Northern Ireland news

Students risk becoming Brexit's 'collateral damage' as tuition fee hikes and reduction in university places are considered on back of Brussels funding cut

Increases in university fees of almost 60 per cent are be considered by the Department for the Economy
John Manley and Suzanne McGonagle

STUDENTS risk becoming the "collateral damage" from Brexit after it emerged that the Department for the Economy (DfE) is considering major cost-cutting measures.

Options being considered by DUP minister Gordon Lyons' department include increasing student fees by almost 60 per cent and cutting the number of university places.

Scrapping Educational Maintenance Allowance (EMA), which helps 16-19 year olds from low income backgrounds, has also been mooted.

The proposed money-saving measures emerged as it was revealed that DfE is to lose more than £100m of EU funding due to Brexit.

Stormont's economy committee heard on Wednesday how Mr Lyons' department received around £65 million a year from Brussels prior to Brexit. While the British government’s new Shared Prosperity Fund was supposed to replace the funding, senior officials said there would be a £100m gap for core services over the next three years.

Finance Minister Conor Murphy has previously warned that the 2022-25 budget would see some departments facing "significant challenges", with the executive committed to making health a spending priority.

In options modelled by DfE to make savings of around £250m, it has been suggested that increasing university fees from £4,530 a year to around £7,200 from 2024 would save £63m.

It also said £30m could be saved a year by cutting the number of student places it funds at the north's universities.

EMA payments of £30 a week towards the cost of student travel, books and equipment could be cut to create a saving of £15m a year, the BBC reported, noting that the measures were "modelled options" and not yet concrete proposals.

The presentation warned that "life outcomes for young people will change dramatically" as a result of the cuts.

Sinn Féin's Caoimhe Archibald said the loss of the EU funding was "putting jobs and livelihoods at risk".

She said many organisations were already contemplating staff cuts, while Invest NI's business development and innovation programme were also expected to suffer.

"The British government needs to fully replace the EU funding lost to the north and finally provide clarification on the rollout of the Shared Prosperity Fund," the East Derry MLA said.

SDLP economy spokesperson Matthew O’Toole said "students cannot be collateral damage of the Brexit shambles impacting the north".

"The options put forward by DfE would have a huge impact on our young people and their education," he said.

"Cutting university places will restrict opportunities for our young people, at a time when too many are already leaving this island for university and never returning, while abolishing EMA would also make it harder for working class young people to remain in education and pursue their goals."

Green leader Clare Bailey said: “The fact that these massive cuts to our young people’s future are even being considered demonstrates the five-party executive’s short-sightedness and failure to deliver for Northern Ireland.”

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