Sean Farren, Northern Ireland's minister for higher and further education, this week unveiled a £65 million student support package including means-tested bursaries of up to £1,500, childcare grants for higher education students on low incomes, and the end of tuition fees for many vocational further education courses.
But Dr Farren stopped short of axeing fees completely, despite recommendations from the higher and further education committee of the Northern Ireland Assembly. And the National Union of Students-Union of Students in Ireland warned that his "well-intentioned" report would not end student poverty in the province.
Dr Farren said that the £65 million would be targeted over three years at students from poor families. Most of the proposals would be implemented this year.
The threshold for residual parental income beyond which students are liable for tuition fees is set to rise by more than 12 per cent, from £17,805 to £20,000. As well as means-tested bursaries for low-income higher education students, there will be 3,000 discretionary bursaries of up to £1,500 for full-time further education students over 19.
Dr Farren said: "These proposals will make a real and immediate difference. For example, I estimate that about 17,000 students at university and college will benefit from bursaries. More than 50 per cent of all higher education students will pay no tuition fees thanks to the raising of the threshold, while the benefits of the childcare grant and the abolition of fees for certain further education students are obvious."
Student leaders claimed "a minor victory" in forcing the government to restore grants. They also praised plans for 1,000 more higher education places and a simplification of the administration of student support.
But Brian Slevin, NUS-USI convenor, said: "We feel that the continuation of tuition fees in higher education, albeit with higher assessment thresholds, will still prove to be a source of student hardship and a deterrent to college entry."