Northern Ireland Assembly to debate abolishing tuition fees

October 27, 2000

Radical proposals to axe tuition fees and boost student support in Northern Ireland would cost more than £50 million.

Esmond Birnie, chairman of the Northern Ireland Assembly committee for higher and further education, training and employment, described the price tag as "optimistic". But the committee's final report does not go into costings, which are expected to be tackled during debate in the assembly.

Any income shortfall for higher education institutions caused by abolishing tuition fees should be met by the Northern Ireland government, it says.

Other key proposals, which broadly follow the recommendations of Scotland's Cubie report on student finance, include grants of up to Pounds 2,000 for disadvantaged young people and full-time mature students, and increased loan entitlements. It sets a Pounds 20,000 earnings threshold for loan repayments and endorses Cubie's Pounds 25,000 threshold for payments to a graduate endowment scheme, rather than the Pounds 10,000 proposed by the Scottish Executive.

"We unanimously agreed that it would be fair and equitable to raise the earnings threshold to reflect the principle that society should look to graduates who enjoy a substantial salary premium for help to generations of future students," the report says.

Determining student support levels is one of the priorities in the province's 87-page programme for government, which went before the assembly this week. It also sets out plans for an extra 4,400 undergraduate places by 2004, divided between Queen's University Belfast and Ulster University.

The power-sharing government also wants to pilot a training programme for adults with basic literacy and numeracy problems.

At present, higher and further education in the province is funded directly by government, backed by a higher education advisory body. The higher and further education committee calls for an integrated higher and further education funding council for Northern Ireland, operating at arm's length from government.

Ministerial decisions on student finance should tackle the existing disparities between higher and further education funding arrangements, says the committee. It also wants a feasibility study into setting up "simpler, local arrangements" for grants and loans to all further and higher education students.

Sean Farren, minister for higher and further education, training and employment, said: "I will want to consider the committee's recommendations, along with the other submissions made during the public consultation held earlier this year, very carefully and in great detail before finalising my proposals for the way ahead. (Then)I I will lose no time in publishing those proposals."

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