Northern Ireland news

DUP's Arlene Foster says tuition fees need debated in 'positive way'

DUP leader and First Minister Arlene Foster. Picture by Liam McBurney/PA

ARLENE Foster has hinted that higher university tuition fees could be considered by Stormont.

The First Minister said the executive should re-examine how universities are funded, and the issue of tuition fees needs debated in a "positive way".

Mrs Foster was discussing policy considerations after the British government earlier this week detailed its funding package to support the new power-sharing executive.

An extra £1 billion has been offered as part of the deal, but Sinn Féin finance minister Conor Murphy has said the funding is not enough.

Secretary of State Julian Smith on Thursday said he was disappointed Stormont parties had ruled out introducing water charges and other rates increases to raise revenue streams.

Speaking on BBC Radio Ulster's Inside Politics programme, Mrs Foster said the executive was "at one" in its opposition to water charges.

"I don't see the issue of water rates coming back onto the table again," the DUP leader said.

She said she did not want people who could not afford them to be punished, and that a wider look at possible measures was needed.

"These are all policy debates we need to have, but I do think we need to have a look at, for example, universities and how they're funded," she said.

Asked if that meant higher tuition fees for students, she was not conclusive but said it needed to be debated in a "positive way".

"We can look at other issues as well – it doesn't mean we decide one way or the other," she added.

"Government costs money and when people say: 'I want to have all these things dealt with,' we have to say, 'Where are our priorities?'"

Mrs Foster said she was willing to discuss whether more revenue needs to be raised, how this could be done, and who it may affect.

Reacting to the DUP leader's remarks, NUS-USI president Robert Murtagh said the tuition fees debate "has been had" and "additional financial burden on students is not the answer".

"Tuition fees are a barrier to accessing education, particularly for students from lower socio-economic backgrounds," he said.

"The future of Northern Ireland hangs in the balance, particularly with Brexit on the horizon. It is therefore key that we eradicate barriers to accessing higher education rather than raising them."

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