The best possible education of people is both a principal duty of, and an immeasurable benefit to, any civilised society, and therefore I invite this conference to join me in deploring the rising levels of student debt and the resulting disincentive to continue in education post-school.
Alliance condemns the failure of the Assembly and the Government to invest in Higher Education all the extra resources provided by the abolition of maintenance grants and the introduction of tuition fees; we also believe that part-time students and students in Further Education should be treated fairly in comparison with full-time students in Higher Education: We call on the Government now and pledge that Alliance in the Assembly will work to abolish tuition fees in Northern Ireland and to put in place a fully funded support system, which will encourage more students, particularly those from low income backgrounds, to go into higher education.
Cllr Dickson went on to say a sensible Government would choose to tax things they want less of and that they avoid taxing things that they want more of. He said: “Alliance believe in education. We believe that education is one of the cornerstones of a civilised society. We believe that the best possible education for each individual is valuable not just for that individual, but for society as a whole. We also believe that education is not just about equipping the individual with the knowledge and skills that he or she needs for the jobs of the modern world, but about giving that individual the opportunity to make the most of his or her natural talents and abilities in every aspect of his or her life.”
He said that the current student support system acted as a barrier to young people who wanted to go to university, particularly the poorer students, for several reasons.
First there was the upfront payment of tuition fees. He said the Government’s argument that these tuition fees wouldn’t be a disincentive as the poorest 50% of the students would not have to pay them. He said current proposals had nothing to do with whether the student was rich or poor, because almost all the students are poor. The reason for that was that: “Some parents pay, but many see no reason why they should continue to subsidise their adult offspring, just because those offspring happen to be intelligent enough to be offered a place at a university. So the sons and daughters of comparatively well-off parents usually end up paying the tuition fees. Often such students end up even more deeply in debt than other students whose parents happen to be less well-off. “He said it didn’t really matter whether the fear of debt was sound or not; it was the fear in itself that produced the disincentive.
Cllr Dickson said that other reasons than the fear of debt influenced the decision to continue one’s studies, but he said that the fear of debt and especially of having to pay tuition fees were at least part of the problem. He stated that besides acting as an disincentive, tuition fees had a bad influence on the general university experience as well. He claimed that this experience was valuable, not only because it improves career prospects, but also because it offered wider educational benefits, such as the exposure to new ideas, the gaining of of greater personal independence and freedom. He made it clear that because of the high financial burden most students were confronted with, a lot of them take up part-time work to help fund their way through university, which leaves less time for the wider experience of university life.
“There is no point in a target that results in more and more people going to university if the Government fail to meet the need to maintain unit funding for those students.” He said that the decision in Scotland to abolish tuition fees and the reintroduction of grants for students with poorer backgrounds had proven that our Lib Dem colleagues proposal was financially viable.
He concluded: “Northern Ireland needs a world-class system of higher education; our students deserve it. We need to provide grants, at least for students from less well-off backgrounds. However, tuition fees have no part to play in such a system.”