The debate about tuition fees in Northern Ireland has been reignited by the warning that universities face cuts of up to 15 per cent next year.
The multimillion-pound funding reductions set to be forced on Queen’s University Belfast and the University of Ulster (on top of savings ordered this year) have triggered fears that thousands of undergraduate places and hundreds of jobs will be axed, alongside whole courses.
This threat has put a question mark over Northern Ireland’s tuition fees policy, which caps charges in the province at £3,685. While the Stormont executive has tried to invest its own resources to top up universities’ income per place to the English level of £9,000, there were shortfalls of £1,000 to £2,500 even before the latest round of cuts.
Ministers have so far stuck by their policy, but Gerry McKenna, the former vice-chancellor of Ulster, questioned how long this could last.
“We are looking at a catastrophic situation and the question has to be asked: does Northern Ireland want to have a high-quality education system or not?” Professor McKenna told Times Higher Education.
“It seems to me there is no other option [than] to revisit the fees issue and, if Northern Ireland was to adopt the English model, it would take higher education out of the wrangling that’s happening at Stormont.”
Grants from Stormont make up about one-third of each university’s income and a 15 per cent cut would reportedly cost Queen’s about £14 million next year. Ulster is said to be looking at a shortfall of £17 million over two years.
Sources have indicated that Ulster is considering a contingency plan to cut its student intake by 3,000 places next year, from 13,500 to 10,500, to maintain standards. Queen’s may also have to review its intake size.
Mike Larkin, chairman of the Northern Ireland higher education committee of the University and College Union, said such cuts could lead to “hundreds of staff redundancies” and acknowledged that the prospect of increased fees would “raise its head again”.
“The debate between damaging higher education in Northern Ireland versus an unpopular increase in student fees is about to begin,” said Professor Larkin, chair of microbial biochemistry at Queen’s. “The UCU does not support increasing student fees and is on the side of publicly funded universities.”
One question is whether sufficient consensus could be found within Northern Ireland’s power-sharing executive to increase fees.
A spokesman for the Department for Employment and Learning said that applying only annual inflationary uplifts to the fees set in 2011-12 was a “key commitment within the programme for government”.
“Any change in this position in light of changing financial circumstances will be a matter for the executive as a whole,” he said.