Northern Ireland kicks off its catch up on student finance

If a 40 percent year-on-year uplift in student maintenance support in Northern Ireland sounds impressive, that’s because it is.

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

But a poke around under the hood of NI economy minister Gordon Lyons’ announcement on next year’s full-time undergraduate loan rates reminds us of quite how far behind students have ended up in comparison to the rest of the UK.

Right now, students in London on the maximum available are £2,142 behind counterparts from England, and £3,120 behind those from Wales. It is, after all, the first increase since 2010. That all matters when a quarter of your students have to leave Northern Ireland to study because of a lack of places.

Of course, Lyons can’t can’t implement the changes tomorrow – it was clear during the pandemic that NI ministers can’t redirect the Student Loans Company cruise ship with anything resembling responsiveness. So when he says that he is “conscious that this uplift will not take effect for another year”, he has to pretend to be not conscious that his solution – an increase to the budget for student hardship funds of £2.8million – will only apply for students studying in Northern Ireland.

There’s a sleight of hand in the percentage headline. Loans for those away from home and not in London will go from £4,840 to £6,776. That is indeed 40 per cent. But the grant component is frozen and there’s no rise to the astonishingly low household income threshold over which students don’t get the max (just under 20k!). Ignore the latter but add loan to grant and it’s only a 23 per cent increase.

There’s also no movement on the household income threshold over which students start to have their entitlement reduced below that max – which has been stuck at £19,203 for an eternity.

Accompanying the announcement is a decidedly below-inflation uplift of 1.8 per cent on tuition fees and “tuition fee loan products”, and a wider review of the support provided to the sector, including the “level and mix” of teaching grant and fees – all aimed at putting the sector “on a more sustainable financial footing”.

Now where have we heard that sort of language before?

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