8 April 2024

Are University tuition fees in Northern Ireland set for an increase?

The Department for the Economy (‘the Department’) has published in its First Day Brief report for February 2024 (‘2024 Brief’), that if university tuition fees in Northern Ireland increased to similar rates as those in Great Britain, it could generate around £98m for the local economy. Tuition fees for Northern Irish Universities tend to increase slightly each year. However, not to the extent that has been suggested by the Department.

Currently, the maximum tuition fee for one academic year in Northern Ireland is £4,710, compared to £9,250 in Great Britain.

Prior to the restoration of the Northern Ireland Executive in February 2024, NI Secretary of State, Chris Heaton-Harris ordered several Revenue Raising NI Consultations to be undertaken. Each of the draft Consultations focused on various sectors within the NI Economy and what could be done to boost revenue across these sectors.

The Department’s draft Consultation focused on increasing university tuition fees as a measure to create sustainability of funding within the higher education sector. The opening budget settlement for 2023/24 resulted in a £11m reduction in higher education funding. The Department outlined in its 2024 Brief that this reduction has been managed in a way that will not present significant cuts to the higher education sector. This, however, is said to be unsustainable, which in turn is why a proposed tuition fee increase has been suggested as a way forward. Officials within the Department believe that this is the only way in which further funding cuts can be avoided.

The draft Consultation considered four different fee levels to address such funding cuts. These levels would see fees increase to £6,000, £7,000, £8,000 and £9,250. Officials from the Department stated that such fee increases would need to be approved by the Northern Ireland Executive, if they were to be put in place.

Economy Minister Conor Murphy has expressed his concerns and opposition towards a potential tuition fee increase. The Economy Minister believes that this would only deter students further from remaining in Northern Ireland to attend University.

In 2019 over 17,000 students from Northern Ireland attended higher educational facilities in Great Britain. Upon graduating, only 30% returned to Northern Ireland. This was outlined in the final report of the independent review Panel of education in Northern Ireland. Research undertaken by the Panel identified an annual “brain drain” on the NI Economy with the increasing number of students choosing to attend universities in Great Britain. The Panel considered this to be “deeply injurious” to the interests of Northern Ireland, where, in a post conflict era, needs to attract investment opportunities. This would be better achieved with a highly skilled workforce.

Now that Power-Sharing has been restored, it is suggested that the Consultation recommendations are unlikely to go ahead as the parties are unlikely to be in agreement on any potential fee increase. It has been suggested that these Consultations were merely an attempt to place pressure on the Democratic Unionist Party to return to Power-Sharing.

If, however, there was an agreement in place, such a fee increase would not be in place before the Academic Year 2026/2027 in order to allow universities and students to make arrangements and decisions for administrative changes. Furthermore, the Department outlined that it would take a number of years to feel the full impact of a fee increase and to generate £98m of additional funding.

Written by Anna Haughain, Trainee Solicitor. If you would like any further information or advice, please contact a member of our Education team.

*This information is for guidance purposes only and does not constitute, nor should be regarded, as a substitute for taking legal advice that is tailored to your circumstances.

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