Stormont accused over pro-Irish student plan


DEL minister Stephen Farry stands accused of discrimination against students from mainland Britain on the issue of tuition fees. Political Correspondent SAM McBRIDE reports

STORMONT has prioritised efforts to make it easier for students from the Republic of Ireland to study in Northern Ireland – just months after hiking fees for students from the rest of the UK.

Last September, the Executive decided to freeze fees for local students at the Province’s two universities at £3,500 but allow those universities to charge students from Great Britain up to £9,000 to study here.

At the time, the News Letter revealed that, because of EU rules, the Executive’s decision resulted in the situation whereby students from any EU country – whether it be the Republic of Ireland, Germany or Greece – will pay £3,500, while those from 20 miles across the Irish Sea face bills of up to £9,000 a year.

Now Stormont’s Department of Employment and Learning (DEL) has published a Higher Education Strategy which says that one of its key priorities in the coming years will be to further remove barriers to students from Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland studying in the neighbouring jurisdiction.

Last night, the Conservatives said that it was “highly ironic” that the report was prioritising attracting more foreign students and removing “obstacles to student mobility” just months after the “blatant discrimination” against UK students.

However, a spokeswoman for DEL denied that its minister, Alliance’s Stephen Farry, was guilty of discrimination and pointed out that students from Great Britain will, in the vast majority of cases, have to pay lower fees if they choose a Northern Ireland university over one in England.

The DEL strategy document says: “The department will work in partnership with the HEIs [Higher Education Institutions] and the Irish Government to reduce the obstacles to student mobility between north and south, and to implement the recommendations of the IBEC-CBI Joint Business Council report on undergraduate mobility.

“The HEIs will be expected to set their own targets for increasing student flows between the two jurisdictions, and to contribute to promoting mobility through:

n increased visibility at careers fairs in the Republic of Ireland;

n better information and communication; and

n clear admissions processes between institutions in both jurisdictions.”

The Stormont strategy also says that there is “considerable scope for cross-border co-operation in higher education, particularly in border areas”.

Northern Ireland Conservatives’ spokeswoman Annika Nestius-Brown said: “It is thoroughly ironic that the report prioritises attracting more foreign students and removing ‘obstacles to student mobility’ across the Irish border when, at the same time, the minister has introduced blatant discrimination against youngsters from the rest of the UK who want to study in Northern Ireland.

“Student mobility is certainly of critical importance to higher education here but, by charging English, Scottish and Welsh students more, nobody has done more to reduce that mobility than Stephen Farry and this Executive.”

Ms Nestius-Brown also claimed that the overall strategy was “too vague” and that it was, in places, “completely contradictory”.

“Among the jargon and the padding are some good ideas. For instance, guaranteeing every student in higher education a work placement is a worthy aspiration, albeit that the minister thinks he can only deliver that aim by 2020.

“Similarly, the notion that universities could open bases at certain Further Education Colleges has the potential to make life easier for distance and part-time students.

“Unfortunately, where the ideas are good, the timescales are too generous. We need to address the needs of industry quicker if we are to grow the economy.

“Why, for instance, can’t we look at funding incentives to take up STEM subjects [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] immediately?”

However, a spokeswoman for the Department for Employment and Learning said: “In regard to tuition fees, the minister has not ‘introduced blatant discrimination’.

“He has, however, responded to the fees and funding changes that have been introduced by the governments across the UK.

“The minister has repeatedly stated clearly that he wants to encourage people from across the UK to study in Northern Ireland.

“However, their motivation for doing so should not be influenced solely by cost but also by factors such as the quality of the universities, the student experience and future opportunities.

“Tuition fees for students from the rest of the UK who wish to study in Northern Ireland are no higher than the fees that they will face if they choose to study in other parts of the UK.

“Indeed, in some circumstances, they are likely to be much lower. In addition, students from Northern Ireland who wish to study in the rest of the UK will be able to avail of student loans of up to £9,000 to cover their fees.”

The Stormont strategy also commits to reviewing the cap on student numbers for Northern Ireland’s two universities. Both institutions have been arguing for years to be allowed to take on more students.

The Maximum Student Number (MaSN) will be reviewed by 2016, the document says.

Last year the Executive’s decision to charge students from the rest of the UK more than those from the Republic divided unionist opinion.

The DUP supported the move, arguing that if it had not done so the Province’s universities would have been swamped with applications from across the water, shutting out local students.

However, the Ulster Unionists, TUV and the Conservatives opposed the decision.

The former Ulster Unionist employment and learning minister, Lord Empey, warned that there was “great resentment” at Westminster over the “anti-unionist” policy.

See Morning View, page 18