Academics say higher fees could address university underfunding
An independent academic body has recommended that university tuition fees increase to £9,000 a year.
The Royal Irish Academy (RIA) said higher education in the north is experiencing a period of very significant underfunding.
In March, former employment and learning minister Dr Stephen Farry published an `options paper' outlining potential funding models.
The status quo, he said, had led to reduced student and staff places and a shrinking higher education sector.
Higher fees were among a range of options presented as a way to better fund universities.
The north's system is worse off than England by £48 million a year.
Institutions there are not as reliant on government funding because they can charge much higher fees, while caps on places, that remain in the north, have also been lifted.
Broad options presented by Dr Farry included keeping the existing fee structure of almost £4,000 a year, introducing a model of fee-free higher education similar to Scotland, or increasing fees to up to £9,000 a year.
Now, in an advice paper, the RIA - made up of Ireland's leading research academics - said higher education was experiencing a period of unprecedented underfunding relative to other UK regions.
This funding shortfall, the body warned, threatened the planned economic development of Northern Ireland as envisaged in the `Fresh Start' agreement.
The current funding model, the paper added, was directly contradictory to the Executive's commitment to grow and rebalance the economy and the skills base required to fulfil that aim.
It recommended that caps on student numbers should be lifted to ensure that well-qualified school leavers are not forced to leave the north due to limits on degree places at home.
The RIA proposed three solutions - increase the level of Executive funding to universities, increase fees to £9,000, or a hybrid of the two.
Increasing fees in line with England and Wales, it added, should be supported by "income-contingent loans" repayable after graduation.
This would allow caps to be abolished and student numbers to rise locally, "reducing the brain drain and permitting further university expansion".
"It would also reduce the strain on NI Executive funds and could allow for living allowance support for students from lower socio-economic backgrounds," the advice paper said.
"Notwithstanding the greater scope for progressive support under such a funding regime, the trebling of tuition fees would be politically challenging.
"A failure to address the current HE funding situation will lead inevitably to a decline in the quality and reputation of Northern Ireland's universities and their graduates."