Our Education is the Most Important Thing – Or is it?

When I was growing up my parents always emphasised that getting a good education is what’s most important, a message that in recent times has been somewhat contradicted by our politicians.  As universities in England can now charge tuition fees of up to £9000 per year, many potential students feel that they will effectively be priced out of attending the colleges at which they had previously aspired to study.  However, while the Cameron-Clegg coalition has raised fee caps in England, the same measures have not yet been taken in Northern Ireland.

Queens University Belfast

The prestigious Queens University Belfast, Northern Ireland

The Department for Employment and Learning issued a consultation document regarding tuition fees in Northern Ireland; this document sets out the background and context of the issue, and offers a number of options as to how current issues may be overcome.  Based on the results of the consultation, the Employment and Learning Minister, Dr. Stephen Farry, tabled a paper at the 7th July executive committee meeting with the view to assessing the options regarding tuition fees, however the paper was not discussed.  Despite the fact that Stormont Assembly is now in recess until September, Dr. Farry has offered reassurance that measures can be implemented to overcome this problem, meaning proceedings would not be held up by the summer break.

As representatives close in on a decision on how much it could cost our students to attend university in Northern Ireland, it is time that we look much closer at the issues involved, most importantly this must include not only looking at what we feel should be done, but also realising what actually can be done.

Until very recently I, as a soon-to-be graduate, was still experiencing the financial demands incurred by attempting to further my education in the hope of one day securing both a career and financial security.  From a student’s point of view, it is easy to understand why there has been mass condemnation of the decision to raise fee caps.  Students pay tens of thousands of pounds in fees as it is, for many an increase in fees will simply mean further education is not an option.  Not only will the average student leave university under a cloud of debt, but they also witness first hand the exclusivity and, at times, downright grandeur within which certain universities exist.  Indeed, it must be frustrating for students facing increased tuition fees to see their lecturers arrive to work each day in fancy cars, wearing designer suits and enjoying their elevated position in society – all brought about by the prestige of their job and the extent of their salary.  Surely students must ask themselves, why do these people need more money from me?!  I know I did.

In a time of austerity and cuts, the government must think about how such a dismal situation can be avoided in the future.  Although the effects of the recent global economic recession are far reaching and have been felt across many, if not all industries, it is undeniable that the effect it has had on Northern Ireland’s construction industry has proved crippling for the region’s entire economy.  If the collapse of one single industry can play such a major role in the collapse of the entire economy, what must be done?  The answer is very simple; diversify.  In this case, it must be argued that the most effective way to ensure that widespread economic hardship, such as that recently experienced, does not occur again, is to educate our population in a more diverse and extensive manner.  Should more of our region’s population be educated to a higher level in a range of disciplines, it will offer a much more diverse workforce, avoiding us making the mistake of placing all our eggs in one basket, so to speak. Surely, for the sake of our future economical stability, encouragement must be offered to all those considering the option of further study.  Unfortunately this encouragement does not come in the form of the increased tuition fees that are being witnessed in England.

While it is easy to understand the grievances felt by students, and future students, regarding increased tuition fees, there is another side to the story.  As hard as it may be to believe sometimes, a government, and more specifically politicians, never set out with the intent of being unpopular. On that basis, these measures are being introduced because they have to be introduced.  In order to tackle the current deficit; the money must come from somewhere.  We must keep in mind that universities are not the only victims of potential cuts in public spending, indeed the majority of public sector organisations are facing the same threat, not least the NHS.  Therefore, a question that must be asked to those opposing the increase in tuition fees is, if the required cuts are not made from this area of spending, then from where are they to be made? The NHS?


The NHS is also facing major cuts in public expenditure

It is still very possible that the government-set fee caps in Northern Ireland will be considerably lower than those elsewhere, with suggestions that Dr. Farry has presented the idea of capping fees at £3200 a year plus inflation.  If this turns out to be the case, it is certain to cause unrest among those paying the permitted £9000 fees in England.  It is no secret that Northern Ireland already represents a burden to the British taxpayer, receiving substantially more from the financial purse than it contributes, and therefore maintaining university funding in Northern Ireland would inevitably result in greater expense to the British taxpayer.  This transcends the issue beyond the demographic of English students who must pay more to study than their Northern Irish counter-parts, creating an issue that instead affects each and every tax-paying individual in England, individuals who feel that their government’s relationship with Northern Ireland is already one of all give and no take.

It is all very well raising the negative issues regarding measures such as increasing tuitions fees, but I fear that not enough of those affected have taken the time to step back and fully realise why these decisions have been taken.  It must be highlighted that if cuts are not made in this area, it is inevitable that they are made in other areas, other areas that could very possibly negatively impact the lives of those who are currently opposing increased fee caps.  What happens then?  More protests?  The cold hard fact is that there is a major deficit that must be addressed; the discussion on how we have accrued such a deficit is for another day, but what is very important in the context of this issue is the fact that almost everyone is falling victim to the existing, and future, cuts in public expenditure, not just students.


About danieljmclaugh

I am a graduate of Queens University Belfast, where I completed a BSc (Hons) Environmental Planning degree. Having been born and raised in Northern Ireland, I have inherited a burning passion for politics and the difference it can make to peoples’ lives. I am currently heavily involved in local level politics, however I maintain a keen interest in national level political matters also. Outside of politics my passions are sport and music, I genuinely feel that the emotions provoked by live music and sporting events are unparalleled. Fundamental politics should serve the good of the people, all people.

Posted on July 9, 2011, in Devolved Government, Northern Ireland and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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