University tuition fees in Northern Ireland are set to rise to £5,750 following a government U-turn.
As previously reported by The Journal, employment and learning minister Danny Kennedy suggested last month that Northern Ireland could not afford to peg tuition fees at current rates. This was despite last year’s government report, overseen by chairman of the Institute of Directors Joanne Stuart, which recommended freezing tuition fees.
Ms Stuart has updated her report following Mr Kennedy’s comments, proposing that fees should be raised to £5,750 for an undergraduate degree from September 2012. Students from outside Northern Ireland would be required to pay the full £9,000 proposed by Westminster.
As fees are currently capped at £3,290, this represents a rise of 75 per cent for Northern Irish students and almost 300 per cent for students from other parts of the UK. Ms Stuart warned that freezing fees at current levels would leave the Northern Irish higher education sector with a shortfall of over £40 million a year.
Speaking to The Journal, Ciarnan Helferty, president of NUS in Northern Ireland, said: "There is no ambiguity on the issue of a potential fee rise in Northern Ireland... The Minister [Mr Kennedy] can remain on the wrong side of public opinion if he wishes - but if he does I doubt he will remain a Minister very much longer."
The maximum grant available for students from low-income households would remain at £3,475, which is not enough to cover the cost of tuition.
However, Mr Kennedy stressed the importance of maintaining accessibility for disadvantaged students. Graduates would not need to begin repaying student loans until they were earning a minimum of £21,000.
A spokesperson for the Department of Employment and Learning told The Journal: “The Department for Employment and Learning is committed to finding a solution to the issue of student finance which is affordable to both the public purse as well as to the students, whilst protecting Northern Ireland’s record as having the best higher education participation rates in the UK for those from socially disadvantaged backgrounds and also allowing our universities to secure appropriate investment and maintain the excellence of our Higher Education Institutions.”
A public consultation on the proposals is due to be published next month.