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Last Updated: Friday, 29 October, 2004, 11:42 GMT 12:42 UK
Students to pay higher fees
Students could pay as much as 3,000 a year in tuition fees
The government is planning to bring in a new system of variable university tuition fees in Northern Ireland to match the scheme already announced for England.

Barry Gardiner MP, minister for Employment and Learning, plans to let universities charge up to 3,000 per year, instead of the current 1,150.

The new rules will mean students paying more money but only after they graduate and earn more than 15,000 a year.

There will be 12 weeks of consultation on the planned changes.

Variable fees

Variable tuition fees have already been agreed for England and although a separate consultation has already been held in Northern Ireland, no other proposals were put forward.

BBC Northern Ireland education correspondent Maggie Taggart understands that, out of 40 responses to the consultation, all agreed higher education needed more money but none suggested any other options apart from raising personal taxes.

This has been ruled out by the government.

Some have objected to the variable higher charges saying they will lead to a pecking order among universities and deter people on low incomes from doing expensive courses such as medicine.

As they stand, the proposals will deter, not encourage, many thousands of talented people from enjoying the benefits of a university education
Prof Gerry McKenna
University of Ulster

Announcing the plans, Mr Gardiner said: "It is only right that our higher education institutions have the opportunity, through the extra investment that these proposals will bring, to sustain and build upon the high standards of teaching and research in an increasingly competitive global HE sector.

"I therefore propose that the maximum fee should be set, as in England, at 3,000. I do not intend to increase this fee, other than in line with inflation, before 2010."

Professor Gerry McKenna, vice-chancellor of the University of Ulster, said that the government should dismantle the barriers to education, not erect new ones.

He said: "As they stand, the proposals will deter, not encourage, many thousands of talented people from enjoying the benefits of a university education.

"They represent a failure to understand the disadvantaged position of Northern Ireland, not only in Europe but as one of the thirteen regions of the United Kingdom. Government has failed to take the opportunity to invest in local people."

SDLP Finance and Personnel spokesperson John Dallat described the consultation as a "sick joke" as there was only one option available and Northern Ireland had been given no opportunity to develop its own alternative.

Sinn Fein Assembly member Michael Ferguson claimed the move would only further limit access to third level education, saying that university was "a learning place not a marketplace".

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