'Three-week rush' may shrink Oxbridge chances for Northern Irish students

The Northern Ireland Executive has been urged by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service and the Student Loans Company (SLC) to clarify its position on tuition fees for 2012-13 as a matter of urgency.

July 28, 2011

There are fears that students from Northern Ireland will be put off applying to the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, as well as to medicine, dentistry and veterinary courses in the rest of the UK. The early applications deadlines for those institutions and subjects mean that students may have to apply just three weeks after learning what fees they will have to pay.

The devolved administration's first and deputy first ministers have pledged to freeze fees at £3,375 for home students who study in Northern Ireland. However, there has been no decision on whether they will be obliged to pay up to £9,000 to study elsewhere in the UK, or if the executive will cover some of their fees.

The Northern Ireland Assembly, which must approve any change in fees, returns from recess on 5 September. One former Assembly civil servant said it would be "unusual" for legislation to pass in less than two weeks, meaning that Northern Irish students will be left in the dark over fees until just three weeks before the 15 October deadline for Oxbridge and all medicine, dentistry and veterinary courses.

According to participants in a debate in the Northern Ireland Assembly last month, Mary Curnock Cook, chief executive of Ucas, warned the assembly's business committee in a letter that "time is running out fast, as the 2012 admissions cycle is already under way".

The SLC confirmed that its chairman, Ed Smith, had written to the employment and learning minister, Stephen Farry, to urge him to allow his organisation enough time to prepare for the changes.

The SLC says in a statement that "administrations understand the need to provide clarity on what the company is being asked to deliver as soon as possible in order to introduce the new fees structures for 2012-13".

Adrianne Peltz, the National Union of Students-Union of Students in Ireland president for Northern Ireland, said that the "three-week rush" would risk students not applying in time or making poor decisions.

Applications would also be submitted later than those of students from the rest of the UK. Ms Peltz said they would therefore end up "at the bottom of the pile" and have less chance of being accepted.

She also warned that if Northern Irish students did have to pay up to £9,000 to study in the rest of the UK, it was unclear whether the Northern Irish SLC would lend them the full amount of their fees.

This raises the prospect that students could have to apply separately to the English SLC for the extra money, Ms Peltz said.

The executive could agree to subsidise students' higher fees in the rest of the UK, as the Welsh government plans to do, or leave students to pay up to £9,000 if they study outside the country, as will be the case for Scottish students.

It is also unclear how much students from outside Northern Ireland will have to pay to study there.

The executive could allow its universities to charge higher fees to plug part of the looming £40 million annual shortfall in Northern Irish higher education.

A spokesman for the Department for Employment and Learning said that Mr Farry was "working to ensure that decisions are made as soon as possible to provide clarity and certainty for students, parents, institutions and other stakeholders".

david.matthews@tsleducation.com.

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