The Northern Irish Open Letter
Diane Dodds, MLA for the Department of the Economy, has now responded. We feel the letter, which you can read by clicking the button below, is insufficient. As such we are asking everyone who supports us to write, in brief, to their representative, mention their dissatisfaction and tell them about our open letter. If you have not signed already, please scroll down till you see a button"Sign Here". Together we can do this!
Rising tuition fees over the past two decades have not been met by an equal increase in available loans to help cover education. This means that there is an attainability gap in who is able to access further education.
This lack of funding is controlled by politicians who availed themselves of free undergraduate tuition, and postgraduate fees that are a fraction of today's cost, even when adjusted with inflation. On top of this, Northern Irish students only have access to 50% of what is available to students from England and Wales, and have no access to living support loans. This means regardless of if you are qualified to continue studying only those who can afford the extra costs, either via their own savings, family support or being granted a grant or scholarship (of which there are very few for taught courses) can continue their studies.
Below is the open letter written by the Northern Irish Campaign team, if you wish to sign this letter to lobby politicians to consider this funding increase, please click here:
Dear Peter Weir (MLA), Chris Lyttle (MLA), Karen Mullen (MLA) and all who read this letter in a position to help.
We, the signatories of this letter, are writing as Northern Irish Students and their supporters who are shut out of postgraduate education because of the insufficient level of financial support from the current NI Student Finance postgraduate tuition fee loan.
Students from widening participation backgrounds are more likely to be negatively impacted by the current loan amount. Widening participation scheme initiatives are present throughout many universities across Northern Ireland and the UK, and aim to encourage students from underrepresented or disadvantaged backgrounds to continue into higher education by removing some of the barriers that they typically face. The Robbins report argued that higher education should be available to anyone who is qualified, regardless of their background and income (Committee on Higher Education, 1963).
Currently, postgraduate students are entitled to a £5,500 loan and no access to any further support, i.e. for housing and living costs. This is contrary to the rest of the United Kingdom. In Scotland students have access to £5,500 towards tuition and a further £4,500 towards living support (see here: https://www.saas.gov.uk/full-time/postgraduate-funding-information), in England and Wales they have access to £11,222 to cover tuition and living costs at the Masters level, and £26,445 at the PhD level (see here: https://www.gov.uk/funding-for-postgraduate-study)
Across many postgraduate taught courses in the United Kingdom, and more exclusively Northern Ireland, fees exceed the current loan amount that is available to Northern Irish students. For example at Queen’s University Belfast, the base fee is £5,900, however many study options surpass this. (See here: https://www.qub.ac.uk/Study/PostgraduateStudy/TuitionFees/tuition-fees-2019-20/) Across the rest of the UK, fees are even greater, with the average cost being £7,946. (See here: https://www.findamasters.com/funding/guides/cost-of-a-masters.aspx, and https://www.timeshighereducation.com/news/international-and-postgraduate-fees-survey-2019) This ultimately constrains students to only be able to access a few cheaper courses which may not be relevant to their career path.
It is therefore up to students themselves to somehow fund the remainder of the tuition fee cost, whether that be through scholarships, grants, financial support from family members or private loans. Unfortunately, for those wishing to study a taught postgraduate degree, there are very few scholarships available, which leaves many relying on any savings that they have or financial support from their family.
This leaves students unsupported in their ambition to further their education, as they have to both find or self-fund the remainder of their tuition, and then find a way to support themselves while they study. In turn this leads to Northern Irish students to be at a severe disadvantage in comparison to their English, Welsh, and to an extent Scottish counterparts, despite being equally qualified to continue studying.
The Northern Irish Assembly have already acknowledged that the current COVID-19 pandemic has severely impacted upon student’s access to money, and have announced an emergency package of support for students facing hardship (see here: Hardship Fund NI). While we are grateful for this support, the current pandemic means it is especially unlikely that students who are unable to access independent financial support from family will be able to afford postgraduate tuition. This will likely increase inequality during a time when we need to continue to develop the high level skills from the diverse range of talent from Northern Irish students, which will help our country in its recovery. This inequality will have lasting effects, and while support is needed during this period of uncertainty, it is also important that increased support continues beyond the COVID-19 pandemic.
We are therefore writing to ask for increased support for Northern Irish students who wish to study at postgraduate level, either in Northern Ireland or across the UK. An increase in the tuition loan amount available is needed urgently to provide Northern Irish students with the same opportunities to English, Welsh, and Scottish students. An increase in loan amount would allow any student who is suitably qualified to continue their education and journey through academia, but more importantly, access to a living support loan will ensure that it is not just those who have access to family financial support that can continue to progress. It would prevent students from missing out on vital opportunities or accumulating more debt than necessary.
Finally, we would like to address some of the issues that may be raised in discussing the level of loan Northern Irish students could have access to. It seems the loan is kept low as there is a worry about a brain drain occurring in NI, where students leave and do not return to our home country. However, this does not seem to have any basis in the statistics. Page nine, paragraph three of the Equality Commissions report on Educational Migration and Non-Return in Northern Ireland shows that of 81% of NI students are located in Northern Ireland six months after graduating, and of the 29% of students that left to GB to study, around 34% return. (See here: equality commissions report) Although now an outdated report, from 2008, it does give indication of Northern Irish students intentions when it comes to returning home.
Limited Northern Irish funding does, however, leave the potential for Northern Irish students who cannot secure family or other financial support aiming to become domicile in the rest of the UK, to access further funding in via Scottish, or the English and Welsh financial system, in order to see out their educational ambition. This requires them to live and work elsewhere for three-years, making it even less likely they will then return after their postgraduate degree.
Northern Ireland is continuing to develop its economy, and to do so needs to continue investing in our students, which ultimately leads to a higher qualified workforce for Northern Ireland. In turn this leads to a more appealing opportunity for international investment, with businesses choosing to set up headquarters or satellite offices in our home country. This then provides a more favourable market for graduates to return to, reducing any potential threat of brain drain further. On top of this, it will see more graduates be equipped with the ability to set up small businesses in Northern Ireland. We could almost continue listing benefits ad infinitum.
Ultimately, we need further investment for Northern Irish postgraduate students for two reasons; one, to ensure COVID-19 does not lead to a further economic divide between those who can and those who cannot afford further study, and two, to continue the long term economic development of Northern Ireland.
We hope that you can see how vital this support is.