that reducing public spending also does that, indirectly or occasionally even directly (if, say, consultants to government departments or paid members of quangos get cut).

    The argument that money should not be taken out of people’s pockets (generally) has some logic to it. However, it does not square with suggesting the return of Prescription Charges (which would take money out of ill people’s pockets) or raising Tuition Fees (which would, admittedly in the longer term, take money out of graduates’ pockets).

    The honest position would be to say: “Tell you what, we’ll put the Regional Rate up £25 a year per household” – noting that £25 is the maximum Prescription charge the DUP proposed to impose on *individuals* with progressive conditions whereas the Regional Rate rise would apply to all *households* equally and not punish those unlucky enough to have Parkinson’s or MS or whatever. Such a rise would add around £15 million to the Budget – not a huge amount, but a sum raised more fairly and which could then be allocated to helping people with long-term conditions rather than punishing them; or towards maintaining University places.

    Would anyone care to take up this case?!