The budget squeeze begins in Northern Ireland

After a settlement far below inflation for the Stormont departments, cuts to university funding and raised tuition fees are on the cards

Michael Salmon is News Editor at Wonkhe

The Northern Ireland administration is looking into the possibility of raising tuition fees to £7,000 a year – this academic year they stand at £4,630.

It all stems from big budget cuts to individual departments – in the absence of a Northern Ireland Executive, these were made by the UK government on 27 April. The Department for the Economy, which acts as funding council for the region’s universities and colleges, has been told that it needs to find savings in the region of £130m for 2023–24.

What this would actually mean for higher education funding was unclear. While budget allocations were made broadly by department, civil servants were left to work out what this actually meant for services. March saw rumours of cuts of between 17 and 19 per cent to the Department for the Economy’s higher education division – these now look fairly on the money.

So we hear today that large increases to fees for Northern Ireland-domiciled students studying in Northern Ireland are being considered – though to actually implement the measures would require a Stormont ministerial decision and legislative changes, or for the Secretary of State in Westminster to take on those powers, a level of detail to intervention that hasn’t been forthcoming recently.

The Belfast Telegraph also reports that apprenticeship funding is being slashed, with “all age” apprenticeships axed (those that are specifically for young people remain). Student maintenance grants will not be increased – maintenance levels are already substantially below the other nations.

Beyond the Department for the Economy, other departments were squeezed heavily as well. Longer term, universities will be worrying about the impact of the substantial reduction in the education department’s budget. The Department of Health in a statement announced that the recent budget settlement means it is not possible to offer the extra nursing places that had been provided in each of the last three years – effectively a cut of 300 places.

March’s UK Budget saw a brief mention of “up to £40 million of funding, subject to business case” for widening participation in further and higher education in Northern Ireland – no more details were forthcoming at the time or have been since on what this entails. Lack of places and subject choice in Northern Irish universities has been highlighted as a cause of brain drain, requiring serious additional investment to fix. It’s certainly not clear where that money will be coming from in the near future.

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