University fees debacle must be cleared up now

Annika Nestius-Brown's Platform article from News Letter 1 September 2011.

The Northern Ireland executive may be in its second consecutive term in office, but whenever there’s a difficult choice to make, it still consistently fails to deliver. 

We have permanent crisis in our schools over the 11 plus, constant deferral of a decision on water rates, an uncertain future for the former site of the Maze prison and stalemate on many other issues.  Now, to add to a lengthy list, there is the failure to set university tuition fees.

Every other region of the United Kingdom has long since decided its policy on student tuition for the year 2012.  Our executive continues to delay and send out mixed messages. 

The first and deputy first ministers promised the public that fees would be frozen, but the minister responsible, Stephen Farry, says that that no assurances can be made until a £40 million shortfall in the budget has been plugged.

Parents and students are understandably confused: what is the executive’s position?

It’s obvious that if the current fee of £3,200 per year is frozen some tough choices must be made. Either universities in Northern Ireland will be forced to offer drastically inferior tuition and slash student numbers or there will be substantial cuts to other public services. 

Where will the knife fall?  Don’t expect the executive to give a clear answer.     

Even if the cost of tuition is increased to around £4,500, which would fill the £40 million hole, institutions here could still slip behind standards in England and Wales.       

To add to the confusion, the universities minister wants to charge English, Scottish and Welsh students more than other students, if they come here to study. 

Under European law, students from elsewhere in the EU can’t be charged at the higher rate.  So we would have an absurd and discriminatory situation, with young people from Great Britain forced to pay much more to study in another part of the UK than their counterparts from Europe and the Republic of Ireland.

In Scotland the nationalist government wants a similar system, but it is likely to be challenged in the courts.  Students from Northern Ireland, many thousands of whom attend Scottish universities, will follow that case with interest.

Studying elsewhere in the UK helps broaden young people’s horizons and bind together our United Kingdom.  It is also ensures students find the course which suits them best.  The same applies to those from Great Britain and the rest of Europe, who come to our universities and bring fresh ideas and outlooks with them.

This is another aspect of the tuition debate where the politicians at Stormont need to be up-front about their intentions. 

Thanks to indecision in the executive, the whole fees issue is a source of confusion to students, parents and universities alike.  Unlike the parallel universe at Stormont, in the real world, people plan ahead.   The least they deserve is clarity – right now.