Stormont budget paper misses the point, warn students
PLANS to generate income in education must be opposed robustly, students have urged.
A Department of Finance paper on the north's budget 2018-20 made recommendations on where money could be saved.
This included training fewer teachers, increasing university fees, ending Educational Maintenance Allowances (EMA) and means-testing transport.
Northern Ireland fees are capped significantly below the level in England. This means that the funding available to universities is lower, the paper said, with the potential to impact on the quality and range of courses on offer.
Increasing fee levels would increase the amount of income received by universities from students themselves. This would not raise revenue for the executive, however, it could provide additional resources for the higher education sector, thereby reducing pressures on the funding provided by the executive.
Any increase could only be introduced for the academic year 2020/21 at the earliest.
On teacher training places, the paper said the `teacher demand model' indicated a need for between 381 and 393 places. However, in recent years, the total annual intake allocated across the four higher education providers has been 580.
If approved, intakes were reduced to reflect demand, this would result in savings in the range of approximately £800,000 a year.
NUS-USI President Olivia Potter-Hughes said the paper "paints a picture of scorched-earth budgetary policy".
"One wonders whether the sole function of this document was to try and scare parties back in to devolved government here?" she said.
"If so, it appears not to have worked and seems only to have caused significant worry amongst people who depended on public services and on important government schemes. NUS-USI wants devolution up and running again as soon as possible, but we certainly don't want to see a bonfire of public services to try and force this outcome.
"This document is extremely negative and narrow in its outlook. The paper appears to misses the point, as there little or nothing in the document about tackling the massive cost of a segregated society, which is one of the largest drains on public finances here."
Ms Potter-Hughes added that there was a need for imaginative solutions, not cuts to vital services and initiatives "that are crucial to the public, to educational opportunities and to the economy".
Creating an increased regional rates system based upon ability to pay, she said, would be an imaginative solution that could prevent cuts.
"Given the significant economic challenges that Brexit and global economic instability could leave at our doorstep, it is extremely important that we invest in people here," she said.
"We must invest to create a society that we believe can attract business and jobs, rather than making damaging budget cuts which will ruthlessly target students and the most vulnerable people in our society."