Earlier this week, the Employment and Learning Minister Danny Kennedy made it clear that there will be no decision on tuition fees until after the Assembly Election.
Launching a public consultation which will run until June 10, the Minister set out five options for addressing the related issues of student fees and university funding. Effectively what the Minister did on Tuesday was to hand over to the next Assembly, next Executive and next DEL Minister the decision on whether fees will go up to a minimum of £4,500 per annum or whether an additional £40 million can be found for higher education by the next Executive if they freeze them.
This is unfortunate as many parents and pupils, who will be doing their A Levels next year, have already begun to weigh up their options over which university they will go to but are still awaiting some clarity about the financial situation they will face if they study closer to home.What Tuesday’s statement from the Minister also means is that each party or candidate’s position on tuition fees will now be among the hot issues facing politicians as they knock voters’ doors in the campaign for May’s Assembly election.
It is crucial when the new Assembly and Executive are formed that the next DEL Minister and Executive moves quickly to decide which of the five options they will pursue. It is also 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.
An important upside to the recent clamour over fees is the fresh light the debate has shed on what has long been a hindrance to the University of Ulster’s plans to expand Magee - the government-imposed limit on full-time undergraduate university places.
Full-time student numbers are strictly regulated by DEL under the Maximum Aggregate Student Number, which is commonly known as the ‘MaSN’ cap. It dictates the size of the full-time undergraduate population and enables DEL to establish how much it must allocate each year to the cost of full time undergraduate teaching.
The MaSN cap, which is set at 24,000 full-time undergraduates for the University of Ulster’s four campuses, does not affect the number of places available for post-graduate, part-time or international students.
But it is shackling Magee.
In a commendable demonstration of cross-party unity last November, the six SDLP, Sinn Fein and DUP MLAs from Foyle (including the Foyle MP) made a joint appeal to the Executive to support the University’s long-standing proposal for an extra 1,000 full-time undergraduate places at Magee.
The University is grateful to them for their strong intervention in a matter that is central to the success of its plans to expand Magee.
However, with the review of fees and the Minister’s comments about higher education provision in the North West, it is imperative they, other Assembly hopefuls and other people in the city continue to press in the weeks leading up to and following the May election for a raising of the MaSN cap.
In a welcome move, the Minister, in reply to Pat Ramsey MLA on Tuesday, for the first time signalled that his Department is actively looking, under the terms of Sir Graeme Davies’ parallel review of Higher Education, at how an expansion of student numbers at the Magee campus can be achieved in the current Budget cycle.
Whatever the next Assembly and Executive does on fees, it will only highlight the need for MaSN to be addressed urgently.
Northern Ireland has the smallest higher education base per head of population than any other region on these islands. With fees for those in Northern Ireland considering studying in England Scotland and Wales set to rise dramatically to between £6,000 and £9,000, it is anticipated many of those students, particularly in the north west, will, if fees are frozen or even modestly increased by Stormont, opt to study closer to home.
On top of that, the prospect of fees that are £3,000 cheaper here might entice some English students to apply for university places in Northern Ireland.
In this academic year, Magee received a record number of applications for places. The competition for them is set to hot up. If the MaSN cap remains at current levels, admission grades are bound to increase as pressure for places intensifies.
From the day two years ago when the University announced its Magee Development Plan, we have made clear to the Executive and Assembly the pivotal importance of being permitted to recruit an additional 1,000 full-time undergraduates as the first step in our ambitious expansion programme in the city.
We have constantly stressed that the tuition fees issue is inextricably linked with the MaSN cap.
The lifeblood of any economy is its intellectual capital and skills. Magee is home to cutting-edge international research and development programmes that feed into the type of digital age innovation which will fan economy recovery and social cohesion. In the North West, people value university education beyond measure. History, a sense of fair play and good reason fuel a passion for university growth. It is a passion unrivalled in any like size city in these islands.
In the past, perhaps, there has been a tendency to regard the MaSN cap as a minor piece of technical jargon but as we enter an Assembly Election which will determine which party will take the Employment and Learning portfolio, we are acutely aware of the MaSN cap’s harsh realities.
A green light in the next Assembly and Executive for 1,000 more full-time undergraduates would be a valued signal of support for the University in its determination to expand Magee. It would also give a fresh spurt to the North West’s regeneration drive.