Northern Ireland split over top-ups

November 5, 2004

Proposals announced last week to charge top-up fees for students in Northern Ireland have divided the two universities in the province.

Despite across-the-board opposition from the suspended political parties, the Northern Ireland Government is planning for fees to mirror those in England, although students would not be levied the £3,000 fee until after 2010.

Ulster University launched a bitter attack on the proposals, while Queen's University Belfast welcomed the initiative as the "best way forward".

Gerry McKenna, Ulster's vice-chancellor, warned: "The legislation following the White Paper for England was flawed. We had hoped that the minister responsible for the Northern Ireland proposals would learn from that experience. Instead, he has replicated it. These proposals will put into reverse the progress my university has made in widening university access.

"Research shows that Northern Ireland people are averse to debt, even deferred debt, so these measures will put off many from applying to university."

In its response, Queen's University said the plans recognised that higher education was underfunded and would ensure that Northern Ireland did not fall behind the rest of the UK.

* The Welsh Assembly has backed a Liberal Democrat motion amendment that top-up fees "are, in principle, wrong".

The Liberal Democrat education spokesman for Wales, Peter Black, described the amendment as "highly significant". He said it would force the Assembly to seriously consider an alternative to introducing fees in Wales in 2007.

But the Liberal Democrats failed to win backing for another amendment to leave the decision on fees to the Assembly.

Instead, devolved powers from Westminster were passed to the Assembly's First Minister, who will in turn pass them to Education Minister Jane Davidson.

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