No big movement on funding in Northern Ireland – at least, not yet

With the Assembly finally back in business, there’s a lot to catch up on

Michael Salmon is News Editor at Wonkhe

The economy committee met for the first time earlier this week, and were obliged to dash through scrutiny of a long list of statutory instruments that had been laid in their absence, including student finance arrangements for three successive academic years.

This unfortunate set of circumstances led to a note in the Belfast Telegraph that the committee had agreed to “a 40% uplift to student loans” – sadly this was for last academic year, with maintenance arrangements for 2024–25 not yet tabled.

Wonkhe covered the rise (in line with inflation) of tuition fees in one of last week’s Daily Briefings – next academic year these will be at £4,750. This was one of the many statutory instruments in the committee’s inbox, and there were no objections – rather warm words for the Department for the Economy having managed to keep tuition fees below the level in England.

While progress towards parity with England was a recommendation of last December’s independent review of NI’s education system, the new economy minister Conor Murphy of Sinn Féin has already said that he is not in favour of such a move. In the Republic of Ireland, the party has called for fees to be abolished entirely.

Now you might be wondering what happened to the consultation on raising tuition fees that Northern Ireland secretary Chris Heaton-Harris instructed civil servants in Northern Ireland departments to launch back in September. Permanent Secretary at the Department for the Economy Ian Snowden told the committee that the consultation document had been passed to the Northern Ireland Office for further scrutiny, and only returned to the department a couple of weeks ago, by which point it looked likely that the Assembly would reconvene.

On the wider review of higher education finances in NI – announced back in 2022, and to include scrutiny of the “level and mix” of teaching grant and fees – we heard simply that “some work has been undertaken during the absence of the assembly and the executive,” and that the department “will want to speak to the minister” about taking it forward. So don’t hold your breath, essentially – but later in the hearing Snowden hinted quite strongly to the committee that his preference would be for the review to address (and recommend removal of) the student number cap in place in Northern Ireland.

Of course, if student numbers were to rise then they would need to have somewhere to live, with Belfast being among the many accommodation flashpoints in recent years. Notable for the sector, then, is the finance department’s recent consultation on (among other things) whether student halls should be exempt from council rates – this week it was noted in the Assembly that 33 blocks have been exempted in the current academic year, which was promptly reported in the press as a “doubling in a year” which “costs Northern Ireland ratepayers over two million pounds.” The consultation closed on Tuesday, and will now pass to finance minister Caoimhe Archibald (also of Sinn Féin) for consideration.

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