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Northern Ireland Assembly

Tuesday 16 January 2001 (continued)

More recently, the Cubie Report said

"We have no doubt that the student or parental contribution to tuition fees in full-time higher education should be abolished for Scottish students . We are clear, as we have listened to Scotland, that the present arrangements are broadly discredited, add to anxieties about debt and create undue anomalies."

The loss of social security benefits for students increases hardship. For a student under 25 years of age, financial support amounts to a maximum loan of £3,635 a year, or £69·90 a week. State benefits for a person of the same age are: income support of £41·35 a week and housing benefit of £45 a week, a total of £86·35. Students under 25 receive an additional £16·45 a week if on income support and housing benefit, or £855·40 a year. That is more than they would get if they were not students.

The issue is the cost of participating in education. Health care, books, periodicals, special equipment, art materials, computer software, examinations, stationery, photocopying, travel and miscellaneous costs add up to a heavy debt for students and their families. If a son or daughter comes home from university and says that he or she needs this or that, it is very difficult to deny it. Young people are not just furthering their education; they are giving an added dimension to society.

Most parents believe in, and lobby for, free education because education is a cornerstone of society. Education enhances society and puts more, or as much, into it as those who have an education get out of it.

In the chronology of events on student financial support we go back to 1947, mentioned in the last debate. How many people of my age who had free education would not have had a second or third-level education but for the Education (Northern Ireland) Act 1947? I have to ask, as parents and the public ask, about where the money comes from. If my generation, and the generation that many in the House belong to, were able to have free education, why can the children of this generation not? Why should we disadvantage this generation by taking away from them the advantages we had?

If education is as fundamental to society as the family unit, the burden of debt ought to be removed in so far as possible from children and young people and from parents who cannot afford to keep them. How many young people drop out of third-level education because they cannot cope with the debt? How many young people do not go into third-level education because they are afraid of debt?

Madam Deputy Speaker:

I ask the Member to draw his remarks to a close.

Mr J Kelly:

I am going to finish now.

Most of the legislation that deprived the education system of the finance it needed was enacted in the late 1970s and the 1980s by a Thatcherite Government. We should be able, taking upon ourselves the power if need be, to reverse all those changes that have disadvantaged students and burdened them, their parents and society at large with debt.

4.30 pm

Madam Deputy Speaker:

Given the number of Members who have asked to speak and the time that has been allowed for this debate, which is 90 minutes, I ask Members to keep their contributions below seven minutes. The Minister will have 15 minutes, and the winding-up speech will be given 10 minutes.

The Chairperson of the Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment Committee (Dr Birnie):

This is an important matter. Some of the points that will emerge this afternoon were considered at length in the debate on the Committee's report last November. Members were also able to raise issues during the Budget debates.

Nevertheless, there have been interesting developments on student debt recently. The motion refers to student debt rather than to the other, albeit related, issue of tuition fees. Two particularly important pieces of evidence have been released, one in December 2000 and the other earlier this month. The Callender and Kemp study, commissioned by the Department for Education and Employment, indicates that in 1998-99 the average net level of debt for students across the United Kingdom lay between £1,500 and £5,000 - the actual amounts varying with the background and circumstances of the individual student. Those figures could be worse, given the removal of the maintenance grants since then, although we do not know for sure. However, we must bear that in mind during today's debate.

Secondly, there is an ongoing inquiry by the House of Commons Education Select Committee. Its investigations seem to indicate that the existence of student debt, or at least the perception or fear of it, is a significant deterrent to students, particularly those from a low-income background. Hence we see an obstacle to achieving the wider access to higher and further education that we desire.

The House of Commons is also indicating - and we should pay special attention to this - that the impact of debt is leading to an increase in drop-out rates in UK higher education institutions. Again it seems that students coming from lower-income or disadvantaged backgrounds are hardest hit. It is undesirable, socially iniquitous and a waste of the valuable and limited resources within higher education if students drop out once they are in the system and fail to complete their degrees or other courses.

What then can be done? Towards the end of last year the Committee for Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment produced a package of proposals to deal with these problems. The Committee believes that these proposals represent a contribution on the behalf of students from lower-income backgrounds and would, if implemented, act as a deterrent against their dropping out.

We placed great emphasis on expanding the number of student places in the Province partly because some potential students would prefer to stay here than move to Great Britain, the Republic of Ireland or further afield. It is cheaper for them to stay in Northern Ireland than move away from home.

Then, in December, the Minister announced his proposals for this broad area. On behalf of the Committee, I welcome them as a start in dealing with some of the more serious problems that relate to student support and widening social access to further and higher education. In due course, more detail will be required on his reformed package. This will include the level of the reintroduced maintenance grants or bursaries. It will also detail how the means-testing system will operate in respect of such support and what the interaction will be between student support and the wider social security system - a UK-wide issue that the interdepartmental working group is working on. Given the Minister's proposals, how will selective assistance, particularly for further education students, for areas of skills shortages operate? Furthermore, how will it operate given the commitment to equity and social need?

We need adequate implementation of the package of proposals that we first heard about in mid-December. That will involve the Department of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment working in close conjunction with the Department of Finance and Personnel. Indeed, in the medium to long term, it will involve the entire Executive because the indications in December suggested that a substantial amount of the additional funding required will come through the mechanism of Executive programme funds. I endorse the sentiments of the motion.

The Deputy Chairperson of the Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment Committee (Mr Carrick):

The subject of the motion is topical and of immense relevance to the student body and their families.

The Committee for Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment welcomed the Minister's recent announcement on student finance in so far as it goes. We have still to learn the details of the proposals and the impact they will have on student debt. We await those details from the Department.

There is overwhelming evidence that debt in the student population has now reached unprecedented levels. Survey after survey has shown this, and the Chairperson referred to the most recent survey carried out on behalf of the Department for Education and Employment by Callender and Kemp.

Personal interviews with 2,800 students representing full-time and part-time undergraduates throughout the United Kingdom confirmed that more students owed much larger sums of money to a broader range of creditors last year than they did three years ago. The report concluded that almost 90% of students face financial difficulties. By the end of the 1998-99 academic year, full-time students anticipated owing three times as much as students in 1995-96 - just three years earlier and prior to the introduction of the student loan scheme.

Regrettably, higher and further education has become associated with debt. Surely there is not one Member who has not been told by constituents, or indeed family members or friends, that they may not be able to afford to send their children to university because of the lack of financial support. Many families are guilt-ridden because of their inability to support their children through education without recourse to student loans. Callender reported that 35% of students surveyed had to pay the full £1,000 parental contribution towards their fees themselves.

The Callender Report also highlighted an increase in overall borrowing by students, including borrowing from financial institutions and on credit cards, often at rates of interest that can only be described as usurious. Whichever figures you rely on, on graduation our young people face a wall of debt, repayable at a time when they may be considering marriage, buying a house or starting a family.

Debt can have a corrosive influence on family life. It does not impact solely on an individual student; there are major implications for the whole family. For many, servicing debt is the first call on family resources. Once a cycle of debt is entered into, it requires considerable skill to manage it and break the cycle of ever-increasing borrowing. All financial institutions realise this. Financial behaviour learnt at an early age lasts through life. That is why credit card companies and banks target students.

The old adage "Neither a borrower nor a lender be" was once considered good advice to pass on to children. Today's students seem far more attuned to the idea of credit than were previous generations. In many cases they do so without fully realising their responsibility to discharge that debt, which will be done from a position of weakness when many will be entering into domestic and financial commitments associated with adult life.

I cannot advocate this as a good development, and many share my concerns. It is wrong to launch students into the world of work with an albatross of debt around their necks. The Committee for Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment report on student finance shows the balance between what is affordable and our desire to enable everyone to have access to lifelong learning. We deliberately sought assurances that resources would be ring-fenced for student finance, having identified the fear of debt and the wall of debt to be tackled. The Committee will support the Minister's new proposals if they will clearly have an impact on removing the fear of debt and reducing its level. Members would like to have provided more generous support for students, but there is a limit on the funds allocated to Northern Ireland and many other groups who also need help.

Finally, we must aim to change the perception that a degree is the only route to well-paid employment and job satisfaction. People can become trapped in a cycle of debt because of problems with literacy, numeracy and a lack of basic skills. They have low expectations, and they are constrained to low-paid employment with no hope of breaking out of the cycle.

Madam Deputy Speaker:

The Member will draw his remarks to a close.

Mr Carrick:

We must continue to invest in our most valuable resource - human capital.

Mr Dallat:

I welcome the opportunity to participate in this debate and to reiterate my party's commitment to addressing the issue of student debt. As someone who has spent 30 years in the teaching profession at different levels, both here and in the Republic, I attach a great deal of importance to the needs of students. In the short time that the Minister has been in office, there has been broad support for what he has been able to do, given the competing needs for a finite budget.

4.45 pm

I invite the Minister to reaffirm that he will continue to treat this issue as a priority. I also ask him to return to the Committee for Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment at an early date to discuss further his proposals of 15 December. Dr Farren acknowledged then that living costs are a key issue for students in third-level education and that those living costs cannot be addressed without looking at the needs of the most disadvantaged people - those on low incomes.

The announcement on 15 December gave rise to broad agreement from the vice-chancellors of the two universities that the £65 million package would result in a fairer and more stable community through inclusion. The Students' Union president at Queen's University, Mr Paul Callaghan, said that the package would take nearly three out of every five students out of fee-paying. Mr Callaghan went on to welcome the assistance for mature students and the streamlining of procedures for student loans.

I hope that the Minister can reaffirm his commitment to do everything possible to address student debt because that is a priority for the Assembly Committee. The issue of student support set a precedent for the way in which important business is dealt with by the Assembly and has shown the importance of having local, accountable and responsible institutions. The concept of consensus government is innovative, and there will inevitably be criticisms. That in itself is no bad thing.

However, we cannot have the luxury of power to make demands without the responsibility that goes with that power. The Executive agreed the package of £65 million of new money for students in need. It targets social need, and nobody would disagree with that. The package addresses debt by reintroducing grants and introducing specific measures such as childcare grants and selective fee remission. No one could argue with those measures, and I ask the Minister to pledge his continued support to keep this issue a priority. The students' unions have highlighted the need to increase and widen access to further and higher education. That has been done.

I ask the Minister to say what additional places will be available in the universities so that fewer students have to travel abroad for education.

Prof Paddy Murphy, Director of the Belfast Institute of Further and Higher Education, has welcomed the abolition of fees for full-time further education students in key skills. He has predicted that the increased spending on further education will assist strategic planning for higher education places for selected industries, and we are all agreed that these are key to Northern Ireland's economic growth.

Since 1984, there has been a consistent attack on the assistance given to students. In 1997, when Labour had its landslide victory, we all hoped for improvements, but within two months the Dearing Report was published, recommending that graduates contribute to their fees. Since then other draconian measures have been taken to which my party and I are fundamentally opposed.

The Assembly has enabled a locally elected Minister to begin to address issues that have caused students great hardship. He has been able to include groups that have been ignored in the past and to target social need. The battle will continue. The SDLP has a long and proud record of forming and advocating policies to equip young people with the highest standards of education and training. These are the most powerful weapons available to address injustices of the past.

This motion enables the Minister to reaffirm his commitment to these ideals, and for that reason I support it.

Mr Neeson:

Perhaps I should declare an interest in that I have a son and daughter at university. However, I recognise the sensitivity of the issue and how important it is to many young people. Third-level education is a human right. As we move into the new society and the new economic environment, people must be able to develop their potential. That is why this is such an important issue.

I agree with Mervyn Carrick about not simply talking about degree education. Further education must develop to meet the needs of the new society we are creating. There is a danger of creating an elite in education because impossible impediments are being placed on low-income families.

Another issue that needs to be addressed is that students have been working part-time, not necessarily just since the introduction of fees. When I was at university, I worked part-time. However, there is now a greater onus on young people to take part-time jobs, sometimes working very unsocial hours. This often deprives them of time to study for the courses they are following. The Assembly should also consider the sorts of jobs they are taking. They are low-paid jobs, which enables many employers to employ people at very low wages.

My Colleague, Eileen Bell, has often referred to the Cubie Report, which should be studied closely by the Minister and his Department. It is not a free handout. It has its implications. Cubie concluded

"We are not persuaded that a principle of free education should apply in all circumstances. Indeed, fairness suggests that those who gain from higher education should make an appropriate and timely contribution in respect of the benefits gained."

That is why the Scottish Parliament abolished tuition fees and instituted a graduate endowment. Fees are collected from graduates once they earn over £25,000. It is not a handout altogether.

While I welcomed the Minister's announcement before Christmas, he did not go far enough. He has restored maintenance grants to students from low-income families, but much more can be done. Those from the poorest sections of society must be helped; and that is acknowledged by everyone here today. However, Cubie and his committee found that up-front tuition fees and the loan structure work against access for those very people who also have a traditional aversion to debt. The system dissuades them from even considering further education. We do too little to help those from lower and middle- income groups, while not demanding enough from those in the highest income groups.

Furthermore, we should bear in mind all the other costs that are involved with being a student. Those from rural areas have high transport cost or have to pay for rented accommodation, which is sometimes of a very low standard. Is this the sort of environment that we want for our students here? Scotland has taken the lead and has shown that it can afford it. This Assembly can afford it as well.

Huge gaps still exist in the postgraduate provision and the funding for mature students. The Minister appreciates the importance of this sector, given the university environment that he comes from. Career development loans are available to students from Northern Ireland who are doing certain courses in Great Britain, but such loans are not available to those studying here. How can we defend that?

We must move away from loans to finance higher education to a system more closely linked to the income of students. We must expand provision for postgraduate students, mature students, part-time students and those from non-traditional student backgrounds. This must be done imaginatively, not by simply allowing more students to acquire larger debts. The present system here benefits few, other than the banks. I am pleased that Mr John Kelly has raised this issue, and Alliance will be supporting the motion.

Ms McWilliams:

First, I will reiterate the type of financial package recommended by the Committee for Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment Committee. Over many weeks, it carried out research based on the Cubie model and international comparisons. One of the key issues in the discussion was tuition fees. It was pleasing to note that the Minister's report said that there will be a 2% increase in the number of people who do not have to pay fees here. Given the lower income levels in Northern Ireland, this will improve the situation. Approximately 50% of students are exempt from tuition fees compared to about 45% elsewhere. Nonetheless, it is of major concern that 50% of students are still excluded.

There is no point in referring to the 1960s; let us simply refer to the 1990s. Today, 50% of students are paying fees. They did not have to do so earlier in the 1990s, and this is contributing to the problem of student debt. We tackled this issue, and the Minister was critical of the recommendations, because they would not have helped students from Northern Ireland who are living in Scotland or elsewhere. I reiterate the point that at the British-Irish Council there is an attempt to convince the devolved regions to make changes that will apply to students throughout the devolved regions.

Let us make this a priority for any future education agenda. Let us not have entirely different recommendations for England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. If the system remains as it is, students will face complications, no matter where they go. One of the major problems with the system is that it has become more complex, not less so, despite our attempts to simplify it.

Part of the problem of debt is the amount of information that a student has to take on board. As Mr Neeson pointed out, increasingly parents have children attending different universities in different countries under different systems. There is an increasing problem of debt, depending on where a student is based. That is why we also recommended a one-stop advice shop.

Taxation consultants have shown how out of date the Inland Revenue recommendations are - they go back to before 1997, before tuition fees were introduced. The consultants recommend that urgent action be taken to update that information. That will involve action by the Minister and action in the areas of social security and taxation. We need to co-ordinate these systems.

5.00 pm

The report states that millions and millions of pounds are left over because, in certain circumstances, money has not been paid back to students. Students who moved from full-time to part-time employment or to summer employment, who did not know that they should not have been paying tax in the first place, or whose PAYE contributions were not paid back to them after they were forced to pay them, have all lost out through the tax system. That has increased the complexity of this problem.

Then there is the social security system. I note that the authors of the recent report of the Social Security Advisory Committee to the Government share our disappointment that their recommendations have not been adopted. Those recommendations focus on intercalated students who move from full-time to part-time study; on those who may be entitled to jobseeker's allowance and some form of income support; and on single parents who have children over 16. Having stipulated the parts of the system that let students down, they recommend introducing regulations to deal with the problem.

Time and time again the Committee has to deal with the regulations, because the legislation is so complex and did not get them right at the start. The legislation can never be right, because the situation is ever-changing. We constantly have to pass regulations to deal with anomalies and ambiguities in the legislation. Indeed, within less than a year we have had to pass a number of regulations to deal with students who have fallen through the gaps. Also, the NUS/USI has asked us not to pass one regulation that relates to social security because it would simply worsen student debt.

As a representative for South Belfast, where most students live, I am absolutely appalled at their living conditions in this new century. Anyone who pays us a visit will also note that while two children died awful deaths by fire on Sunday morning, so too did a student last year who was living in such poor accommodation, with such poor furniture, that the fire spread very quickly and death occurred.

Until we give students a reasonable income, landlords will have no reason to improve their properties. Appalling rents make for appalling standards in which students have to live, and this affects the whole community. I can bear witness to the deterioration of the university community in recent years.

I also want a response on the childcare issue. The Minister made proposals about childcare allowances, but he did not give us any details. This issue faces many students who are parents - they have to pay large sums of money to have their children taken care of, and they cannot afford to do so.

Finally, I would like an equality impact statement on the decision that only those in key skill areas will get particular privilege. Many of those areas do not cross the gender barrier. I would be very concerned about humanities and arts in academic institutions if we concentrate exemptions on hard subjects only.

Mr Byrne:

I am grateful to all who have contributed to the debate. I want to support the motion and reiterate that this is a big problem for many students, whether studying at home, in Britain or in the Republic.

Many contributors have referred to the fact that student debt has been increasing for years. I contend that over the last 10 years that increase has been significant. Within the last four to five years, we have seen a particularly sharp rise because of the up-front tuition fees. Over the last three to four years, the mandatory maintenance awards have been abolished and the discretionary awards substantially cut.

However, I welcome the Minister's commitment to tackling the problem. The package of measures that he announced on 15 December was a good attempt to address many of the issues. The greatest problem has been limited finance. I have lectured in further education for 20 years and have encouraged many people to go on to higher education. I would like to see more resources being directed towards student support. However, that budget is finite. Fewer people will be paying fees, which I welcome, but I would like to see no students paying any fees for any further or higher education course.

Student accommodation is a big problem in places such as south Belfast, Jordanstown and Derry. I agree with other Members that students are living in absolutely atrocious conditions and paying very high rents. The health and safety of some of their houses is also an issue. I would like to see some form of social housing for students with minimum-quality standards and co-ordination between the Department of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment and the Department for Social Development. Parents and students would like to see that too. Queen's University has student houses, but only a limited number. Many landlords are ripping students off, and that is adding to their hardship.

Students are dropping out of higher education courses because of their worries over debt. I take phone calls from students at universities in Britain about their hardship. I encouraged those students to go to Britain. They could not get into university here because of the higher entrance qualifications.

That leads to my second point. I welcome the Minister's commitment to increasing the number of higher education places here, but there must be an even greater commitment to providing even more. I would also ask that these places be not concentrated in Belfast and Derry alone. If fewer maintenance grants are to be made available to students, we must provide higher education places for them closer to where they live. More further education colleges should be asked to provide higher education courses throughout Northern Ireland rather than confining them to a few centres alone.

As parents, we all know the pain that some students endure, and many families are faced with debt. I know parents who have two or three children at university, and providing for them is a major problem. It is even more difficult if the students come from an area where there is very little employment and they cannot get summer jobs. An added burden is that they cannot register for social security benefits. Where a student genuinely cannot get a summer or part-time job, it is unjust that he cannot register for social security benefits. Surely in the twenty- first century we should be caring enough to allow such students to be given some money. This adds to family problems and burdens parents who cannot provide for their student son or daughter. It is a terrible dilemma for them.

Lastly, I fully support the motion and hope that over the next year or two the Assembly can address some of its main concerns, particularly the misery that is visited on students and families in debt. The Minister was sensitive when he initiated his package of 15 December 2000, a package that was skewed towards lower-income families and in which TSN factors were addressed.

Mr Hay:

This is not the first time I have tried to tackle student finance and poverty. For months, finding a solution to this problem has been uppermost in the minds of members of the Committee for Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment. The House will agree that high cost and a fear of debt deters people of all ages from entering higher education.

Many families struggle to pay fees and meet living costs, and for mature students with dependants there can be a benefits trap. Over the last five to 10 years, means-tested grants and student loans, for full-time undergraduates in particular, together with the removal of social security benefits, have added to student debt. In fact, 60% of students here now work part-time, some for 17 to 20 hours a week. We can tell from those figures that their studies must be affected.

University figures show that 87% of students face financial hardship of some kind. That is a serious indictment of us as public representatives and parents, and we must try to resolve the problems. However, if we are serious about addressing them, we must look at what is required in third-level education and target the most disadvantaged students. Student debt trebled between 1995-96 and 1998-99, and hardship is widespread across both communities. Neither loses out when it comes to this.

Education is a right. I never want to see a day when it becomes a privilege. That would be totally wrong. More research needs to be done to determine exactly how many students are dropping out of courses for financial reasons. A funding scheme that provides students with enough money to live on while they study, without their needing to incur additional debt, is also required.

Some students are going to financial institutions to try to obtain money, but some are going to loan sharks. As public representatives, we have a moral duty to address this problem, but it will not be easy. We are looking at many years of rising to the challenge and at many years during which successive British Governments did not deal with student finance and poverty. This matter will be raised in the House in the coming months and years. It is uppermost in the minds of those in the Committee for Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment. Although the Committee has produced a report that is useful not only to ourselves but to the Minister as well, we will revisit the issue in the future.

5.15 pm

Madam Deputy Speaker:

This is the first occasion on which the Assembly will hear what can properly be described as a maiden speech. Members will be aware that it is the custom in other places to hear a maiden speech without interruption, a practice I commend to the Assembly. I call Mrs Annie Courtney.

Mrs Courtney:

Thank you very much, Madam Deputy Speaker. I welcome the opportunity to address the Assembly. I also welcome the opportunity to take part in this debate on student debt, coming from an area that has high unemployment and where student numbers are increasing in Magee College and the colleges of further and higher education. This issue affects both communities.

Various surveys have been carried out recently, but the one with which we are all familiar is the student income survey which was published in the 'Financial Times' on 21 December 2000. It said

"1 in 10 students had thought of dropping out of university for financial reasons."

The Government have insisted that the abolition of grants and the introduction of means-tested tuition fees have not deterred the disadvantaged from further education. The report, which examined the period 1998-99, was commissioned by the Department for Education and Employment. The president of the National Union of Students said that the student expenditure survey was a

"damning indictment of the Government's funding system."

The chief executive of Universities UK said the group is

"likely to use evidence of debt to justify a new bursaries and scholarships system."

The report found that at the end of 1999, the debt of a full-time student was £2473; £777 more than three years before. For a lone parent, the figure was £4747. This is how students are suffering.

The Minister's announcement of an extra £65 million to overhaul student finance was warmly welcomed, particularly in key skill areas, which, traditionally, have been the poor relations of education. This represents a significant switch of emphasis towards funding education for selective economic development rather than the traditional broad academic approach. This is welcome, given the Minister's intention to increase higher education places again in 2002-03. It targets those most in need, promotes social inclusion and gives greater access to disadvantaged and under-represented groups.

The raising of the student fee contribution threshold from £17,800 to £20,000 means that nearly three out of five students in higher education will not pay any fees. A further fifth will pay only partial fees. The further introduction of means-tested access bursaries will help those most in need. Considerable investment is now being made in third-level students, and the Minister has made it clear that last month's package is only a start. He is committed to improving the position of students further as resources permit.

I thank Members for their attention and support the motion.

The Minister of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment (Dr Farren):

I have listened to the debate with considerable interest and have no difficulty in supporting the motion. Members know that the issue is of deep concern and interest to me. I have devoted much time to addressing the matter as effectively and fairly as possible. I have approached the issue bearing in mind the twin social principles of the Good Friday Agreement - targeting social need and equality of opportunity in further and higher education, training and employment, for which I am responsible.

On 15 December 2000 I outlined to the Assembly Committee my proposals for changes to the student support arrangements, and followed this up with a public announcement. I hope that I left Committee members, Assembly Members and the public in no doubt of my determination to address student financial support in as positive and comprehensive a way possible in our present circumstances.

The package I announced will give more than £60 million to student financial support over the next three years above that which is currently provided. I acknowledge the positive comments that many Members, if not most, have made, notwithstanding the fact that many would like me to have gone further. I wanted to go much further, but we do work with limited resources.

On 18 December 2000 my Colleague, the Minister of Finance and Personnel, reinforced my announcement in his Budget speech. He made it clear that my proposals have the full support of my Executive Colleagues. He said that funding was being provided through additions to my budget for 2001-02 and through Executive programme funds for future years. Details of the proposals are subject to further evaluation by the Department of Finance and Personnel and others, notably the Equality Commission, before a final announcement can be made. I indicated that to the Committee, and the Minister of Finance and Personnel did likewise in his Budget statement

I hope that the Committee will take time to deliberate on my proposals and discuss them with me - I was invited by the Chairperson to return to the Committee and have agreed to do so - before coming to the Assembly with its considered response. Today's debate, to which many members of the Committee have contributed, is not the end of the matter, though the broad direction of my proposals is clear.

My proposals have been fully endorsed by the Executive. They address the need to target additional support to those who need it most, which many Members have emphasised. The Committee, while still concerned about my intention on fees, has welcomed many of these proposals, and many are in line with the recommendations in the Committee's report.

The further evaluation of my proposals is now under way, and I hope very soon to set out the details for consultation under the Department's equality scheme. Reference was made to the need to demonstrate how the proposals meet equality requirements. I will be only too pleased to do so. As Members of the Assembly, and in particular members of the Committee, know, the Equality Commission itself has to cast its rigorous eye over the proposals before they are finally endorsed.

I now want to address the substance of the issues before us this afternoon. I recognised on taking office that student support arrangements were in need of review, and initiating that review was among the first public commitments I made. If I recall correctly, I did so within two weeks of taking office.

It was not an issue on which I needed prompting to decide that action was needed. It has been a priority for me and will continue to be. Some, not in this Chamber and not always in Northern Ireland, have argued that against a rising level of student participation in higher education - an increase which this year was at 5% over the preceding year - there was no need to look at this matter. I rejected that argument. My direct knowledge of the situation and my reading of the reports on the matter made it clear to me that there was an urgent need to address the question.

Mr J Kelly chose student debt as a centrepiece for the debate, and in so doing he reinforced two key aspects of my proposals. First, living costs is the really important issue for students in higher and further education. It is important in addressing that to look at the needs of the most disadvantaged, those on lowest incomes or those whose parents or those supporting them have lower incomes than average.

My proposals directly address those two important issues. However, loans have made an important contribution to student support since 1990 when the major expansion of higher education was in full swing, and they are likely to continue to be a vital element in student support for many years. The Executive, like the Executive in Scotland and the London Government, could not afford a support system without a loans element. Indeed, the Assembly Committee itself has endorsed a loan system as a key feature of its proposals for the future.

If implemented, the Committee's proposals would increase rather than reduce the debt faced by graduates. Through the recommendation that graduates repay the student fee contribution as well as any loan obligations they have incurred during the course of their studies, virtually all graduates would face a greater repayment requirement than at present. This requirement would also be greater than that which will pertain under the proposals I have announced. Under the Committee's recommendations, even students who are presently exempt from a fee contribution would have to contribute to the graduate endowment fund. Let us remember that the existing loan system is highly subsidised by taxpayers.


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