‘Shackles on Magee’

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Stormont’s limit on student places and uncertainty about the level of tuition fees are frustrating vitally-needed expansion of the University of Ulster in Derry, according to the Acting Provost of the Magee Campus, Professor Deirdre Heenan.

She’s warned that students hoping to attend university next year risk missing out on loans that will partly fund their studies if politicians delay a decision on student fees beyond mid-summer.

And, writing in today’s Derry Journal she makes an impassioned plea to the Northern Ireland Executive to end the current limit on full-time undergraduate recruitment, known as the ‘MaSN’ cap (Maximum Aggregate Student Number).

Echoing a comment by the University’s Vice-Chancellor, Professor Richard Barnett, earlier this week, Professor Heenan welcomed an indication by the Minister for Employment and Learning, Danny Kennedy, that he recognised the need to expand university places and was seeking to find ways of doing so within his current budget.

The North already has the smallest higher education base per head of population of any region on these islands. Now, Professor Heenan asserts, the MaSN cap “is shackling Magee”.

Her views not only ratchet up the University’s pressure on the current Assembly and Executive but, crucially, put down a firm marker for the incoming Executive after the May elections which will make the final decision on the twin key issues.

The Vice-Chancellor, who was commenting on the Minister’s statement on student fees to the Assembly on Tuesday, voiced disappointment that the Minister had not unveiled a definitive fees’ level proposal. And Professor Barnett emphasised that a lifting of MaSN was a priority for Magee’s expansion plans.

Professor Heenan, who is also Dean of Academic Development, says that because there will be no decision on tuition fees until after the Assembly election, it will be a hot issue on the doorsteps as political campaigning gets under way.

“It is vital that a decision is made by mid-summer, otherwise students wishing to attend Northern Ireland universities in 2012 may be denied access to loans by the Student Loans Company.”

She praises a cross-party initiative late last year by the MLAs representing Foyle at Stormont.