Diane Dodds: Students will not be priced out of university
The first in her family to attend university, Diane Dodds says education opened up opportunities. She tells Simon Doyle that as minister responsible for higher education, she wants to broaden access - not create barriers
HIGHER education in Northern Ireland is worse off than England by tens of millions of pounds a year - for two main reasons.
Institutions in the north are more reliant on government funding because they cannot charge fees as high.
The north also caps the number of places for `home' students.
Before the Department for the Economy was created, third-level learning fell within the remit of the Department for Employment and Learning.
Ministers there spoke of an overhaul. The status quo had led to reduced student and staff numbers, and a shrinking sector.
Unpopular options for securing a more sustainable system included tuition fees of up to £9,000.
At present, students who take degrees at home pay £4,275. Those who travel to England and Wales can be charged up to £9,250.
One of the most pressing, and potentially controversial, issues on Diane Dodds' ministerial desk at Netherleigh House is how to better fund higher education.
First Minister Arlene Foster last month said the executive should re-examine how universities are funded, and the issue of tuition fees needs debated in a "positive way".
Mrs Dodds said she agreed, but students should not be penalised.
"Student fees are not the only aspect of that debate and, therefore, we should not pick on the students," she said.
"One of the things I am absolutely adamant about - I come from a family where I was the first to go to university. I absolutely believe that opening up educational opportunities to all is supremely important in this brief, therefore I do not want to see students priced out of university.
"It is really important that we are looking at it in the round and that we are not just picking on one aspect of revenue for universities. Education for me opened up opportunities and I want to see opportunity offered for everyone."
The NUS-USI student body has said it wants Northern Ireland to implement a system similar to Scotland, where there are no tuition fees.
"In Scotland they are able to offer to their own students a particular outcome," Mrs Dodds said.
"That would require a significant investment from the executive. If that were to take place, it would certainly be an executive decision, but we will be looking at all issues."
She added that she would soon meet universities and student leaders to discuss funding, adding that student unions played an important role.
"It is really important for students to have a voice in how their college or university progresses. It is also really important that we engage with them," she said.
"We are long since past the stage of doing things to people, we should be doing things with people."
Mrs Dodds, who is a teacher by background and represented both north and west Belfast, said it was vital to open up universities to communities.
She noted that the new Ulster University (UU) campus in Belfast, was located near socially deprived areas.
"I would like to take up the debate with universities on how they react to and interact with the communities around them," she said.
"In terms of Ulster, it will have a brand spanking new building - how will they interact with Brown Square, New Lodge, Tigers Bay?
"If universities are to be engines of change they will have to do that."
Late last year, auditors warned that UU did not have enough money to complete its Belfast campus without "substantial additional external funding".
The price tag is now estimated at £363.9 million, an audit report found, 43 per cent in excess of the original budget.
"I'm keen to see stability and progress on the whole issue. All overspends concern me and we will be looking at how this actually happened," Mrs Dodds said.
The New Decade, New Approach (NDNA) deal said the executive would bring forward proposals for the expansion of UU's Magee campus in Derry, including an increase in students.
This will help it realise its 10,000 student campus target and a graduate entry medical school. The university had to abandon its plans to recruit medical students to begin this year.
Mrs Dodds said she would work hard to fulfil the deal's commitments within the current, shorter mandate.
"This is a huge project. Some of the work happening now is groundbreaking - built upon and brought to conclusion and allowed to flourish, will make real gains for the regional economy in the northwest. I am committed to making gains for regional economies right throughout Northern Ireland. Fundamental to that is access to education," she said.
"There is a commitment in NDNA and we will do our best but there are issues that we need to address."
UU has requested a loan of £126m from the Department for the Economy to complete the Belfast campus. Magee supporters say there should be no money handed over without assurances over expansion in Derry.
"There is a bit of mischief making around some of these issues. I am clear it is a political commitment. It is something that we will work towards but something that we have work to do on," Mrs Dodds said.
"It is not a matter of the Belfast campus or the Magee campus. It should be both. Both will develop economies and both will have a local impact.
"If you think of that area of north Belfast, there will be a huge spin-off for that very localised economy. It is regenerating a part of the city. Equally in Londonderry, the expansion of Magee will regenerate part of the city right down to the waterfront."
The Department for the Economy's skills barometer published last August said the north was training too many teachers for the jobs market.
Previous minister Stephen Farry also said he believed the system of separate teacher training providers was unsustainable.
The NDNA document speaks of a review in education with a focus on securing greater efficiency in costs and the prospects of "moving towards a single system".
Mrs Dodds said there were no plans yet to look at higher education similarly.
"It is always better when people are educated together. I think it is important and good for society. It is always better if we can decrease duplication," she said.
"I think that is a valuable aspiration to hold as well and I will be looking at the overall provision, but I have no plans to do anything further."