In March 2010, Joanne Stuart, who was appointed by Northern Ireland’s Department for Employment and Learning to chair its review of student fees and finance, presented a report recommending that tuition fees should remain frozen.
But in an updated version of the report published today by employment and learning minister Danny Kennedy, Ms Stuart said that the cap must be lifted in the country.
Seeking to find a “Northern Ireland specific solution” to the problem of university funding, she proposed that annual tuition fees should be raised in the 2012-13 academic year to a figure between £5,000 and £5,750. Undergraduate fees at Northern Irish universities are currently capped at £3,290, the same level as in England.
Under Ms Stuart’s revised proposals, students from outside Northern Ireland would face annual fees of up to £9,000, in line with the new fee cap to be introduced in England from 2012.
The new arrangements would keep the maximum grant available in Northern Ireland for students from less well-off backgrounds at £3,475. However, the report predicts that more students would be able to benefit from financial assistance, as household income thresholds would be aligned with those in England.
Graduates would not begin repaying their loans until they were earning at least £21,000 a year.
The updated report falls short of following the Welsh model, because it does not offer a partial fee waiver to students from Northern Ireland who enrol at a university in England or Wales. However, Ms Stuart said it was an issue for further consideration.
The report warns that in the wake of cuts to higher education funding and the impact of the Browne Review, maintaining the status quo would leave the Northern Irish higher education sector with a shortfall of between £40 million and £65 million a year.
Richard Barnett, vice-chancellor of the University of Ulster, described the recommendations as “regrettable”. He warned that a rise in tuition fees could deter prospective students from low-income backgrounds from entering higher education.
Speaking in the Assembly, Mr Kennedy said it was important that access to higher education should continue to be based on the “ability to learn”, not the ability to pay.
“Higher education confers benefits and it is right that the beneficiaries should contribute towards the cost. However, we also need to find the balance between the level of tuition fees and how much public finance should be given to the universities,” he said.
The minister said this would be done “within the context of the current financial and economic realities” facing his department.
A public consultation on the proposals is expected to be published next month.