A new review may give poorer Northern Irish students more cash, says minister Sean Farren
It has been a hugely eventful week in Northern Ireland and the political situation has again made headlines around the world.
But headlines do not always tell the full story. The real story of events here is the opportunity that will be lost if the uncertainty ends with the suspension of the Northern Ireland executive after only eight weeks, just when it was starting to make a difference.
This week I have made two announcements that illustrate the point perfectly and are hugely important developments in higher and further education - particularly for those groups that are under-represented in our universities and colleges.
On Wednesday, I was able to give the go-ahead to the Pounds 70 million Springvale Educational Village Project, a cross-community, cross-HE-FE campus in north and west Belfast, areas generally considered to be among the most disadvantaged in the province and, of course, areas that suffered greatly during the Troubles. Springvale will ultimately provide 4,500 student places.
Then, yesterday, I announced details of a review of student support in Northern Ireland.
Economic growth, as has readily been illustrated by the phenomenon in the Republic of Ireland, is heavily reliant on a work-force that is skilled, adaptable and well educated. The future development of Northern Ireland will depend on the enhancement of its people.
Equally, in the information age, a modern and equitable society cannot afford the opening up of a gap between those with the appropriate knowledge and skills and those without them. That is a recipe for further social division.
Clearly, the agenda for increasing the number of students from deprived backgrounds entering our universities has many dimensions, but central to it is how much money students receive.
As in Britain, there are many in Northern Ireland who argue that existing arrangements for student financial support are inequitable and a constraint on access. They argue that the means-tested contribution to tuition fees, whereby students whose parents' income lies above a certain threshold, have to pay an annual Pounds 1,000 fee, deters many from deprived backgrounds from applying for university - particularly when this is coupled to a student maintenance system based on loans.
The sharper critics have to contend with the awkward fact that the overall numbers entering higher education from Northern Ireland continue to rise. Between 1996-97 and 1998-99 the number of full-time undergraduates rose from 34,940 to 37,311, while the number of mature entrants has remained fairly constant - in contrast to Britain where numbers have dropped.
Critically, however, there is no evidence that more students from socially or economically deprived backgrounds are being accepted by universities and colleges.
Since coming to office in December, I have said several times that I want to consider whether the current financial arrangements are the most appropriate for our students. Yesterday I formally announced the terms of reference of such a review.
We intend to review existing student support arrangements and explore whether any more needs to be done to support lifelong learning. I want to consider the benefits as well as the disadvantages of the system. And I want to explore a range of options designed to promote wider access.
The review will draw on the work of Andrew Cubie's committee in Scotland and the response of the Scottish Executive to his report. It will also consider the package of extra student support measures announced recently by the secretary of state for education at Westminster, David Blunkett.
While the review will be conducted by officials from my department, it will cast its net far and wide. I want to hear directly from the universities and colleges, from the education and library boards and, of course, from the students themselves. The review will cover student loans, allowances, access funds, discretionary awards and the potential to create other forms of student support.
Work has already begun. My officials are drawing together a consultation document to be published in early March. Once the responses have been interpreted and the various options analysed and costed, I want to come forward with proposals for consideration in the summer.
I am not going to predict outcomes or even indicate what options might emerge. I want a thorough review of existing arrangements leading to a set of costed proposals for change.
The widening of access is not a luxury for our society - it is a necessity. We must explore how learning can become a feature of life for more people, especially those currently excluded, and what role the state has in supporting this learning.
Sean Farren is minister for higher and further education in Northern Ireland.
* Should Northern Ireland students receive more financial support?
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