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Northern Ireland begins to examine tuition fees and student support options

In line with developments in other parts of the United Kingdom, the Department for Employment and Learning in Belfast released on 15 March 2011 a “public consultation document” on Future policy on higher education tuition fees and student finance arrangements in Northern Ireland. The document lays the groundwork for a public discussion of how Northern Ireland may meet a “range of challenges ahead for higher education, including the financing of the sector”. According to Danny Kennedy MLA, Minister for Employment and Learning, the goal is to strike an effective balance between public and private responsibility for higher education funding.

The document takes pains to assert “care has been taken to emphasise that tuition fees and student support should be viewed as a ‘package’ ” encompassing four elements: the level of tuition fees and the loan associated with it; the level of, and eligibility for, the maintenance grant; the level of the maintenance loan and the repayment threshold for loans. The suggestions put forth for how to proceed specifically on the fees front include:

  • abolishing tuition altogether;
  • keeping fees at current rates (GBP 3 290, or EUR 3 745), to rise annually at the rate of inflation;
  • increasing fees to GBP 4 500 (EUR 5 120) or to between GBP 5 000 or GBP 5 750 (EUR 5 690 to 6 545); and
  • aligning the fee structure to the new changes soon to be implemented in England, i.e. GBP 6 000 to 9 000 (EUR 6 830 to 10 245) per year.

In terms of the student support items under consideration, ideas include the continuation of support to Northern Ireland students who study in other parts of the UK through the provision of loans to cover the fees charged at the institutions where they enrol, and the increase of the repayment threshold from the current GBP 15 000 (EUR 17 075) to GBP 21 000 (EUR 23 900). The public consultation period on these questions closes on 11 June 2011 with more news certainly to follow in the wake of final decisions on these, and other, sensitive financial questions.

Department of Employment and Learning (Northern Ireland)