Northern Ireland news

Lifting student cap would require higher tuition fees or budget cuts, MPs told

Economy Minister Gordon Lyons said: “I want to make sure that we do keep as many of our young people here as possible." Picture by Liam McBurney, Press Association
Jonathan McCambridge, PA

Increasing the number of university places in Northern Ireland would require introducing higher tuition fees or taking money from another Stormont department, economy minister Gordon Lyons has told a committee of MPs.

The Westminster Science and Technology Committee is visiting Northern Ireland and heard concerns about the number of students who leave the north and never return during an evidence session at Stormont.

The committee is exploring how science and technology is contributing to the post-19 Covid recovery across the UK.

MPs were told that more than 17,000 students leave Northern Ireland every year and two thirds of those do not return.

Conservative MP Aaron Bell said: “You are losing too many of your bright teenagers.

“There is a cap the Executive has put on the student numbers at university.

“Why won’t you lift that cap and keep more of your bright young things here?”

Mr Lyons responded: “I want to make sure that we do keep as many of our young people here as possible.

“We were within a five-party Executive and if we were to raise that cap we would have to significantly increase the funding in order to pay for it.

“That would have to come from one of two areas, we would either have to increase tuition fees or take money from somewhere else within an already stretched budget.

“That is the political reality we face right now.”

Northern Irish students who study at local universities currently pay £4,530 a year in tuition fees, compared to more than £9,000 for those who study in England.

Mr Lyons added: “The point has been made that if we keep tuition fees at this level there will be some people who feel forced to go away and then they will have to pay that higher increase in fees.

“It is something that will require cross-party deliberation.

“I think some people around this table will be aware of how difficult things were during the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition.

“What we have in Northern Ireland is that on steroids.”

The DUP minister was also quizzed on how the absence of a powersharing Executive at Stormont is affecting his ability to fulfil his economic strategies.

The DUP has refused to support the current restoration of an Executive or the election of an Assembly speaker as part of its protest against the post-Brexit Northern Ireland Protocol.

Mr Lyons told the committee “Of course it is always our preference to make sure we have stable government in Northern Ireland.

“I suppose the one issue in which there are difficulties would be in relation to a budget.

“We need to make sure the programmes and the initiatives that we want to fund, and these would be new initiatives so would require additional financial support, it is another reason why it is so important that the government do what they promised to do in relation to sorting out the issues around the protocol.”

An academic told the committee that the political vacuum at Stormont affected business confidence and impacted local universities.

Professor Nola Hewitt-Dundas, from Queen’s University Belfast said: “I think it affects everything in terms of life in Northern Ireland from the smallest programmes that are not being funded and not clear about the funding streams to the big issues.

“It is the whole gambit.

“Even in terms of students.

“We lost about 17,500 Northern Ireland students to other GB universities and part of that is we don’t have the numbers here but the other part is political instability.

“A recent survey by Pivotal demonstrated that it is the political instability and community relations are key drivers to students choosing often to go elsewhere.

“Political instability is most definitely an issue.”