The introduction of loan schemes for postgraduate and part-time students, as well as fee regulation, is being considered by Northern Ireland’s executive.
A consultation that was launched on 9 June says that one option is to offer a £10,000 loan to Northern Ireland-domiciled students on taught postgraduate courses, to mirror the finance that will be available in England from 2016-17.
Such a loan, repayable over a 30-year period on top of any undergraduate finance, would put students from the region “on a more level footing” with their English counterparts, the consultation says.
However, other options under consideration include the introduction of loans covering the cost of tuition fees for postgraduates undertaking courses “deemed relevant to the economy”. These would not be second loans, but would be added to existing undergraduate loans, and would be offered to students from the rest of the UK, the consultation says.
A third option would be to offer this loan to all students, to cover the full value of their tuition fees.
In any case, the Department for Employment and Learning “may need to regulate postgraduate fee levels at a level aligned with the maximum fee support available”, the consultation says. Plans for postgraduate loans in England have triggered fears of fee inflation.
The consultation says that the introduction of a £25,000 loan for postgraduate research students is also being considered, also mirroring proposals in England.
Part-time undergraduate students in Northern Ireland currently have no access to the student loan system, and grants are available to a limited number of learners from lower income families instead.
One of the options under consideration in the consultation is the replacement of fee grants with a tuition fee loan available to all Northern Ireland-domiciled students taking “designated courses of study” at universities in the UK and Ireland. European Union students from outside the UK would also be eligible.
A second option is to introduce a “top up” tuition fee loan to cover the cost of the remaining tuition fee balance not covered by any fee grant, or, in the case of students not eligible for grants, the full fee cost.
Again, part-time undergraduate fees may have to be regulated in such a scenario, the consultation says.
Stephen Farry, Northern Ireland’s employment and learning minister, said that increased support for “up-skilling and re-skilling the existing workforce” was vital for the region’s economy, as was catering for the growing number of jobs predicted to require postgraduate qualifications.
“It is important that we look at new ways in which we can support part-time and postgraduate learners, including through the student finance system,” the minister said. “I believe that supporting these students is not only a matter of social justice, it is an economic imperative.”
The consultation, which runs until 11 September, was launched after funding for Northern Ireland’s universities for 2015-16 was cut by £16.1 million, or 8.6 per cent.
Any options for postgraduates and part-time students that involve significant level of additional spending “may not be feasible without detracting further from other areas of funding”, the report says.