Tuition fee hike and student number cap considered in Northern Ireland

The Northern Ireland Department for the Economy has modelled ways to manage budget shortfalls between 2022 and 2025, but acknowledge cuts would exacerbate inequalities and harm educational outcomes

Cutting the number of university places and increasing tuition fees are two options civil servants in Northern Ireland have modelled as the government battles to confront spending shortfalls.

In a presentation given to Stormont’s Economy Committee, a senior civil servant – Sharon Hetherington – told members of the legislative assembly (MLAs) that the Department for the Economy’s (DfE) annual budget of around £800m could face a £2% baseline cut and the loss of £65m of EU funding per annum.

The potential shortfall would leave a “huge hole” in core spending, she said. Eighty-four per cent of the annual NI budget for 2022-2025 is already committed – and the DfE estimates it needs to save about £250m during the period to “stand still”.

Nearly three-quarters of the DfE budget is spent on education, innovation and skills.

Civil servants have projected the estimated savings of various measures – and the likely economic impact of any cuts on the health of the Northern Irish economy.

Beginning her summary, Hetherington told MLAs: “There are no soft options to balance the books that would allow DfE to just stand still.”

An increase of 59% to tuition fees – to £7,500 – was one option outlined by the civil servant, along with a reduction in the number of higher education student places and less grant support to HE students from disadvantaged backgrounds. A tuition fee hike would save £63m, but modelled changes could place universities in Northern Ireland under “huge financial stress”.

“A cessation or significant reduction in the undergrad intake to HEIs could place them in financial difficulties,” Hetherington said, adding: “Any option to mitigate against the impact to the HE sector would require the executive to increase student tuition fees and remove grant support to those students from low-income families.”

The DfE has also modelled the impact of a 50% reduction in apprenticeship places, the cessation of higher-level apprenticeship funding, a cap on numbers in youth training, and the abolishment of educational maintenance allowance (EMA) offered to disadvantaged students aged between 16 and 19. Ending EMA would save £15m. Cutting all other student grants could save the department an additional £51m.

These cuts would perpetuate the “structural weaknesses in skills and education” that currently mean Northern Ireland has the “weakest skills profile of any part of the UK region”, Hetherington told committee members. The cuts to support would “dramatically” impact the life outcomes of young people, she said.

Education and skills spending in Northern Ireland dropped 14% since 2010/11. The options are at consideration at this stage and are not guaranteed to become law.

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