Student Finance

– in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 12:00 am on 21st November 2000.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Esmond Birnie Esmond Birnie UUP 12:00 am, 21st November 2000

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.

Photo of Lord John Alderdice Lord John Alderdice Speaker 10:45 am, 21st November 2000

There is one amendment, standing in the name of the Minister of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment.

Photo of Sean Farren Sean Farren Social Democratic and Labour Party

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.

Photo of Lord John Alderdice Lord John Alderdice Speaker 11:00 am, 21st November 2000

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.

Photo of Mr Mervyn Carrick Mr Mervyn Carrick DUP

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.

Photo of Mr John Kelly Mr John Kelly Sinn Féin 11:15 am, 21st November 2000

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 —

Photo of Lord John Alderdice Lord John Alderdice Speaker

Order. The Member’s time is up.

Photo of Prof Monica McWilliams Prof Monica McWilliams NIWC

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 —

Photo of Lord John Alderdice Lord John Alderdice Speaker

May I encourage the Member to speak through the Chair.

Photo of Prof Monica McWilliams Prof Monica McWilliams NIWC

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.

Photo of Lord John Alderdice Lord John Alderdice Speaker

I am afraid the Member’s time is up.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

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 —

Photo of John Dallat John Dallat Social Democratic and Labour Party

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]

Photo of Lord John Alderdice Lord John Alderdice Speaker

Order. Members will please give the Member a hearing.

Photo of John Dallat John Dallat Social Democratic and Labour Party

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.

Photo of William Hay William Hay DUP

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.

Photo of Mary Nelis Mary Nelis Sinn Féin 11:45 am, 21st November 2000

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.

Photo of Eileen Bell Eileen Bell Alliance

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.

Photo of David Ervine David Ervine PUP

I do not rise to commend the Committee; I rise to commiserate with the Committee. It has been grappling with an ethos that was delivered through the back door. It began under the Tories and has been vigorously maintained by a Labour Administration, to the extent that it is now accepted practice that students must contribute to their own education.

However, students are not being educated only for themselves. They are being educated for society — we get something from them — but the first thing that we do when they sign up is to say to them "No. We want something from you." My brother and I were talking last night about the time when we were kids and could rhyme off 12 people from a working-class background who had gone to university —12 people from one street. I could not name 12 people of similar background in my entire constituency who are able to go to university today.

The ethos that has been delivered to us and maintained against a backdrop of "Education, education, education" is the big problem. However, I do not see the Minister, or the Committee, addressing this. We need to give consideration to east/west relationships, formulate alliances with our colleagues in Scotland, Wales and Westminster, and begin the process of explaining to the Government that investment in people will get a return. If we fail to invest in people, we will not achieve the return. My party will not be supporting the motion, and it most definitely will not be supporting the amendment.

12.00

Mr Hay made a comment about Mr Dallat. Mr Dallat behaved to his Minister much in the way that the Democratic Unionist Party behaved to its Minister on the Child Support, Pensions and Social Security Bill. They said things that they did not believe in order to support narrowly — pathetically, in many ways — things that they did not believe. Unless we get radical and there is, dare I say, a form of rebellion, we are not going to achieve very much.

The aspirational circumstances mentioned in this report may or may not achieve something. If we manage to get businesses and Governments, and anybody else who wants to, to throw a few quid in, it is speculative how much would be returned from the students. The situation is simple: either we believe, as an Assembly, that there is a right to free education, as Mr Carrick said, or we do not. Most Members, whether they are on the Committee or whether they have to grapple with the difficulties in the Department, have accepted that education does not have to be free.

Here is a radical idea. Members earn £38,000 per year and are over the threshold for paying something back. Not all Members went to university; we know that the Minister of Education never did, and neither did my Colleague or I. However, plenty of Members did. Some members of the Higher and Further Education Committee went to university, but they never suggested that if we are going to charge the kids of today, why not share the burden? Why not make sure that everyone who has had a university education makes some contribution? The Committee members have only tinkered around what their masters asked them to do.

Is that what a Parliament is about? Is it just to rubber- stamp or play with the figures handed down from Westminster? Or is it about challenging them? Is it about saying "No" and reminding the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer that the funding has to be made available to help to create visions from dreams? Unless we are prepared to do that, we are wasting our time.

While I appreciate that the Committee has grappled with the issue and that it has been very difficult, the report says much about what we are prepared to put up with rather than about our concerns for education. I have no doubt that the Minister and the members of the Committee have a grave concern and desire that we should promote free education as of right, but instead of rebellion we just get compliance.

Photo of Alex Attwood Alex Attwood Social Democratic and Labour Party

Reflecting on what David Ervine said, I remember that I cut my political teeth in the students’ union movement in the days when we organised and occupied to kick the Tories out. There may be one or two people sitting not too far away from me who shared that particular experience. It is that experience that informs me in the comments that I make now.

First, I want to acknowledge what Esmond Birnie said: the report outlines targets and goals not realisable but to be aspired to. Whatever happens in this debate, and whatever the Minister might conclude in the next number of weeks, I accept the spirit of the report, even if I differ on some of the details.

There have been some very thoughtful and technical speeches from the likes of Mrs Bell, but there have also been speeches that, in my view, have missed the point of this debate and of the Minister’s contribution. For example, Monica McWilliams spoke in various terms. She accepts that there are gaps in the figures used to form the right approach to student funding, access and needs, but she blames the Minister and carries on regardless. However, I have written to the Minister, pointed out where the gaps are and asked him to commission the research to find out what is required. That is a much more helpful and creative approach.

Photo of Prof Monica McWilliams Prof Monica McWilliams NIWC

Does the Member accept that the Women’s Coalition did that but got a blank sheet in return?

Photo of Alex Attwood Alex Attwood Social Democratic and Labour Party

You did not get a blank sheet, and I am sure that the Minister will address that in his concluding remarks. However, you should also acknowledge that there are — [Interruption].

Photo of Lord John Alderdice Lord John Alderdice Speaker

May I encourage the Member to speak through the Chair.

Photo of Alex Attwood Alex Attwood Social Democratic and Labour Party

The Member should also acknowledge that there are still serious gaps in the figures. It is not appropriate to make judgements at Committee level, in the Assembly or elsewhere. Members should try to commission the required information in order to make a thorough and informed judgement. If there are serious gaps in what the Committee has outlined to the Assembly they should be acknowledged by the Member rather than ignored by her as she first carries on.

John Kelly rightly talked about the burden of debt and debt aversion. However, he ignored the evidence from the Republic of Ireland on the abolition of tuition fees and the fact that access is still being denied to under- represented groups, especially those from working-class backgrounds. One cannot accept that there are gaps in figures and evidence from other jurisdictions that should inform our debate, and then ignore them. Members should be more thorough and thoughtful.

The Minister dealt with a number of principles. I have not heard any proper, serious, structured rebuttal of them. Those principles should inform the debate in the Assembly.

Photo of Alex Attwood Alex Attwood Social Democratic and Labour Party

I have two and a half minutes left, and it would not appropriate to give way, having already done so once. Mr Wilson can speak later.

The Minister dealt with principles that will, I presume, inform his final determination and recommendations. The first of those principles was targeting social need. The Committee’s recommendations genuflect towards that issue but do not address it — and it needs to be addressed. I trust that when the Minister speaks in the Assembly in the next number of weeks that will happen.

The Minister also addressed the matter of equality between further education and higher education. The Committee genuflects towards the further education sector, but the Minister’s responsibility is to ensure that there is equality between the trainee medic and the trainee electrician. If that judgement informs the Minister when he makes his determination, advances can be made on that.

The Minister also addressed widening access to those people who are underrepresented in further and higher education and those who are averse to debt. If the Minister addresses that issue in the way that he is indicating, some progress may be made on the matter.

We should also seek to bring about a situation in which there is financial security in the first instance and financial independence in the second for those in third-level education.

Those four principles informed the Minister’s comments today and will, I presume, inform his judgement in the coming weeks.

Those are the correct principles, but that does not mean that what I aspired to and enjoyed as a student 20 years ago will be delivered in the first instance. But there will be a system that will promote access to education for the underrepresented and disadvantaged, create a degree of financial independence and security for those in third-level education and create equality across all sectors. Those are appropriate principles that should inform our educational and political new order. I have not heard any serious rebuttal of what the Minister said.

Photo of Mr Roger Hutchinson Mr Roger Hutchinson DUP

In response to Mr Ervine, may I say that I sat on the Committee and never had the privilege of going to university. It oversimplifies the matter to say that it is OK for another member of that Committee seemingly to change his mind in order to facilitate a Minister from his party. This is far too important. The education of our children is of paramount importance. I was more than a little angry when I noticed the Minister’s amendment to our proposal this morning. What is the point of having Committees if a Minister can come and, with a stroke of a pen, try to undermine what that Committee has done? My Colleagues and I spent many valuable hours debating this, and to have this amendment put before us this morning is a little mischievous, to say the least.

The economics of modern life in Northern Ireland make university study a two-edged sword. At present, young people who decide to go to third-level education do so knowing that they will commence their education in debt. I have a vested interest in this because my son started Queen’s University this year, and he is the first in my family to do so. He is more fortunate than most because he can travel to university from home, but we can see the poverty of some students. As a Committee we have drawn a responsible conclusion to all that we have said and done.

I call on the Minister to look maturely at our considerations, to listen to what we have said and to change the realities of finance in third-level education today. Children are suffering through lack of money, and it is important for the Minister and the Committee not to get bogged down in the semantics of recommendations. We have an obligation to focus on policy and on what is happening.

More attention needs to be levelled at the difficulties encountered by part-time and mature students. These complicated circumstances are worthy of further scrutiny. However, in the light of the decline in numbers of Northern Ireland students going to the mainland to continue their academic careers, the Minister and the Committee have an ever greater responsibility to facilitate third-level education.

There is much of merit in the Committee’s report, setting repayment thresholds on graduate salaries, for instance. Some Members of the Committee had difficulties with certain recommendations that were put forward. Mr Dallat knows that we argued over recommendations time and time again, but, because of the unity that was needed for the report, many of us accepted the majority decision of the Committee. I challenge Mr Dallat: do you still recommend what you recommended in this report?

Photo of Lord John Alderdice Lord John Alderdice Speaker

I encourage Members to speak through the Chair.

Photo of Mr Roger Hutchinson Mr Roger Hutchinson DUP

The idea that business and industry should carry some of the financial burden is important, as is our suggested review of student housing. Important too is the suggestion that a single, independent and accountable funding body be established to administer an even-handed and objective evaluation of claimants in accordance with realistic criteria.

I call on the Minister to work with the Committee, not against it, so that student hardship does not become a compulsory module.

Photo of Barry McElduff Barry McElduff Sinn Féin 12:15 pm, 21st November 2000

Ba mhaith liom fáilte a chur roimh thuairisc an Choiste agus ba mhaith liom labhairt i bhfabhar an oideachais shaoir do chách.

I speak in support of the Committee’s report, albeit in a qualified way. I appreciate the involved process that the Committee has evidently gone through to arrive at consensus. As Eileen Bell has indicated, the Education Committee, of which I am a Member, is similarly undergoing an involved process in relation to selection and the 11-plus debate.

I believe that education is a right and not a privilege, and that education must be free for all. Alarmingly, the SDLP members of the Committee now appear to be backing away from positions that they evidently endorsed in the Committee deliberations and when they signed the report. I would like to hear whether Mr Dallat and Mr Byrne support what they signed up to.

In reality, higher education is still out of reach for many people, and we must all focus on the key objective of significantly increasing the participation rates in further and higher education. Higher education does not come cheaply, but we must seek to provide adequate financial support for students. It is totally unjust to expect the parents of students, as well as students themselves, to shoulder this burden.

We all agree that the current system is not working. The shift from grants to loans has resulted in a decline in the number of students in further and higher education institutions in the North. It is unacceptable that graduates should begin their working lives facing such considerable debts. I agree absolutely with Mary Nelis when she said that regardless of the issue of the handcuffing of the Minister, we should not cripple our students.

There has been significant growth in student financial hardship and poverty. Of necessity, many, if not all, have undertaken part-time jobs, even though they are meant to be on full-time courses. This has not only had a detrimental effect on their studies, but it has had an equally detrimental effect on the health of the students through poor diet. It greatly impinges on the quality of life of students who are working in low-paid jobs and who are unable to meet basic living costs. Similarly, students are required to work very unsocial hours. Again, this is not at all conducive to their studies.

We totally support the principle of free education for all. In a spirit of compromise, my party is prepared to endorse this report.

With regard to the Celtic tiger, I recently spoke to a Sligo County Enterprise Board official, who told me that the success of the Celtic tiger is very much rooted in investment in the education system. I want to emphasise that point. Go raibh maith agat.

Photo of Mr Danny O'Connor Mr Danny O'Connor Social Democratic and Labour Party

We are here to discuss student finance. What exactly is a student? Is it just somebody at university or is it somebody in the higher and further education colleges throughout this country? Is it the person who attends on a part-time basis? Is such a person less entitled to adequate finances?

These issues do not seem to be addressed in this report. We talk about targeting social need. As my Colleague Mr Attwood said, the trainee electrician is just as important as the trainee medic. That is perfectly correct. For too long people in further education colleges have been the poor relations.

I want to draw some facts and figures to the Assembly’s attention. Thirty-five per cent of Northern Ireland students travel outside Northern Ireland to study, and this report excludes them.

Dr Birnie said that the recommendations had not been equality proofed because they are only a set of recommendations. The reality is that in calling for the implementation of those recommendations —

Photo of Esmond Birnie Esmond Birnie UUP

The Member specifically says that we did not have the recommendations equality proofed. We have done all we are obliged to do. We sent the document to the Equality Commission and it said that we were not obliged to do that. The Equality Commission can now look at it if it so wishes.

Photo of Mr Danny O'Connor Mr Danny O'Connor Social Democratic and Labour Party

The point I am trying to make is that when we try to target equality and social need in the community the recommendations coming forward from the Committee, which is there to advise the Minister, should be proofed, as far as possible, for equality.

I want to draw the Assembly’s attention to the fact that 40% of students currently pay the full fees. We have had three Members from Sinn Féin saying that they want free education for everybody. That is an honourable aspiration, but we are suggesting a situation in which 100% of people would be paying a graduate tax. It seems to me that one does not rest very easily with the other. Resources must be made available to target social need in working-class families. Several Members, including Prof McWilliams, referred to the fact that doing away with fees in Republic of Ireland three years ago had not increased the number of working-class people entering higher and further education — not even by 1%. When the Minister is making his decision he should make sure that the resources he has available are targeted specifically at working-class families and at the need that is there.

We have heard Members from the DUP advocating free education for all. Again, it is an honourable ideal, but it should be noted by the Assembly that the DUP was the only political party in Northern Ireland not to make a formal response to the review that the Minister is carrying out. It is all well and good to come in here and get involved in the theatricals when they are not doing very much on the outside —

Photo of Mr Danny O'Connor Mr Danny O'Connor Social Democratic and Labour Party

No, I have only a minute and a half left.

I would like to draw the Assembly’s attention to an article in the ‘News Letter’ of Saturday 11 November about the Belfast Institute of Further and Higher Education:

"The recent report from the Assembly’s Higher and Further Education Committee on student support paid little attention to either part-time students or those in further education.

Since current financial support regulations push an increasing number of students towards part-time study, this omission would have serious consequences if repeated by the Minister."

I am asking the Minister to look at the overall picture and to listen to people such as those in the Belfast Institute of Further and Higher Education rather than just to the Committee. The Committee has produced a worthwhile document, but there are inadequacies in it. I would like to see free education some day at the earliest feasible opportunity, but everything has to be paid for. Is the money going to come from health? As Mr Carrick said, the right to health is the right to life, so where is the money going to come from?

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir UUP

I am a member of the senate of Queen’s University, and, having served on the student representative council longer than perhaps any other Member, I bring a certain level of knowledge about student issues to this debate. Anyone who knew me at Queen’s, and knew the attitude I tended to take towards the Students’ Union, will find it surprising that today I support the position of the Students’ Union rather than that of the Minister of Higher and Further Education. That says a lot more about the shift in his party’s stance on the issue than it does about me. I support the motion. This is a worthwhile report.

Some Members opposite have told us of the great inadequacies of this report; criticism after criticism has been levelled against it. It seems strange to me, as someone who is not on the Committee, that such an obviously inadequate report came to be endorsed by the two members of the SDLP on that Committee. Indeed, the motion itself was endorsed, but now they seem to be rowing back from it. To see how much of a U-turn the SDLP has made, look at its manifesto:

"In the new Administration the SDLP will work for … the abolition of student loans and the introduction of a proper grants system."

There is no reference, in its list of priorities, to the abolition of fees. I think it is taken as read that they should be abolished more or less immediately, but it wants to go further by abolishing student loans and introducing a proper grants system. Where now is the great party of socialism across the way there? That seems a very distant past.

Mr Attwood referred to his great fights with the previous Conservative Government. Yet for all the inadequacies of that Government, during its 18 years it never dared to introduce a fee system. The current Labour Government bear that responsibility. Now we have our own New Labour Minister across the way. I was gravely disappointed by his speech. The SDLP is timid on abolishing fees. It seems to say "We have to look at this situation and make sure that all the money is there. Perhaps at some stage in the future it can happen. We have to look at the TSN requirements and make sure we are compatible with England and Wales." The SDLP seems to put everything on the long finger.

From a Students’ Union point of view, this report is not absolutely perfect — I am sure that some of the Students’ Union activists would have gone a lot further — but it is grounded in reality. In fact, the report appears to be so weak in support of students that it even fails the test of Mr Ervine, who seems to think that it is not radical enough. I think we have, for those of us who live in the real world, something that is practical and that takes a major step forward for students.

In his opening speech, Dr Birnie quoted Neil Kinnock’s remarks about his being the first Kinnock in a thousand generations to go to university — a line that I think was later plagiarised by Senator Joe Biden. I am in a similar situation. Because of economic circumstances, this is the first generation of my family to have had the opportunity to go to university. I was one of the lucky people whose university career was in the last days of the student grants system. In my last couple of years, student loans were being introduced. I want to make sure that if my generation is the first with a proper opportunity to go to university, it is not also the last. Further and higher education, as with so much else, should be based on merit: it should be the ability of people, not the ability to pay. That, unfortunately, is the system operating at the moment.

What has been put forward, a gradual process following, in part, the Scottish model, is sensible. It has been said that this is not going to happen overnight. No one is saying that these additional costs will be introduced as part of the current budget, but it is setting down a strong marker that as part of next year’s budget we should look at how we can better support student finance.

This is a sensible solution to the problems facing us. We must invest something in the future to ensure we start attracting students back to Northern Ireland. As the report indicates, we must increase the number of places, because too many students have had to leave Northern Ireland unwillingly. We must ensure that students are properly financed for the future. Targeting social need has its place, but we cannot use that as a smokescreen to hide behind. TSN is not Holy Writ. We must put ourselves in a position whereby TSN, or any other excuse, cannot stop the Assembly from helping people.

As I indicated during the recent debate on the Budget, the key test of devolution would be the difference we could make. Let us make a difference today and back this report.

Photo of Joe Byrne Joe Byrne Social Democratic and Labour Party 12:30 pm, 21st November 2000

I congratulate the Chairperson and the Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for the way they have conducted their business and their contributions in the Assembly today. They have had a very balanced and reasoned position.

This has been our Committee’s first exercise — and it has been quite an onerous one. The Committee carried out its deliberations primarily on higher education in Northern Ireland and full-time students in higher education. It may have been remiss of us to deliberate primarily on that group of people. However, the Committee was conscious that so many of our students at 18 years of age have to emigrate.

It has long been a deficit in this region that so many of our students have had to go to England, Scotland, Wales or the Republic in order to avail of a higher education course. As someone who has lectured for 20 years in a further education college, I have seen students having to emigrate to get a course because entry requirements were so much higher in Northern Ireland. I know the pain that many of them have gone through, in recent years, because of the worry of debt. Last year I had 20 students located in England, Scotland, Wales and the Republic who were in deep financial trouble. The whole administration of the student loans company is one of the most painful exercises that many students and families have had to deal with in the last two to three years. Let us hope that the Department and the Education and Library Boards will deal with this issue at the administrative level.

Virtually every Assembly party believes in the principle of free education. My party has stood for that principle for many years. However, we live in the real world and we cannot achieve it in one year. The Executive have agreed the Budget. There are four parties in the Executive and the Minister has earmarked a certain amount of money for students. Mr Dallat and I argued vigorously for the principle of free education in the Committee. We argued for the plight of those in debt to be acknowledged and for the matter to be addressed. For that reason one of the recommendations was to develop a better grant system for those students who are less well off. I do not have to take lessons from anyone in here about deviating from a long-held party policy.

Forty-four per cent of all 18-year-olds in Northern Ireland now go on to higher education. When I attended Queen’s University in 1973, the figure was only 15%. There has been enormous progress. However, the sad reality is that many students are now suffering severe financial hardship and debt and we must address that issue. I welcome the Minister’s comments that he wishes to provide a greater sense of financial security to all of our higher and further education students.

There is another reality. The Assembly and the Executive are to carry out many reviews. Indeed, many reviews are being carried out at present. One example is the famous review of the 11-plus. I am sure the Minister of Education would not like the Assembly to come to a conclusion on that without a comprehensive review and a very considered outcome. It is just the same in this case. The Minister has held the review. It is disappointing that only a small number of submissions has been made to the Department. The Assembly Committee has deliberated on it for a long time and has given its considered view. We cannot yet ask the Assembly to give wholehearted endorsement to the recommendations, because we have to determine the relationship between an Assembly Committee and the decision-making process for budgetary matters. I am in favour of encouraging the Minister, the Department —

Photo of Joe Byrne Joe Byrne Social Democratic and Labour Party

Just a moment, please. I am in favour of moving towards the goal that most Members spoke about this morning.

Thirty per cent of our students go on to further education, and they do not get much support. As I have lectured in further education, I know that students get only about £2,000 in grant towards the cost of their college education. Grammar schools get £3,000 on average. The further education sector has been the Cinderella of the education system for a very long time, and I hope that the Minister will address that issue.

Photo of Lord John Alderdice Lord John Alderdice Speaker

The Member’s time is up.

Photo of Sean Farren Sean Farren Social Democratic and Labour Party

I have listened very carefully to a debate which has revealed deep concerns and deep convictions about how we should proceed to frame proposals for student financial support across all key categories of full- time university students — full-time and part-time students at both higher and further education levels. Please appreciate the comprehensive approach that I am adopting.

It was acknowledged first by the Chairperson, Dr Birnie, and then by Mrs Nelis, Mr Carrick and others that they realise that these recommendations can probably not be implemented immediately. They are aspirations — some people use that kind of language to describe them. In other words, they are recommendations that we may see implemented over a considerable period of time; on the other hand we may not even start with very many of them. The urgency of implementation seems to have been highly qualified by some Members.

If my objective within the next few weeks is to draft a set of proposals which we can begin to implement, the House needs to hear those rather than comment on my contribution this morning as if it contained the seeds of those proposals. The motion before us today asks for approval and implementation of the recommendations of the report. It would have been dishonest of me not to have pointed out my reservations. This is because the views I have heard here today — however qualified with respect to implementation — certainly show that many Members want these recommendations implemented as part of my proposals, rather than be treated as matters that can wait for a more distant time.

That being the case, I want to make it clear that I have a responsibility to take forward proposals to my Executive Colleagues and eventually to the Committee and to the House. I have a responsibility to point out the reservations associated with the report’s recommendations, lest it be understood that these recommendations were for the here and now and not for some distant future. It is important that Members hear my reservations in that context.

I was disappointed that equity — a major issue — was hardly ever addressed. Prof McWilliams stated that she would address the issue of equity, but not a single word did she utter about the large number of students who go across the water. By the first recommendation in the Committee’s report, these are the students who would be denied the abolition of tuition fees if that were to be the road we went down. Prof McWilliams and Members from Sinn Féin, who talk a lot about non-discriminatory practices and about principles and targeting social need, said not a word about the discriminatory approach that might result if we were to implement that particular recommendation. As a Minister, I will not introduce any proposal that discriminates against 17,000 students in Northern Ireland who go across the water for further and higher education. Tell me why I should.

The Committee members acknowledge that the report is virtually silent on the needs of further education and part-time students. I believe that I am one of the first people with responsibility for further and higher education in our community to highlight their needs constantly. Furthermore, as part of my proposals for new forms of student financial support, their concerns as well as the concerns of students in universities will be taken into account as fully as possible. I ask those who have ignored that issue and who have sought to say "It does not matter. We can approve the recommendations." but later come forward with proposals in respect of further education students, to go to the colleges in Magherafelt, east Down, Newry, Dungannon, Omagh, Enniskillen, the north-west and the north-east, and talk to their constituents there. They can then explain to them why they are recommending a set of proposals that is virtually silent on their needs. I will not do that. As Minister, I have a responsibility to them, as much as I have a responsibility to full-time university students, and I intend to discharge that responsibility.

Several Committee members said that there has been a communication failure between myself and officials in my Department and members of the Committee. I remind Members that officials, and in particular the official in charge of higher education, appeared before the Committee on several occasions, gave comprehensive information and answered questions raised by the members. I am aware that the Committee members have had recourse to outside advice. I applaud that course of action; they should not simply take the word of officials in any Department if further advice is available from other sources. We need to challenge one another. That advice also contains reservations with respect to the equality issue.

The Chairperson of the Committee said that the Committee had sent its report to the Equality Commission only to be told that the Committee was not obliged to do that. However, before that, the Committee had been told by its own advisers not to apply its abolition of tuition fees suggestion to those who go outside Northern Ireland, as that would not be compatible with New TSN. Mr Weir may say that New TSN is simply a minor irritant, something that we might have to take account of now and again. It is a basic requirement on all Government Departments, just as equality schemes are requirements on all Government Departments. It should be fully considered in this House, not simply waved aside as if it were a minor irritant.

Photo of Sean Farren Sean Farren Social Democratic and Labour Party

No. I am winding up, and I am not giving way at this point. The Member has had his say.

We should be proud of what our universities and colleges have achieved. We have seen the numbers increase significantly. Participation in higher education by Northern Irish students has increased by 5% this year. We have seen an increase in part-time and further education enrolments. However, I am aware of the difficulties that students experience with respect to financial support. Within a week of being appointed, as I reminded the House earlier, I announced that it was my intention to proceed with a review of their financial circumstances. Is that betraying indifference to them? Perhaps one of the first reviews undertaken once the Executive was established last December was a review, announced by me, on behalf of students. This was to ensure that they would have as much financial security as we could possibly afford them and, in doing so, address the needs of those who are from backgrounds not traditionally associated with education at the higher and further levels.

Photo of Esmond Birnie Esmond Birnie UUP

I thank all who contributed to this very worthwhile and sometimes heated debate. Those who have analysed our governmental arrangements under the Belfast Agreement have sometimes asked where the Opposition is. Today we have seen a partial answer. The Committees, on occasion, can serve as opposition, in the best sense, to Ministers and the Executive as a whole — though I did note that the leader of the Progressive Unionist Party seemed to imply that he himself might be the Opposition in this House.

We seem to be breaking new ground, in terms of the relationship between Committee and Executive. I concede that this is a challenge for those of us who are both Committee members and members of parties in the Executive. I do not think that it is fair to charge anybody in the Committee with acting in a dishonourable manner.

Many Members made very valid points. I will not attempt to reply to them in detail, except one where there is simply a factual problem. Mr O’Connor suggested that the report’s proposals amounted to a graduate tax. That is not strictly correct. A graduate tax would be paid throughout a graduate’s working life. Our proposal is a one-off contribution of a fixed sum. There is an important difference in principle and in financial terms.

I now turn directly to the comments of the Minister and to his amendment. I am grateful to the Minister for speaking. He made three particularly significant challenges to the Committee report. I will attempt to respond to them.

First, there is the point about the costing of our proposals. The indicative figures that were presented in the Minister’s speech were of a similar magnitude to those presented in my own. The House will have to decide today and in subsequent debates on this issue whether, in the long run, we cannot afford a sum of £60 million per annum. In the long run, if we fail to perfect our student support system, there will be a grievous cost to targeting social need and to the generation of economic growth, which ultimately funds the public expenditure of all Departments.

As early as 2 June this year, I requested from the Minister costing details on the likely options for student support facing the Committee, the Department and the House. In my speech, I made a subjective indication, which will not necessarily be shared by all Committee members, of a rank ordering of the stages in which the proposals in the report might be implemented. The priority should be to increase grant support to widen social access. The Minister hinted at this in his speech and in his comments at the weekend.

In response to the challenge regarding equity, I accept that it is true that around 35% of full-time undergraduates leave Northern Ireland to study in Great Britain. I note that the Minister feels that our proposals could be challenged on the grounds of equality and discrimination. Obviously, this remains to be tested, but the Committee has been advised that legal appeals on this basis are not likely to be sound.

I do concede that I do not regard lightly our recommendation of support for some students to the exclusion of others. I can declare a personal interest in this matter because at one point in my career I myself left Northern Ireland to study, so I appreciate that there will be a perception of unfairness. However, the question of principle remains: should we fail to help the clear majority of roughly 65% of Northern Ireland students who study in Northern Ireland because, similarly, European Union law prevents us from helping those students who go?

I agree that the issue of further education is a critical one. The Committee, in its report, recognises the point about equity. We have recommended the establishment, for the first time, of a single statutory funding council to bring together higher and further education. We must all grapple with these increasingly new and flexible patterns of lifelong learning, and this will pose continual challenges to student support systems.

I am pleased with the way in which the Minister recognised and endorsed many of the broad principles of the report, and I am sure that this has also pleased the Committee.

As to the amendment, I am bearing in mind this advice given by Abraham Lincoln: "It is not advisable to change horses mid-stream. " I remain undiminished in my advocacy of this report. The motion is not designed to handcuff the Minister — to use one of the images presented today. Rather, it calls for implementation "at the earliest feasible opportunity". Obviously a judgement must be made on what is financially feasible now, in the medium term and, ultimately, in the long term. At the same time, I welcome the tone of the amendment insofar as it would commit the Minister to bring to bear the report’s principles and conclusions on his own forthcoming review.

Question put,

The Assembly divided:

Ayes

Billy Bell, P J Bradley, Joe Byrne, Joan Carson, Robert Coulter, John Dallat, Ivan Davis, Arthur Doherty, Mark Durkan, Sean Farren, John Fee, Tommy Gallagher, John Gorman, Carmel Hanna, Denis Haughey, Joe Hendron, Danny Kennedy, James Leslie, Patricia Lewsley, Alban Maginness, David McClarty, Donovan McClelland, Alasdair McDonnell, Alan McFarland, Michael McGimpsey, Eugene McMenamin, Danny O’Connor, Eamonn ONeill, Ken Robinson, Brid Rodgers, George Savage, John Tierney, Jim Wilson.

Noes

Eileen Bell, Paul Berry, Gregory Campbell, Mervyn Carrick, Wilson Clyde, Nigel Dodds, David Ford, Oliver Gibson, Michelle Gildernew, William Hay, David Hilditch, Roger Hutchinson, Gardiner Kane, John Kelly, Alex Maskey, Kieran McCarthy, Barry McElduff, Gerry McHugh, Mitchel McLaughlin, Monica McWilliams, Francie Molloy, Maurice Morrow, Mick Murphy, Sean Neeson, Mary Nelis, Dara O’Hagan, Ian Paisley Jnr, Edwin Poots, Sue Ramsey, Mark Robinson, Jim Shannon, Denis Watson, Peter Weir, Jim Wells, Sammy Wilson.

Question accordingly negatived.

Main Question put and agreed to.

Resolved:

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.

The sitting was suspended at 1.11 pm.

On resuming (Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr McClelland] in the Chair) —