Northern Ireland Assembly
Tuesday 21 November 2000
The Assembly met at 10.30 am (Mr Speaker in the Chair).
Members observed two minutes’ silence.
I wish to inform the House that Royal Assent to the Child Support, Pensions and Social Security Act has been signified. The Act became law on 20 November 2000.
I am informed that Mr McGrady will not be attending today’s sitting of the Assembly. Therefore his topic for today’s Adjournment debate has been withdrawn.
The Chairperson of the Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment Committee (Dr Birnie):
I beg to move
That this Assembly approves the first report of the Committee for Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment on student finance and calls on the Minister of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment to implement the Committee’s recommendations at the earliest feasible opportunity.
This debate is timely. A number of Members have called for it in recent months. More than two months ago the Committee publicly signalled its intention to have this debate. We recognise at the outset that this is an interim report. Ideally, we would have liked longer to deliberate and consult, but our work was halted for the three-month period of suspension. We are well aware of the urgency attending this issue, as are the public and the student body. In the early autumn, departmental officials indicated to the Committee that they would like to hear our views before the Minister completed his review and before the onset of the current budget process.
Before I turn to the report’s contents, it is my pleasure to pay tribute to a number of people who have made it possible. I would like to note the immense hard work of the Committee Clerk, the Committee staff, and our advisers, Prof Bob Osborne and his team from the Centre for Research on Higher Education and Dr Nuala Bryce- Gormley.
The report was unanimously agreed in Committee, and I think that is a tribute to the perseverance of Committee members. Perhaps it is an indication that our rather unusual multi-party arrangements in the Assembly can work. Most of the Committee work was carried out in public session. In that sense, it is also an example of transparent government.
I will now turn to the report’s contents. We face four options and our report aspires to one of these options as the best possible balance between the possible and the ideal. I will review the merits and demerits of each of the four options in turn.
The first option would be to keep things as they are — what you might term the status quo. It is fairly easy to dismiss this option because that would not prevent certain groups being deterred from applying for, or entering, further or higher education. We have data on the declining numbers of mature students entering the sector in Northern Ireland, and there are indications of declining numbers of working-class students across the United Kingdom. In any case, there has obviously been change in the administration of student support in England, Wales and Scotland, so, given parity considerations, Northern Ireland simply cannot afford to stand still.
The second option would be to go back to the system that used to operate in the 1960s. In that system there would be no parental contribution to tuition fees, and generous grants would be available. Appealing though this option might be to some people, it is neither reasonable nor fair. Let me give two reasons for that. The first is the pragmatic issue — the problem, as it were, of the "massification" of higher education. It is no longer 5% of the relevant age group who go to higher education; the figure is now approaching 50%. Given that, student support has to be more tightly targeted on those who really need it.
There is the important issue of principle. Some students gain, and gain substantially in financial terms, from their course of study. This was recently confirmed by the Harmon and Walker study, which suggested a graduate premium of between 16% and 46%. Such graduates should make a proportional contribution to the costs of their teaching.
The third option is to apply the English model — the changes introduced by Minister Blunkett in early 2000 — to Northern Ireland. That would involve a smallish number of bursaries for the disadvantaged. It would also include raising the threshold at which tuition fees became payable from £18,000 to roughly £20,000.
The application of the Blunkett package to Northern Ireland would be costly, though probably less so than the alternatives. It would at least provide for parity with one part of the United Kingdom. Application of the English model would be a move in the right direction albeit much more will be needed in the longer term to achieve the wider social access to further and higher education, which I believe we all want to see.
The fourth option is to apply a modified Scottish model, as inspired by the so-called Cubie Report and the subsequent Scottish Executive decisions. I recognise, however, that there are some differences between Cubie and the Scottish Executive and that there have been implementation problems in terms of the situation in Scotland.
Broadly speaking, this is the option that the Committee report comes down in favour of. It would involve an end to tuition fees, some means-tested grants and some deferred contributions — although those will be paid by graduates only when they pass a high threshold of income and salary. The Committee unanimously agreed this package because, in part, we felt that the perception of tuition fees and the reality of student debt was deterring entry into further and higher education on the part of certain disadvantaged groups, and we felt that we should recommend that some disadvantaged groups should become eligible for grant support.
We also believed that the principle of deferred contribution was a good one. It is not the same as a so-called graduate tax, because the contribution is a fixed amount, and once the graduate has paid it he has to pay nothing more for the rest of his working career.
European Union law implies that we could extend such provisions only to those Northern Ireland students who stay in Northern Ireland. This is why the Committee, in its report, has also recommended further expansion — and we certainly welcome the expansion which is already occurring — in the number of further education and higher education places so as to at least reduce the number of what you might term unwilling student exiles from these shores.
If we had had longer to deliberate, if suspension had not occurred, we would also have liked to look in more detail at the position of further education, and we note that in this area the database relating to the types of students in the sector is particularly underdeveloped. Our own ongoing Committee inquiry on the training system will have a particular focus on further education. We recognise the principle that further education should be treated with more equity relative to higher education, as the Dearing Report recommended three years ago.
This is a huge question that would have enormous financial implications. It would have implications for Departments other than the Department of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment — for example, the Department of Education in terms of the funding of schools relative to the institutes of further and higher education.
Part-time students should also be treated better, and we also recommend that the Minister make available, if possible, the findings of the United Kingdom Interdepartmental working group on the relationship between students and the welfare system, if and when they are completed.
A key point in the motion refers to implementation, when it is feasible. We recognise that the Minister and the whole Executive have difficult choices, and our preferred package does contain various elements, but not all of them would have to be implemented at once. The first priority is probably additional grant support for students from low-income backgrounds. This might involve an extra £20 million per annum for the 16,000 full-time undergraduates who come from family backgrounds where income is less than £23,000 per annum. We are talking about bursaries of about £500 to £2,000.
Then there are the additional higher education places. If we were to go for an extra 4,000 places, over and above the 4,400 already agreed up to 2004, that would cost £30 million. Then, of course, there is the removal of parental and spouse contributions to tuition fees amounting to £12·5 million. That implies a gross cost of £60 million or more, though the net figure might be reduced through associated savings on spending on student loans and other related hardship and access funds.
There may well be a view that the report should have said more about the costings of our proposals. Equally, the value of the Department’s own review would have been increased if it had provided the public with costings of the likely financial implications of the various options facing the Northern Ireland student support system. After all, it was pretty clear as early as February what the four options were going to be. I have addressed those four options.
Vision can and should be applied to the financing of student support; both the target of regional competitiveness and that of social equity are tied up with this issue. They are also key concerns in the Programme for Government, which is being deliberated by this House. The International Fund for Ireland and the Special Support Programme for Peace and Reconciliation have shown how it is possible, with imagination, to attract external funds — notably from the United States, the Commonwealth and the European Union — to Northern Ireland. Perhaps the subject of student finance, particularly for students from low-income backgrounds, could similarly attract the vision of sponsors from overseas.
The Committee has sought to perform its statutory duty to share in policy development. In devising this report, we started from first principles and listened widely to interested groups, including the National Union of Students and Union of Students in Ireland. Mr Andrew Cubie, who chaired the comparable study in Scotland roughly a year ago, contributed directly to our deliberations through a videoconferencing session. We looked at practice across the United Kingdom, in the Republic of Ireland and internationally.
Supporting students adequately is costly. The Committee accepts that the entire burden should not be carried by public expenditure in Northern Ireland. At the same time, not supporting students would also have a cost. Higher education and further education are two of the main engines of economic growth. In the long run, if we do not have economic growth we will not have the funds for other areas of public expenditure, which, admittedly, are competing against the funding of student finance in the short term.
There is much good going in higher and further education. The Committee commends that in its report. I would not normally quote former Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock, but he once said that he represented the first generation in his family — I think he said in a thousand generations, though I am not sure how he could go that far back — to attend university. That phrase was subsequently and infamously plagiarised by a United States politician. Some Members of this House, including myself, could say the same as Mr Kinnock.
Social access to higher and further education has been widened, but we have not yet reached the point where all those who have the ability to benefit from higher and further education can afford to go into it. Many members of my parents’ and grandparents’ generations, who I know would undoubtedly have had the ability to benefit from higher education, could not do so because their family background meant that they could not afford it. Above all, we do not want to return to that situation.
This report represents a target, a goal, an aspiration. All the members of the Committee agreed to it. It may not be immediately realisable, but that does not mean that we should not aspire to it in the long term.
There is one amendment, standing in the name of the Minister of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment.
The Minister of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment (Dr Farren):
I beg to move the following amendment: Leave out all the words after "Assembly" and add
"notes the first report of the Committee for Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment on Student Finance and calls on the Minister of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment to consider the Committee’s recommendations as he moves towards a conclusion of the review of student support."
I welcome today’s debate. It should make a useful contribution to the review of student financial support that I announced last February. I announced the review because I was mindful of the difficult financial circumstances experienced by many of our higher and further education students. I wished to carry out a comprehensive review of student support, encompassing higher education, further education and, indeed, part-time and full-time study. The review, which was carried out by my Department, ended on 30 June; the period of suspension of the Assembly ended on 29 May. Before reaching any decisions on changes to the existing system, I was obliged to hear the views of the Assembly Committee and, therefore, to await the publication of this report.
The report gives the Assembly details of the Committee’s views. I will take full account of the Committee’s recommendations, along with the many other representations made to me during consultation. However, it would be neither appropriate nor desirable that the Assembly should reach conclusions on the future of student support in Northern Ireland that are based solely on the recommendations of the Assembly Committee. The motion moved by the Chairperson of the Committee asks the Assembly to approve its recommendations and asks the Minister to implement them. The Chairperson emphasised that the report is an interim report, a work in progress to which much more needs to be added. Therefore it would be inappropriate for the Assembly to approve and seek the implementation of the recommendations at this stage.
My amendment requires me to consider the report in the formulation of my final proposals. I stress that I am very grateful to the Committee for its report. Much thought and hard work, in a short time, has gone into its production. I share many of the principles on which the report is based, including the provision of adequate support for individual students and the promotion of lifelong learning, and I agree that we should increase participation and widen access, particularly for under-represented groups. Furthermore, I agree that local further and higher education should meet the strategic needs of Northern Ireland’s economy. Since taking office I have repeatedly stressed the value of such principles in the Chamber and elsewhere.
I have to say, however, that in three key areas the report leaves some important questions unanswered or inadequately answered.
First, the Committee’s report contains no detailed costings to inform our deliberations on its recommendations. The Chairperson provided some costings in his remarks, but the report itself contains none of those in detail. Therefore no meaningful assessment of whether the recommendations are affordable, or what priority should attach to them, is possible by Members this morning.
My officials have calculated that the complete abolition of tuition fees for both higher and further education students could cost up to £35 million in a full year. In present circumstances, with 50% of our students paying no tuition fees because they are from lower income families, this would amount immediately to a massive subsidy to the better-off in our society.
Similarly, the reintroduction of non-repayable grants would cost a further £30 million. Members should appreciate that the total current student support budget for both higher and further education amounts to around £130 million. We would therefore be seeking additional financial resources of around £65 million for these two requirements alone.
There is no estimate for the cost of setting up and maintaining the proposed Northern Ireland Student Endowment Charitable Trust, nor any indication of when, or by how much, that trust would bring back resources into higher education to support the Committee’s recommendations. It would be unlikely that significant contributions would flow from the graduate levy for some considerable number of years, while the amounts from business and other sources — if, indeed, we could attract them to any significant degree — could only be extremely speculative at the moment.
There would be additional costs associated with the recommendation to establish a one-stop shop for the assessment and administration of student financial support — costs not even mentioned in the Committee’s report. Total additional costs could therefore be in excess of 50% of current requirements for student support.
Given these considerations, it would not be possible for me, or for the Executive Committee, to proceed without a clear identification of the overall financial consequences and the implications for the budgets of all Departments. Demands escalate every week when we meet in this Assembly with respect to the range of services that concern Members. I share many of those concerns, but there are cost implications quite clearly associated with moving to meet them all.
A second area of considerable concern — and I ask Members to take perhaps even more interest in this point — is an issue related to equity. Members will have heard and noted the Chairperson of the Committee making the recommendation to restrict the abolition of the tuition fees to Northern Irish students studying in Northern Ireland institutions. The Chairperson acknowledged that, while this restriction is a function of European Union legislation, it would create an important issue relating to equity and fairness.
Members are well aware of the large numbers of our students who are pursuing studies outside Northern Ireland. The Committee’s recommendations would mean that approximately 33% of our students who traditionally study in Scotland, England and Wales would be disadvantaged compared to their peers who choose to study locally. I doubt whether Members would want me to implement recommendations amounting to a form of discrimination between students who stay and those who, for whatever reason, voluntarily or otherwise, choose to study outside Northern Ireland.
Those who argue that that precedent has already been set in Scotland should remember that only 7% of Scottish students opt to study outside Scotland. Even if we were to accept that, there are particular concerns related to equity here in our society that should make us pause and think long and hard before supporting such a recommendation.
In the second volume of its report, on page 141, in a paper from the Committee’s own special advisers, a warning is sounded on this recommendation:
"Such a policy might well be seen as discriminatory and certainly not New-TSN compatible. It could well be challenged under the DHFETE Equality Scheme. The crucial issue is that only applying the scheme in Northern Ireland under current circumstances would be unfair. It should be noted that even if offered only to Northern Ireland students it would be also available to EU students studying in Northern Ireland."
Should this recommendation be adopted we would have the anomalous situation in which a Northern Irish Administration would have to support students from other European Union states, while being unable to offer similar support to many thousands of our own students. I expect that Members on all sides of the House and, indeed, in all parties would be extremely unhappy about supporting such a recommendation.
This is a second very important reason why, in my view, it would be inappropriate for the Assembly to approve the Committee’s recommendations at this stage, let alone ask that I implement them. I acknowledge that to address the particular difficulty with respect to students moving outside Northern Ireland, the Committee advances the argument that additional higher education and further education places be made available to enable more students to follow courses at home. Increasing places at our local institutions is already part of my Department’s policy.
However, I must point out that it would not be possible to provide all of the approximately 1,500 to 1,700 places needed in our local universities and colleges in order to accommodate all of our students and do so in the immediate or foreseeable future. I imagine that many Members, if not all, would agree that it is highly unlikely that we would ever wish to curtail movement outside of Northern Ireland for all further and higher education. In those circumstances, if we did, there would be considerable opposition. If we allowed the present situation to continue, a form of discrimination would persist, with increasingly fewer students choosing to go outside Northern Ireland and the majority remaining.
Tuition fees would have to be abolished not only in Scotland but also in England and Wales if that situation were to be avoided. However, given the deep convictions and the very real concerns on the matter of tuition fees across all parties, including my own, I will pursue the issue at a meeting in London I am having tomorrow with Ministers from the Department for Education and Employment.
The third area of concern to me is with respect to further education and part-time study. In setting out the terms of reference for my review, I stressed that it covered the full spectrum of support for both full-time and part-time students at both higher education and further education levels. The Committee’s report is virtually silent on the issue of further education students’ needs. It argues that decisions on funding should ensure more provision for the further education sector but makes no detailed recommendations on that provision. Nor does it address in any effective way support for the many thousands of part-time students either in higher or further education.
I recognise and acknowledge the complexity of dealing with such issues and the pressure of time under which the Committee operated. However, I am somewhat disappointed not to have received more considered views on student support in the important areas of further education and part-time study.
The report is therefore incomplete. That is another reason why it would be wiser for the Assembly to ask that the report be noted and that I give it my full consideration, rather than for the Assembly to approve it and seek to have me implement its recommendations.
I felt it necessary to point out the inadequacies in the Committee’s report. However, once again, I acknowledge that there is a wealth of useful information in the Committee’s report, and since receiving it I have been taking full account of it in formulating my proposals for changes to the student support system.
While I cannot at this point outline the detail of what my proposals for change will be, I can give Members an indication of the broad objectives which I wish to achieve, and I believe that they reflect the opening remarks of the Chairperson of the Committee this morning.
I wish to emphasise targeting social need and the pursuit of greater equality as central to my strategy. I wish to promote lifelong learning through increasing participation in higher and further education. I wish, in particular — again I find myself almost echoing the words of the Chairperson — to target resources at those who are less well off, thereby widening access to those from among the under-represented groups in society. I wish to give a greater sense of financial security to all our higher and further education students.
Work is well advanced on the review. My officials are now fully engaged with the Department of Finance and Personnel, and I hope to announce my proposals in the very near future. However, in line with the requirements of equality legislation and my Department’s equality scheme, I having made my announcement, those proposals will be subject to further consultation with a wide range of interests, including the Assembly Committee, before they can be finalised. That point cannot be reached until early in the new year. We will therefore return to this issue soon, but in returning to it we will be discussing and debating it in the full knowledge of all the proposals for an improved scheme for student financial support.
I trust that Members have paid attention to my efforts to give my views on the report — both positive and where I have some reservations. I trust that those reservations are appreciated as well. Given all these considerations, I ask Members to support the amendment, assuring them that the report will continue to receive my full consideration and that we can soon, as a result, move to an early announcement with respect to proposals for our future schemes for student financial support.
Given the number of Members who have indicated a wish to speak — a substantial number of them since the commencement of the debate — I will have to limit the time for each Member to six minutes. The mover of the motion and the mover of the amendment will have 10 minutes at the end to wind up. As Members will know, the Business Committee indicated that the debate would finish not later than one o’clock.
The Deputy Chairperson of the Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment Committee (Mr Carrick):
Unlike Dr Birnie, I do not have the benefit of a university education, but I trust that that will not impair my opinion of the value and the virtue of such an education.
I expect that most Members will support me in the belief that access to higher education provides a very important platform for adult life, enhanced employment opportunities and the general well-being of society. We are dealing with an investment in human capital. Most economic experts conclude that a highly educated workforce may well led to faster economic growth than a well trained workforce.
A university education also provides an individual with considerable private returns through increased job prospects. All our students are vital stakeholders in society, and therefore I am disappointed by the amendment that the Minister has moved this morning. The Minister’s amendment contradicts the carefully worded original motion, in which great care was taken to ensure that the Committee’s recommendations would be implemented at the earliest feasible opportunity. If this amendment is accepted, many of the teeth will be taken out of the report, and the work of the Committee should not be devalued in this way.
Education offers the only opportunity to many in society to break out of the cycle of deprivation, which is being passed through generations. It seems ironic that, as our economy appears stronger and healthier, uncertainty is increasing among students and their families about the affordability of higher and further education.
The high cost and a fear of debt deters many people of all ages from entering higher education. Local research indicates that Northern Ireland students are more sensitive to financial issues than their counterparts in Great Britain are. This is perhaps because of their social class profile. Average student debt levels are increasing. The cost to students of attending university has increased by 103% since 1994. The Government estimate that, on graduating from a three-year course outside London, which began in 1999, a person who has taken out a full student loan will owe more than £10,000. While the cost of studying in Northern Ireland is on a par with that in other UK areas outside London, graduate earnings in Northern Ireland are considerably lower than the UK average.
There is ample evidence that student hardship is forcing increasing numbers of students to withdraw from their courses. Our advisers gathered information which indicated a high incidence of full-time undergraduates taking part- time work. Evidence from the National Union of Students and Union of Students of Ireland shows the increase in hours worked by students to meet basic costs. This is a critical factor in the increased rate of students dropping out of courses. Student hardship is now widely acknowledged to be a factor which damages the quality of academic life. All statistics show that, upon graduation, our young people face a wall of debt.
The Committee’s report advocates a system of funding which would remove financial barriers to education. Education is a right which exists alongside other competing rights, including the right to life, the right to security in one’s home, the right to healthcare and the right to a job. All sections of our community should have full access to all of these rights. Rights create responsibilities, and the Committee’s report provides the correct balance between what is affordable and our desire to maximise the access of all to high-quality, life-long learning.
In return, students are being asked to take prudent control of their finances and not to expect money over and above a realistic living allowance, thus ensuring they do not have to opt out of a course midstream or take on excessive hours of work to make ends meet. On graduation, those who enjoy above-average earnings are being asked to contribute at a level they can afford to help ease the burden of the further education of successive students.
Mr J Kelly:
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I was disappointed by the Minister’s contribution: he noted the report but did not welcome it. I was also disappointed at John Dallat’s eleventh-hour comments on radio this morning, in which he rubbished his own report — the report of the Committee of which he is a member. Having discussed the various options open to us in depth in the Committee, to have a Committee member rubbish the report this morning was unhelpful — and I say so with a degree of anger, a Cheann Comhairle.
Throughout the debate, Sinn Féin has held the view that student fees should be abolished. As Mr Carrick said, we maintain, from a very principled point of view, that this burden of debt should not be placed upon our young people and their parents. Young students should be the beneficiaries of our education system, not the victims of debt.
Sinn Féin argued in Committee for the abolition of student fees. We reached the point where we planned to issue a minority report, but we then rejected that in favour of a consensus report from the Committee. We discussed the consensus report with the student body and, with its agreement, recognised the need to bring this debate to the Chamber as quickly as possible in order to relieve the current tensions in third-level education.
A Cheann Comhairle, the greatest single reason for young people not entering third-level education is the fear of debt, and the greatest single reason for their leaving it is the inability to service that debt. That is a burden that society and we, its representatives, should be acutely and sensitively aware of. It is a burden that denies young people the opportunities that many in this part of the House benefited from when Aneurin Bevan made education a right and not a privilege. On many occasions John Hume has extolled the virtue of free education, admitting that had it not been for free education, he himself would not have had a third-level education. Nor would many others of his generation and of my generation and those who have featured prominently in the political life of this part of Ireland in the last 40 years have had a third-level education had it not been for the abolition of student fees by a Labour Government in the late 1940s. Therefore we argue unashamedly for the abolition of student fees. We realise that in bringing this report to the House we are, as the Chairman of the Committee has said, attempting to open up the debate.
The Minister referred to equality proofing. Our report went to the Equality Commission for proofing. Throughout our discussion in Committee and with the Minister and his officials we have attempted to outline the direction in which we are going.
In many ways it is a bit sad for the Minister to insinuate this morning that he did not know the way in which the Committee was moving on its report on education. In private meetings with the Chairperson and the Deputy Chairperson the Minister was made aware of this very clearly and very forcefully. All along the line he has resisted the report’s is coming before the Assembly.
Education is a right and not a privilege. Other Members have referred to educationally disadvantaged areas which affect all people across the divide. Currently, a higher percentage of young Protestant people from unskilled, working-class backgrounds are not reaching third-level education — a higher percentage than from the equivalent Catholic community. This illustrates how it affects not only people on this side of the House but those on the other side of the House as well. The problem affects us all, and students in particular.
To be motivated by centralism and to make references to the Barnett formula and other matters is all very well and good, but if I may refer perhaps to the —
Order. The Member’s time is up.
First, we should note that this is the first all-party consensus report that has come to the Assembly. When Members vote today let them remember that the report was not easily arrived at.
How many recommendations come to the Assembly that all parties agreed to in the Committee, knowing that they were making a compromise in doing so, knowing that every party had to give up something to arrive at that consensus? It was hard work, and as a result of that hard work — twice we had to sit into the evening — we arrived at a consensus rather than bring forward a number of minority reports. We have gone as far as we can towards securing a package of financial assistance for our students that promotes access and inclusivity.
In the limited time that I have I am going to address the three main issues that the Minister tasked us with. First, the Minister argued that the current expenditure package is approximately £130 million. The figures I have in front of me suggest that it is more like £135 million, but we will not quibble over £5 million. I suggest that it is complex, that it is means-tested and that it is not reaching the students most in need.
The Minister has argued that we have not supplied exact figures. Over and over again the Committee asked the Department to provide modelling, student figures and a breakdown of figures for the options that we might put forward. We received nothing, and we had to rely on our researchers and apply the Cubie Report on Scotland to Northern Ireland. So if there is any blame, it does not lie with the Committee.
You also argue that our one-stop —
May I encourage the Member to speak through the Chair.
I will do that.
The Minister queries the expenditure involved in the one-stop shop of the endowment charitable fund that we hope to establish. We would argue that we are currently losing a great deal of money because of the complicated nature of the current system.
Constituents frequently point out to Members the difficulty of accessing that fund elsewhere, as well as the difficulty of having a system that lies outside Northern Ireland. I argue that it would be money well spent. On costs alone, we tried to get a package that included cost sharing. That was the compromise — the sharing of costs among Government, students and parents, and I believe we came up with the best possible financial package.
The most inequitable thing about higher and further education — and particularly higher education — is that there is low participation from low-income groups. Unfortunately, despite the changes in the Republic of Ireland, there has not been any greater increase in participation there.
Nonetheless, I argue that we addressed the issue of equity. We looked at disadvantaged groups and we argued not only that tuition fees should be abolished but that a graduate contribution should only be made once an individual was earning £25,000, depending upon his needs and means. What more equitable system could we have argued for? That was another compromise. Indeed, for my party it was a compromise that the most disadvantaged should receive non-repayable grants. We looked at low- income families, the unemployed and mature students, who have recently gone down rather than up in number as a consequence of the current inequitable system. We looked at the issues of childcare, travellers and single parents. We adopted the principle of social need. We argued that resources should be ring-fenced to promote social inclusion. The Minister argued that the report was incomplete. We would argue that it brings proposals to Members. Unfortunately, we do not have the Minister’s proposals.
What Members see, we hope the students will get. We cannot possibly ask anyone to vote on what they do not see in front of them. We have tackled the issue of further education, but we would like to have done so more comprehensively. We promote and encourage lifelong learning. I suggest to Members that when they support the motion, they will be supporting a range of recommendations that will help equity and social inclusion.
I am afraid the Member’s time is up.
I wish to focus on a particular aspect of the report that was highlighted. I was not so fully aware of it until we carried out this detailed research to present to the Assembly. A few other Assembly Members have already referred to recommendation 17, which says that an additional 3,000 undergraduate places, rising to 4,000, should be created. That is on top of the 4,200 places already announced. Why is such additional expenditure needed in Northern Ireland and why should that be the Assembly’s priority?
I draw Members’ attention to table 10 in volume 2 of the research paper which accompanied the report. It shows that approximately 4,000 Northern Ireland students travel to Great Britain each year for further education. Those students should have the right to choose where they go to obtain a particular university degree or enrol in a course that they cannot get here. However, if they have to leave Northern Ireland because entrance levels are that much higher as a result of competition, that is clearly wrong. They are being forced to go. That is wrong, and it is an issue it we must address.
It has been estimated that two thirds of those leaving Northern Ireland leave reluctantly. Many of our best young people are forced to leave to obtain an education. That is Northern Ireland’s loss.
It is estimated that 85% of students who leave never return. We lose a high percentage of the best of our young people.
Historically, Northern Ireland has had high levels of unemployment, and our most able young people sought a better education and better forms of employment. Opportunities were greater in other places and, to a certain extent, still are. Unemployment in Northern Ireland — last month’s figure was only 5·2% — is now lower than that in many other regions of the United Kingdom. The district council claimant account shows that every council in Northern Ireland is now showing single-figure unemployment. So there are opportunities.
For our economy to progress we must ensure that people do not leave never to return. For the betterment of Northern Ireland we need to ensure that places are available in Northern Ireland so that, in turn, our companies will progress and provide stable employment in the long term.
The Unionist community is concerned that some of our universities are a cold place for Unionists, particularly Queen’s University in recent months. First, the Officer Training Corps was not allowed to have a stall in the freshers’ bazaar. That sends a clear message that pro-British people are not wanted at the university. The number of societies at Queen’s has reduced by 29 over the last few years, so it was not that there was a lack of space, rather that British culture was not wanted there. That needs to be addressed by the Minister and by that union in particular.
Secondly, there was an interesting letter from the deputy president of Queen’s Student Union in ‘The Irish News’. She raised the issue that the number of students coming from the Republic of Ireland is down from 3,000 to 2,500. I have no difficulty with students choosing to come here, but I am surprised that she highlights the number of students coming from another European country, when our students have to travel to another region of the United Kingdom to gain education. I wrote to her over a fortnight ago and have yet to receive a reply. If she were also highlighting the need for additional places for local students there would be some validity in her words. Clearly, she is interested in providing additional places only for students from the Republic of Ireland. This will exclude local students as they would then have to go elsewhere. The Minister will have to make Unionists comfortable in our universities so they do not choose to leave.
I accept that there are particular difficulties in introducing the recommendation immediately. On occasions the Minister suggested that we need an additional 17,000 to 19,000 places. However, we need only about 2,000 to 4,000 places immediately to fill some of the gaps where people are being forced to go elsewhere.
The motion must be taken forward by the Minister. I accept that we have been unable to get hard facts and costs — that is the Minister’s responsibility. However, the motion does mention "the earliest feasible opportunity", and I suggest —
The Member’s time is up.
I pay tribute to the Chairman of the Committee, Esmond Birnie, the Committee members and the staff for their help in compiling this report. In response to Mr John Kelly, I stated very clearly on the radio this morning that the contribution of this report will prove valuable to the Minister. If I am to be criticised for highlighting the fact that there were concerns about trageting social need, social justice and human rights then I stand by my case.
I welcome the unanimity of the report. We had to work hard to achieve that. I want the report to assist us in our central aim, which is to enhance our commitment to human rights and social justice. In practical terms, we must be sure that the report will assist the Minister of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment in his task of determining forms of financial support for higher and further education. We want to contribute to proposals that will give anyone, from any background, the chance to educate themselves, develop a career and live as independently as possible. Our central aim must be to widen access and to ensure that everyone has an equal opportunity to develop their full educational potential, regardless of — [Interruption]
Order. Members will please give the Member a hearing.
Public spending on further and higher education and training is not only a prudent investment for the future, but a fundamental right. The Minister had that point in mind when he commissioned his Department’s review of student fees. This report is one response to that review. There are other responses. That is right and proper. The shortcomings of the current system are clear. The mix of loans, fees and parental contributions is as confusing as it is inadequate. The hardships are well documented and unacceptable. Those most affected are the children of lower-income families. They must continue to be prioritised. This is not an easy choice, but we must retain our commitment to human rights and social justice.
My party wants to see the abolition of tuition fees and the restoration of grants, if and when that is possible. I said so in a radio interview this morning. Evidence from the Republic of Ireland shows that the percentage of students from lower socio-economic groups will not rise significantly with the removal of fees. That cannot be ignored, as we develop a system of further and higher education — on a limited budget — which targets social need, giving a better chance to the many young people who were disgracefully underfunded in the past. Many of those are in further education, where I was educated. In the dark days of direct rule many people, particularly women, lost out on educational opportunities. Through community education or lifelong learning projects, these people are entitled to a new chance.
The needs of the 250,000 or more people who, through no fault of their own, have difficulties with literacy and numeracy have to be addressed. I have highlighted that point in this Assembly many times. At last, we are winning on that issue. We have a duty to insist on their right to overcome their difficulties and to end the spiral of educational disadvantage. We must prepare them for the world of work.
It is against this background that we ask the Minister to address the problems of university fees. We know that 50% of students do not pay fees and 20% make some contribution, while the remaining 30% pay full fees. In deciding whether to support the amendment, we are not being asked to reject the document. We must ask whether the Minister is being handcuffed by our insistence on the proposal.
We have to be sure that the groups about which I have spoken do not lose their basic human rights as a result of our recommendations. All contributions to the review must be equally proofed and must target social need. They must not disadvantage those who need most help. I am concerned about the 4,500 students who go to England, Scotland or Wales for their university education. Some choose to go, but most do not. There is no help available for them under EU regulations.
The document will fulfil a valuable purpose and will influence the outcome of the review. It is not a solution in itself and should not be delivered to the Minister with a set of handcuffs. That would threaten the future of the disadvantaged groups about whom I feel so passionately. That view does not diminish my concern for students in higher education and the hardships they endure. The work of the Committee must continue in order to alleviate hardship and establish social justice for all.
I welcome this debate. As Monica McWilliams said, it was painstaking work for the Committee to achieve a unanimous report. I note that Mr Dallat said he welcomed the report, although he did not say he supported it, which is quite a difference. I shall go further and say that he and his Colleague on the Committee supported the wording of its Chairman’s motion before the Assembly this morning.
If we are serious about destroying student debt and poverty, we should not cut corners in our attempts to do so. We all know that any new scheme we introduce in Northern Ireland will cost a great deal more money than we are spending at present. When the Committee came to discuss a number of pieces of work it intended to cover in the course of the year, we all identified and agreed on student poverty and debt as a priority for action.
We all recognise that student poverty and debt have long been acknowledged as a key weakness in promoting access to further and higher education in Northern Ireland. There is no doubt that many of our young people start university life owing money, go through university owing money and come out severely in debt. Many students must work long hours to service and get rid of that debt. The stark reality of student finances in Northern Ireland is that many spend long years after they leave university paying off debt.
It is also a fact — and other Members have mentioned it — that the fear and cost of debt often debar our young people from entering education in Northern Ireland. It was also unanimously agreed in the Committee that the abolition of upfront fees would be a start to resolving some of the issues relating to student debt and poverty.
Another issue which I thought very important is the building of closer links with industry and business so that they might pay for education. They should do so as of right, for if business and industry get a well-educated young workforce, they should be paying something into the education system. For far too long in Northern Ireland, business and industry have not had that strong link to education, and many industries ignore it.
Time does not allow us to have the long debate needed to resolve the issue of student finance. We need a student support system tailored to the needs of Northern Ireland and its young people so that we all might encourage life- long learning. For John Dallat and the Minister to come to the Chamber this morning and raise issues concerning this report smells of hypocrisy.
We all have party political policies in Northern Ireland regarding student finance. We all decided to compromise on some of those policies to get a unanimous report, and this was basically achieved. However, Members of the Committee have now come to the Assembly and said that in many ways they are sympathetic to the report, but on the other hand they are not able to tell the House that they will be supporting it. Those are two different issues.
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. This motion does not ask that free education be made available tomorrow. It does not even state that this would be the desirable outcome of the review in addressing student needs. Whatever the issue of handcuffing Ministers, the fact is that lack of proper funding is crippling students.
The motion asks the Assembly to approve the first report by the Committee of Higher and Further Education on student finance. It also asks the Minister to implement the Committee’s recommendations — 18 in all — at the earliest feasible opportunity. We recognise the constraints of the Barnett formula and the Minister’s difficulties, but it is up to the Minister to argue for additional finance, as part of the peace formula. The motion is therefore perfectly reasonable in what it asks the Assembly and the Minister to do.
The report, and its recommendations, represents many months of deliberations, research and evidence taking. In truth, it could be argued that the Committee devoted as much time to its response to the review as the Department devoted to the review itself. As Committee members we needed to do justice to an issue that is about justice. I say to Mr Dallat that I do not remember a lot of time being devoted to discussions on human rights and TSN. We wanted to acknowledge the Minister’s initiative in setting up the review of student finance, and we hoped that, together, we could get the best solution for our student population.
In addressing the issue the Committee has been aware of the terms of reference set out by the Department. We are also aware that the Department received only 50 submissions in relation to the review, whereas the Cubie inquiry received 700. We have listened to many voices over the months of deliberations and examination of evidence. The Committee commissioned its own research on reports, ranging from Cubie to international models of student finance, graduate earnings, student flows and changes to student benefits and tuition fees. We took expert advice on this matter. We were mindful that we were responding in an advisory and consultative capacity to the Minister’s review, but we still needed to be satisfied that our proposals were addressing the issue of student funding.
We encountered many problems such as inadequate costings by the Department, lack of adequate local research and, as Ms McWilliams said, dissension among Committee members on the first draft. Sinn Féin felt that the draft was a watered-down version of the Scottish model, which in turn was a watered-down version of Cubie. We are aware that this report is not definitive, or final, or the solution to the serious problems of debt and hardship, the decline in numbers and the drop-out rate, which have produced the current crisis among students. It does not totally reflect the positions of Members’ parties on the issue. Indeed, it was because of Sinn Féin’s refusal to support the first draft that the Committee became deadlocked on the issue. At that stage we also had sight of the Minister’s bids, and student funding was not there. Sinn Féin has argued that the Committee should accept the principle of a free education system, funded out of public moneys through a progressive income tax system.
Sinn Féin argued that such a policy would secure the objective that those who benefit most from a financial standpoint from education should also pay most through taxation. We believe that the Government should pay the tuition fees for higher and further education. My party made its submission to the review — as did others — and we pointed out that the position regarding the abolition of tuition fees was now being adopted by Dáil Éireann and the Scottish Parliament.
Sinn Féin believes that the current system, which expects students to shoulder an increasing burden of educational costs, is ultimately self-defeating. Our position is borne out by the National Union of Students and the Union of Students in Ireland.
Updated statistics show that for students the North of Ireland, as a region, is the worst off. The Scottish Parliament has abolished tuition fees and has increased access payments. England and Wales have introduced bursaries, school meals and a £57 million hardship fund. Additionally, the parental contribution threshold will rise from £17,000 to £20,000.
The Committee worked through all these difficulties and made 18 recommendations, which, let us hope, will alleviate hardship if the Department implements them. The Committee also agreed core principles and objectives, which we hope will underpin our future student support system and will apply equally to further and higher education.
In the end, it was the consensus of the Committee that free education, that is, the abolition of tuition fees and restoration of grants, is not feasible at this stage. The 18 recommendations are a compromise — a first step towards that goal and hinged upon the Minister’s adopting the recommendation that the threshold for graduate repayment be set at £25,000.
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle.
Mrs E Bell:
I am pleased to be able to comment even though I am not a member of the Committee. I congratulate the Higher and Further Education Committee in commissioning and producing this report. It is a formidable piece of work. Obviously the Committee and its researchers must be supported in their attempt to look into these issues, which will run parallel with the Department's review.
It is right to debate this subject today. It gives people like myself the chance to give their comments so that the Minister can be made aware of those comments. I hope that this will become an important part of the relationship between all Committees and Departments. It will allow ownership and accountability in important issues such as these.
The Education Committee is carrying out similar work, looking at the Gallagher Report and the review of the 11-plus, or transfer, procedure. It is clear from the Higher and Further Education Committee, people such as Mr Cubie and the National Union of Students that the research and recommendations are available to help the Minister with the problem of student finance in Northern Ireland. As others have said, it is not just a question of working out a system of funding for thirdlevel students; the problem also involves access, equity and enhancement of our further and higher education system.
The Alliance Party substantially agrees with the set of guiding principles laid down by Mr Cubie in his report on student funding. However, like the Committee we feel that it might be more difficult to achieve these ideas in Northern Ireland. That does not mean that we should not try.
Accessibility, consistency, flexibility and fairness can be achieved only if there are enough places for third- level education, which is patently not the case. Adequate resourcing is the baseline of this report. We cannot depend on European funding any more than the volunteer community groups can. So we must make sure - regardless of whether the costs may be prohibitive at first - that education is accessible and possible for all.
The options outlined by the Committee are comprehensive and acknowledge the fact that students might be prepared to accept some system of payback, if that could go towards financially assisting those less well off or disadvantaged in areas such as physical disability or unemployment.
This assumes, of course, that such amounts would be based on an appropriate level, which graduates could pay back once their salary reached the agreed figure. Scotland ignored the Cubie Report's recommendation of £25,000 and set the level at £10,000. Presumably Westminster will put Members here in the same position. However, Alliance contests that £10,000 is an unrealistic figure. If this system is adopted, we strongly advise against such a low threshold, especially when graduates are still paying off loans taken out during their period of study.
Another issue which must be examined is the present situation whereby students are ineligible to receive benefits during the summer. During term time, most students have to work 30 to 35 hours a week to sustain themselves. If you walk around the university area in Belfast, you will see students working in cafés, et cetera. This is bound to undermine their ability to do their coursework properly, particularly as this type of work is usually low-paid and involves long, unsocial hours.
This whole area is fraught with difficulties, and the Committee has dealt with them as best it can. Issues such as salary premiums need to be closely examined - and I am sure that the Minister's Department is doing that. The exact processes of any graduate endorsement scheme and the structure in regard to tracking graduates must be looked at if it is decided to include them. However, I also agree with the recommendation that student finances must be periodically reviewed and data built up so that student poverty can be eradicated.
The area of equity is just as complex, and, again, accessibility is the founding principle. There must be exemptions so that all students who wish to go further, but for financial reasons cannot, are catered for. The categories of one-parent families, those with disabilities and mature students are obvious and correct, but there may be a range of exemptions within the main categories. If funding strategies are in place, more places are made available and confidence is extended to those who can get extra support, I hope that most students will take advantage of this. As has been mentioned, the new equality legislation will impact on this area, and the Committee is right to highlight it.
Perhaps the option of a bursary scheme for mature students or the disadvantaged should be re-examined. The Dearing Report recommended more places, and that must be re-examined too. The House should not dismiss it and say "No, that cannot happen." Students who leave Northern Ireland do so not only because of concerns over the situation here but also because suitable courses are not available. This needs to be looked at again. More than 10,000 students studying elsewhere do so because of European legislation which prevents the extension of the abolition of fees. Let us deal with the 38,000 who will benefit. I hope that the numbers going to GB will decrease in the future.
I support the report.