The Alliance Party are very keen to present themselves as a party of progress when it comes to Stormont, Anna Lo was often heard telling people to choose yellow instead of ‘the Green and Orange’ of other Stormont parties. Unfortunately for them, many people view economic equality as a sign of progress and no one underpins the Alliance Party’s ugly Thatcherite bones quite like DEL Minister Stephen Farry.
Farry has been the Minister overseeing Employment and Learning for a number of years now, and in that time has nearly removed the Education Maintenance Allowance, tripled fees for university students from the UK and cut Further and Higher Education budgets.
After announcing that a consultation dubbed ‘the big conversation‘ was going to take place to discuss Northern Ireland’s university education and its future last year, Farry has enjoyed a considerable amount of time away from newspaper headlines, we even considered filing a missing persons claim at one point – ‘Missing: Yellow Tory Minister’ – but before we could, he came back to announce three options had emerged from this so called ‘big conversation.’
One option – and no doubt the most favoured option – is to triple the tuition Northern Irish students pay, which would bring the average student debt here to a staggering £27,000 before taking maintenance loan borrowing into account. Another option is to increase state funding, and the final option is to increase tuition fees and public funding.
Before a final decision has been made on which of these three options will be recommended by our esteemed Minister, activists from Belfast Met Students’ Union and Labour Alternative held a picket outside Farry’s office in Bangor yesterday, to highlight their opposition to any plans to increase tuition fees any further.
Around 15 campaigners braved the rain and the cold to show their opposition to fee hikes which Louise Meek, the current President of Belfast Met SU, believes will turn third-level education into “the preserve of the rich, as crippling debts and low wage jobs stop people from less advantaged backgrounds from pursuing third-level education.” As a result of cuts to funding, both QUB and Ulster University have slashed their budgets which has led to cuts in student places, staff jobs and even course closures.
The ‘realists’ will try to paint this crisis as solvable through increasing tuition, which is basically taking a great big can and giving it an almighty whack down the road. As has been shown in the UK, increases in tuition fees coupled with low wages and precarious work, has led to a situation where nearly half of all UK students can’t repay their loans which inevitably triggers another crisis.
Farry is very quick to talk about finding a sustainable model to fund NI universities, but we know that the most secure way to fund education is through central taxation i.e. through public funding. Can Farry talk about sustainable funding when his party supports the proposed cut to our corporation tax rate?
Seán Burns, Labour Alternative’s South Belfast candidate doesn’t believe he can; “[Farry] believes tuition fee rises are necessary, but he supports a cut in corporation tax that could cost us up to £300m.” Burns goes on to add “We need investment in education, not handouts for big business.”
NUS-USI, NI’s largest Union for Students, has came out strongly against the idea of any proposed increase in fees for students. With an election around the corner, will the opposition of trade and students unions sway the Minister’s mind?
The fact remains that the budgets of our universities have shrank to the point that there is a £39m funding gap between our universities and those in the UK, partially through cuts to funding, but also from premature cuts by QUB and UU themselves, QUB’s current Vice Chancellor earns nearly £250,000 per year and has overseen the gutting of several university departments.
Pity he hasn’t gutted his own coffers.
Tyler McNally is the current Political Editor of ‘The Last Round.’ You can follow him on Twitter.