Brexit could lead to fees hike says Queen's vice-chancellor

Professor Patrick Johnston. Picture by Hugh Russell

STUDENTS from the Republic are facing potential massive university fee increases after the UK withdraws from the EU.

The head of Queen's University Belfast said EU undergraduates could be charged pricier international tuition fees post-Brexit.

In an interview with the Irish News today, Professor Patrick Johnston also spoke about the impact that political instability at Stormont was having on the higher education sector.

The vice chancellor said the lack of an Executive, and a budget for higher education, had led to "huge uncertainty".

"As we sit beyond the middle of May, we still do not know what our budget for the next academic year is going to be, which begins in August," Prof Johnston said.

"What we've done is we have taken a strategy to try to create certainty even under those circumstances, so we have created a flat budget for next year because we have to create some level of certainty for our staff and students. As you can imagine, working in that context, planning strategically, planning for short, medium or long-term is actually very, very difficult.

"You then put that into the wider challenge of a university sector in Northern Ireland where this is the only part of the UK that has not been investing in higher education since 2011. We have already a structural deficit of about £55 million, underfunding per student of between £900 to £2,500, and we are the only part of the UK that gets rid of our most talented kids - 38 per cent leave at the age of 18 and the vast majority never come back."

Prof Johnston said the university was not considering cuts to courses or staff at present but said issues around funding needed to be addressed.

"Back in 2015/16, we had the additional loss of £16m from the budget on top of an existing deficit where we lost a total of somewhere close to £30m in the higher education budget. Over the last seven years the level of reduction in terms of cash have been around 16-17 per cent, the relative reduction has been closer to 28 per cent.

"Two years ago we had to take the very unpalatable decision that we would reduce student numbers and also staff numbers, which is something that no vice chancellor wants to have to announce. Northern Ireland has lost over 2,200 student places already as a result of where we are.

"In the absence of an assembly and concrete picture of where we are going from a financial point of view, you can only plan year to year, but ultimately if this level of funding and trend in terms of cuts relative to other parts of the UK continues, we will have no option other than to revisit some of those issues again."

Before May's assembly election, former minister Stephen Farry published options for securing a sustainable higher education system. The status quo, he said, had led to reduced student and staff places.

With Stormont finances expected become even tighter, it is feared a tuition rise may be the only available source of extra income. Annual costs ranging from £6,500 to £9,000 are being considered.

Prof Johnston said there was a recognition now there was a real issue - that of developing a sustainable higher education system for Northern Ireland that could be competitive at a national and global level.

"That is really important because some of the aspirations that we have around out Economy 2030 plan is all about developing a very new Northern Ireland, one that is focussed on very high quality talent, innovation, leadership and developing graduates that have those skills," he added.

"We have a skills shortage in Northern Ireland and if we want to really compete in a global economy then we are going to have to start to invest in a way we have never done before. And it's not just a recent legacy, we have never properly invested in higher education and our young people. Countries like Mexico, Singapore, Slovenia have a higher ratio of spending in higher education per GDP than we do. We spend 0.8 per cent of GDP on higher education. The UK in general is about 1.2 per cent.

"What they are telling us is in Northern Ireland, we do not invest in training and educating our talented workforce for what society needs for tomorrow."

While Queen's has costed each proposal in the options paper, it has no official policy on fees and whether they should increase or not.

There are fears that thousands of students from the Republic taking degrees in the UK and Northern Ireland could face costly non-EU fees as result of the Brexit vote.

There have been calls for assurances that third level students will be able to continue studying across the border without financial or residency issues.

At present, those from EU countries and the Republic are charged the same as those who live in Northern Ireland, which will be £4,030 per year from September.

Fees for non-EU international students in 2017/18, are much higher, ranging from £15,200 to £35,900 a year. A five year medical degree could cost more than £145,000.

While the decision to leave the EU is unlikely to have an immediate impact, there have been calls for mechanisms to enable students from the UK to study in Ireland and students from the Republic to continue to study in the UK.

For EU students commencing degrees in the 2017/18 academic year, fees and financial aid will remain the same as before the Brexit vote. That same guarantee is not currently in place for the 2018/19 academic year.

In the longer term, it seems likely that EU students will have to pay the higher fee rates that currently apply to those from outside of the EU.

Asked about this possibility and its affect on the Republic's students, Prof Johnston said: "It depends on what comes through the Brexit agreement, but technically you are absolutely right.

"EU students are treated the same as home students. We have a bizarre setting where if you are from Northern Ireland, partly because we don't have sufficient student places here, that 38 per cent are being charged £9,000 and will be charged more than £9,000 going forward to go to English universities.

"So, by not addressing the funding issue here, we are penalising 38 per cent who have to go elsewhere.

"In relation to the EU, yes it is quite possible that we could have a spectrum where EU students are being charged international fees, and technically that could absolutely impact on students from from the south, which in my view would be a very negative thing."

A Brexit group, Prof Johnston said, was set up very early after the referendum, partly because of the level of uncertainty for both students and staff.

"That group has worked both inside the university and also now extensively outside with political leaders locally and political leadership in the south," he said.

"One of the things we are very clear about is, as a global institution sitting here in Northern Ireland, we feel very strongly about the ability for us to attract and retain local talent - that's both staff and students. We have talked about the mobility of students and the importance of the relationship across the island, not just from a university standpoint, but also in terms of the economy, and there is no doubt that Brexit poses very bespoke challenges to all of us here and the university sector as well.

"The Royal Irish Academy now have a group working on Brexit, which we are part of.

"The total number of EU students is about 1,000 and we have about 2,000 international students. We have a very strong international community, and one that we are intent on growing."

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