STORMONT’S decision to charge students from Great Britain more than double the university fees of some foreign students is “galling” for English taxpayers, a prominent London-based pressure group has said.
The TaxPayers’ Alliance spoke out about the plan unveiled last week by higher education minister Stephen Farry and supported by the executive.
Under the plan, students from Northern Ireland — and any EU country except England, Scotland and Wales — will pay £3,465 a year to study at the province’s universities.
But, despite a £9 billion annual subsidy from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, the executive will allow universities to charge students from the mainland up to £9,000 a year.
Mr Farry has said that EU rules mean that he had to set the lower ‘local’ fees for EU students but that if he had not raised fees for students from the rest of the UK there would have been a flood of students crossing the Irish Sea.
A similar decision by the Scottish nationalist administration in Edinburgh is being challenged in the courts by English students and if they succeed Stormont will have to abandon its plan.
The TaxPayers’ Alliance said that the situation was unfair to many UK students. The group’s director, Matthew Sinclair, said: “Subsidising European students while charging those from England full fees is completely unfair and particular galling for English taxpayers who already provide Northern Ireland with a hefty subsidy.
“Having to subsidise students coming from all over Europe is also another sign of how expensive it is for Northern Ireland to reject fees that fairly ensure students pay for their valuable education, when they can afford to.
“It will put more pressure on taxpayers already struggling and mean more cuts elsewhere.”
The only Stormont party to query the decision to freeze fees locally but hike them for other British students is the Ulster Unionist Party, which said that Stormont was being reckless with the future of the Union by stoking nationalist sentiment against those in devolved regions getting a better deal.
However, the DUP has dismissed those concerns and said that the logic of the UUP’s argument was “some crazed notion” that devolution weakens the Union.
DUP MLA Alastair Ross said: “Devolution for Northern Ireland however must mean that the Northern Ireland Assembly and executive can take decisions in the best interests of local students.”
Yesterday Mr Farry defended his proposals as “the clearest demonstration since the recent election that the institutions can work successfully for local people and the future economy”.
But former University of Ulster vice chancellor Professor Gerry McKenna said the higher charge for inbound GB students was “grossly anomalous”.
“This means that children of English taxpayers, who support Northern Ireland with a large annual subvention, will be openly discriminated against,” Mr McKenna told the News Letter last week.
“I believe this to be not only unfair but also politically unwise. It will also have the undesirable effect of increasing parochialism in our universities.”