Tuition Fees

Oral Answers to Questions — Economy – in the Northern Ireland Assembly am 2:15 pm ar 3 Mehefin 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Doug Beattie Doug Beattie UUP 2:15, 3 Mehefin 2024

10. Mr Beattie asked the Minister for the Economy to outline what consideration she has given to reviewing tuition fees (AQO 504/22-27)

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

I have no intention of increasing tuition fees, given that our students already face considerable cost-of-living pressures and that many take on significant debt to access higher education. I am committed to working with the higher education sector to embed sustainable funding arrangements that enable the sector to thrive and create more opportunities for our students.

Photo of Doug Beattie Doug Beattie UUP

Thank you, Minister. I am glad that you have made a recovery and are back with us today. University application numbers are due to rise by 20% by 2030. What is the plan to increase student places?

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

We want to see an increase; I have stated that as a desired outcome. The simple answer of placing the burden of the cost of that on students is unfair, because we are in a cost-of-living crisis and are putting thousands and thousands of young people into significant debt just so they can go through higher education. I have committed to working with our institutions to try to see whether we can increase numbers without placing the burden directly on students. Of course, had we more money in the system and a better settlement for our public finances, there would be more opportunities to support more places. My focus is on trying to find ways to work creatively with the educational institutions to grow student numbers. Although there are people who want to leave these shores to go to other places for their university experience, we want to make sure that the many young people who want to stay here have the ability to do so.

Photo of Pádraig Delargy Pádraig Delargy Sinn Féin

Will the Minister ensure that the maximum student number (MaSN) cap will not impact the expansion of the Magee campus?

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

The Executive parties made a commitment in the New Decade, New Approach agreement to get the numbers at the Magee campus up to 10,000. I intend to operate to that plan. I discussed with representatives from the universities and, since coming back very recently, with officials the ways in which we can work to ensure that the numbers are increased. It clearly will be a focus. It was an Executive commitment, but it is my responsibility to deliver on it. That is what I intend to do.

Photo of Sian Mulholland Sian Mulholland Alliance

Welcome back, Minister. Will you give us a timeline for the review of student support? When will it be completed, and when will recommendations be made?

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

We have just got our budgets. We have to analyse what we have. We recognise that we do not have as much as we wanted. Every Department is in the same position. I am sure that you have heard that from other Ministers already today. We do not have the amount of funding that we would like, but, nonetheless, we will continue to provide support for students. We managed to find funding in-year to supplement that support. I am analysing how I can spread my limited budget throughout the various areas of my Department and equality-testing that as well. Once I have done that, I will be able to make announcement about how much support can go towards student support. Following that, there will be some advice on how people can access it.

Photo of Matthew O'Toole Matthew O'Toole Social Democratic and Labour Party

Minister, it is good to have you back. I agree that we do not want to see any extra burdens on our hard-pressed students. It is also the case that we export an entire university's worth of young people from these shores every year. Many of them want to go, but too many do not want to go, and they do not come back. It is a structural problem in our economy. We have heard a lot about task forces and study groups, but will there be specific actions in the Programme for Government (PFG) on how we will increase student places in our society? Will that be in the PFG?

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

The easiest way to do that is to have more money. If the Member agrees with me that it is unfair to place that burden on young people, who get themselves in significant debt just to have the benefit of accessing higher education, the easiest thing to do is to increase the funding available to support them. Of course, that is a different conversation to have with the Government in London. I look forward to seeing the Programme for Government being delivered very soon. I am not of the view that purdah should apply in the way that it has been applied to many things. I would like to see the Programme for Government advanced more quickly than that. The Executive have a collective commitment to growing the economy; increasing the number of people who access further and higher education institutions and skills and who remain here is surely a strong way to continue to grow our economy.