Official Report: Minutes of Evidence

Committee for Employment and Learning, meeting on Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Members present for all or part of the proceedings:

Mr Robin Swann (Chairperson)
Mr S Anderson
Mr Alex Easton
Mr P Flanagan
Mr David Hilditch
Ms A Lo
Ms B McGahan
Ms Claire Sugden


Mr Elliot Lyness, Ulster University Students' Union
Mr Colum Mackey, Ulster University Students' Union
Ms Kellie Murnion, Ulster University Students' Union
Mr Michael Quigg, Ulster University Students' Union

Student Finance and Student Fees: Ulster University Students' Union

The Chairperson (Mr Swann): I welcome the witnesses from Ulster University Students' Union: Mr Colum Mackey, the president; Mr Michael Quigg, the vice president for the Magee campus; Ms Kellie Murnion, the vice president for the Jordanstown campus; and Mr Elliot Lyness, the vice president for campaigns and communications. Folks, you are very welcome.

Mr Colum Mackey (Ulster University Students' Union): Thank you, Chair.

The Chairperson (Mr Swann): Colum, over to you.

Mr Mackey: We will give a brief overview of what the students' union does and then talk through the paper that we forwarded in advance.

Ulster University Students' Union is an independent organisation. We are spread across the four campuses of the university, and our core aims are to promote the interests of students and to represent them in all matters that affect their interests. The union is run by seven elected officers, four of whom are here, and it is our job to represent, support and involve the 26,000 students who attend Ulster University. We do that through our societies, our sports clubs, our student council and our course representative system. We also actively run campaigns that raise awareness of student issues, and, at the moment, we are actively working on a voter registration campaign with our colleagues from the National Union of Students and the Union of Students in Ireland. We kicked that off during the freshers period, when we distributed 2,000 voter registration forms. Our students contribute significantly to their local community through the giving of their time and skills to improve the communities that they live in.

As Minister Farry said recently, education is recognised as an enabler of:

"social mobility, social cohesion and social change." — [Official Report, Vol 107, No 4, p2, col 1].

It helps people to improve their prospects in life and employment, and I think that most would agree with that statement. The importance of publicly funded primary and secondary education is well recognised, and, with that recognition, we believe that the next logical step is to fund all education in that manner.

Ulster University employs over 2,500 staff and attracts over 26,000 students. The economic contribution that Ulster University makes is well recognised, and its impact has been validated through independent research. In the paper provided, I have given an overview of how the cuts have impacted Ulster University specifically, so I will not reiterate those points now. I do think that it is important, however, to remake the point that the cuts will affect the ability of lots of students to study their subject of choice in Northern Ireland and will stop others from accessing a university education.

There is also a need to consider the short-term impacts that the cuts will have. For example, with the cut to the school of modern languages, it is unclear who will officiate at summer exams, as staff who choose to take voluntary redundancy will have left before the summer exams period. A general admin also accompanies administering degrees, such as aggregating marks and answering queries, and we are concerned about who will field those queries when there are no full-time lecturers working on certain courses. Lecturing staff provide ongoing pastoral and academic support and often have a close relationship with students and are able to support students through problems before they become an issue. That could mean referring them on to us in the students' union or to student support for advice, on personal or health issues, or to help them access hardship funds. We feel that that kind of support would be lost with part-time staff teaching courses.

We also have serious concerns about the effect that the cuts will have on staff morale, thus impacting on the quality of teaching, research and the student experience. That will be felt particularly in courses that are earmarked for closure. We have concerns that the goodwill of many lecturers who will exit under a voluntary severance scheme or, potentially, through a compulsory scheme, and are brought back to teach, may not be there, and it will be students who will suffer in the long term. The factors of fewer staff, more work and low morale are likely to impact on staff and students' mental health, and students are already a very vulnerable group in that area.

The cuts at Ulster University will put Northern Ireland at a disadvantage in competing in the global market and in efforts to attract foreign investment. The decision will prevent students, with the ability, from studying the provisions in Northern Ireland and will drive away those who wish to study provisions that have been cut.

In our paper, we have laid out the importance of the contribution that Ulster University makes to society and the economy through its placements, research and development, partnerships with local businesses, and spending by staff and students in the local economy. We have also laid out the economic advantages of a publicly funded higher education system and the role that it has to play in meeting the growing skills needs of our knowledge economy, attracting inward investment and remaining competitive. We know that that is a priority in the Programme for Government.

I will move on to the support that students receive while they are at university. I referenced the NUS-USI 'Pound in Your Pocket' report, which found that 58% of students regularly worry about not having enough money to meet their basic living expenses, such as rent and utility bills. At Ulster University, 1,519 payments were made from the student hardship fund between 2014 and 2015, which equates to almost £1·5 million. The scale of those payments highlights the pressure that money shortages put on our students, and we see spikes in applications just before the next loan instalments are due to be made. Many of our courses put a significant demand on people's time, and those issues are more acutely realised by students who undertake courses in which part-time employment is not possible, such as many of our healthcare courses, and students who, through necessity, have to take unpaid placements.

This year, we have begun work with the university's chaplaincy to establish links with local food banks, which our students in hardship can access. Most of the students we deal with have a part-time job and are making every effort to make ends meet, but it often is not enough. We have students who have been unable to afford the bus from Belfast to Jordanstown and simply could not attend class; who have presented themselves as homeless; or who have not had any money because they have had to pay for their parents' bankruptcy application.

Feedback from members suggests that there should be a change in the frequency of loan and grant payments to a model in which more frequent payments are received. Ideally, students should have the ability to choose how they are paid, and we believe that more regular payments would help students to manage their money and help to better support students during their studies. The current system is no reflection of the reality that students will face post-graduation. However, we are not well enough informed of the impact that the change would have, and we would like to see some research done in that area. We would argue that if higher education is to remain an enabler of social mobility, we need to fully support students who do not have the financial resources to support themselves while they are at university, so that money does not impact on their attrition, retention or attainment.

The widening access and participation schemes that are offered at Ulster University offer opportunities for many students in Northern Ireland. We feel that it is extremely important that funding in that area is protected and that there is continued investment, if we want to see a diverse range of people entering higher education. The average salary in Northern Ireland is around £24,000, compared with just under £27,000 across the UK. The debt accrued in obtaining a higher education for students in Northern Ireland is already off-putting for many, and if fees were to be increased, we think that it would be seen as an unacceptable burden for many.

Widening access bursaries used to be given to students based on household income. I received one; I worked when I studied; and I still found it difficult to make ends meet. Bursaries have been reduced at Ulster University from £1,066, in 2009, to £380, last year. We will see an increase to £500 in the coming year, but they will be given to fewer people.

We think that a lot of work still needs to be done when it comes to widening access to higher education in Northern Ireland, and we have highlighted the statistic that only 40 young Protestant males from the lowest areas of deprivation are studying full-time higher education at Ulster University. We are seeing a reduced spend on widening access programmes to get widening access student to university and a reduced spend to support them while they are in HE. That is coupled with a cut to student places, and there is a real danger that, if that trend continues, we will see higher education return to a classist system.

When it comes to the options that are available for part-time funding, we would like to see a loan to top up the existing grant system. We appreciate that our student population is ever-diversifying, and we want to be as accommodating as possible for those students. When it comes to postgraduate funding, we would like to see the £10,000 loan that could be used for fees or living costs, and we think that that is the best way to widen access to this area of education.

The Big Conversation is a real opportunity for us to look at higher education, assess its importance and invest in it to grow Northern Ireland. Our paper highlights the lessons we can learn from the English model of higher fees, and why we think that this is not a sustainable model for Northern Ireland. That view is supported by research from the National Union of Students and the Higher Education Commission, and we see no sense in replacing the current model, which is unsustainable, with an equally unsustainable one.

We understand that the Executive are administering a finite amount of money and have many competing priorities. However, as we noted in our paper, fair access to, and equality of opportunity in, education would be promoted through the provision of free education for students, regardless of their background and based purely on their ability and willingness to learn. We believe that investment made in higher education now would increase the local tax base of high-earners in future. We have also made suggestions about where we might find the resource, in the current climate, that could be channelled towards higher education. Without reiterating those points fully, we think that the use of progressive taxation, as we have seen in Germany, tackling the cost of division, as highlighted in the Deloitte report, or reallocating the European social fund (ESF), as we have seen in Slovenia and Malta, are potential ways to fund higher education.

We see failure to invest in higher education as failure to invest in the economy, the healthcare system, society and individuals. If we are to continue to succeed in attracting direct foreign investment, foster a generation of future leaders, keep Northern Irish graduates in Northern Ireland and see continual growth in investment in higher education, this must be prioritised, and this is a great opportunity to do it now.

That is all I have to say, and we are happy to take questions.

The Chairperson (Mr Swann): OK, Colum, thank you very much.

In regard to widening access, you highlight 40 working-class Protestant males who have participated through Ulster University. Do you have a breakdown of the other demographics with respect to widening access, or is that a specific —

Mr Mackey: I do not have that in front of me. We have, I think, from decile 1, about 136 males who identify as being from the Roman Catholic community, so it is significantly more by comparison.

The Chairperson (Mr Swann): Do you have the female breakdown?

Mr Mackey: I can forward that.

The Chairperson (Mr Swann): That is all right. It is just to see what sort of comparison there is across Ulster University.

I am sure that you heard Paddy and the rest of your leadership team in front of us a wee while ago. In regard to redundancies and morale, which you highlighted and explained how it is going to affect the student experience, are you seeing any impact from that already?

Mr Mackey: I think that, for a lot of staff and students, it is a very uncertain time. That is the main issue. That is the feedback that we get from students. Staff are not able to tell them how their summer exams are going to be moderated and officiated. For final year students, it is very worrying that the person who has taught them the whole way through their three or four years of education may not be the one who is helping them through their examinations process. If people leave at the end of April, who will support students during the exam period, if they have questions about exams? I think that it is the lack of communication that is the major issue for lots of our students.

The Chairperson (Mr Swann): One of the controversial points that I see in your paper, to be quite honest with you, is the use of the ESF to support higher education. How do you think that will go down in Northern Ireland among those in the voluntary and community sector who are the major recipients of ESF money at this time?

Mr Mackey: I think that it is all a matter of priorities, and this is one of several suggestions that we have made for where money could be found. I suppose that that is the sort of decision that politicians, like yourselves, have to make. You must decide on priorities. As I say, it was just one of the suggestions that we made. I imagine that the answer to your question is this: not particularly well. [Laughter.]

Mr Elliot Lyness (Ulster University Students' Union): Students already make a massive contribution to the voluntary sector in Northern Ireland. By using the ESF to support students, you are also going to be using it to support volunteering within the region.

Ms Sugden: I want to come back to points that Robin has already raised. We had the vice chancellor (VC) here, before you presented. He is quite content and confident with the communication that he has had with stakeholders. I am not, because, when he was making his contributions, he did not mention students, and it was only when others raised it that he alluded to it. I am sure that he will read the Hansard report of this session. Can you maybe give the VC some suggestions on how he can better communicate with students and try to alleviate the fears that they have for the coming year?

Mr Mackey: The communication that the university has given to students so far, which has come when students have asked for it, is that it is unclear who is going leave through a voluntary severance scheme. That is a bit disingenuous when you consider that, presumably, everyone from courses that are being cut, like modern languages, will be leaving through a voluntary severance scheme. If there is a plan, it is not clear to students what it is. The plan for how individual courses are going to be taught out needs to be communicated in person and formally to give a reassurance to students that the course that they signed up to and are entering into this year will be taught out in a high-quality way and that there will be ongoing academic and pastoral support for them.

Mr Michael Quigg (Ulster University Students' Union): It is not just for full-time undergraduates but for the likes of those who have signed up to study part time. Their courses will not last three or four years like full-time students. There needs to be communication for the minority element as well, if that makes any sense.

Mr Mackey: That is a fair point. It is not clear to part-time students, who might take five years to complete a degree, how that degree will be taught out. It is the same for people in FE colleges who are studying access courses that would have got them onto a course. There are certificates of higher education that would have got them onto a provision at Ulster University, and it is not clear how that will be taught out either.

Ms Sugden: It is a point well made. I am on a leave of absence from my university course with two outstanding pieces of coursework and potentially a dissertation. If my course were to be cut, what happens to me? It is a point very well made, and I hope that the university has thought about it.

Mr Flanagan: Thanks for the presentation. Colum, how is morale amongst students in the university given the current financial situation?

Mr Mackey: Not particularly good. There are two aspects. There are the people whose courses have been cut. There is then the reduced spending on the student support payments and the lack of a rise in the loan and grant in line with the rising costs of living, as well as cuts to things like widening access and the bursaries that people receive to support them while they are at university. Overall, morale is not very good. From what we see, there are no clear plans as to how that will be alleviated in the future.

Ms Kellie Murnion (Ulster University Students' Union): It is not only the students' morale. Staff cuts are likely to affect the morale of staff, so the quality of teaching and research will go down. If there are fewer staff, there is more work. The low morale is likely to impact on staff and student mental health. Refine NI has stated that Northern Ireland has a 20% higher prevalence of mental health problems than England and Scotland. That needs to be considered when we discuss the cuts.

Mr Flanagan: I wanted to move on to staff morale. Staff will leave through voluntary redundancy, which does not appear to be very voluntary, or compulsory redundancy. The vice chancellor proposes to take some of those people back on temporary contracts or under other contractual arrangements. Is there a concern among the student population that, if those staff members come back, their morale might not be as high as it is at the minute?

Mr Mackey: Absolutely. Anyone who comes back on one of those contracts knows when that contract is going to end. They will be earning significantly less money than they were on a full-time contract. They will be dealing with a bigger workload, because they will be trying to give the same provision but over fewer hours. We think that the lack of full-time staff in the university to support those courses will severely impact on people's student experience. That will be the case especially for students who have signed up this year and who will have a full university experience. For lots of people, it will be the only university experience that they ever have. We have serious concerns, and, as I say, it is not clear how that is going to be mitigated.

Mr Quigg: And that is if the staff come back. They could look for work elsewhere, and then you lose the consistency that you had for two or three years of your degree.

Mr Flanagan: The union's position on tuition fees is fairly clear. Can you outline your perception of fairness? The majority of the people who are making the decisions on the future of tuition fees had access to free university education. Some people are running about proposing that we have tuition fees of either £6,000 or £9,000 a year. When you take that along with the requirements for so many people to take out loans to fund their living costs during university, you are looking at people coming out with debts of £40,000 before they start working. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has said that 73% of graduates will not repay their debt in full, so it does not make financial or economic sense for a start. So many people who had the opportunity to access university education for free are now imposing a direct tax on students so that they will come out of university with a debt of £40,000. When those same people came out of university, they would have been able to buy a house for much less than £40,000. Do you think that that is fair?

Mr Mackey: Absolutely not. When considering how to fund higher education, it is about what importance is placed on that in society. If we see it as important, not just for the individual but for society as a whole, we need to look at how to fund it in a way that widens and deepens access to it for as many people as we can. There is a sense of deep unfairness if the person making the decision had access to higher education for free. They are imposing high levels of fees and loans on people who are just about to access higher education. You are right: post-2012 students in England and Wales come out with, on average, £44,000 of debt, which is a huge burden to place on people at the start of their studies. The National Union of Students has done research in this area. The majority of people find that the education that they received was not worth the money that they paid for it, or that is their perception anyway.

Mr Flanagan: You can hardly pay it back if, as a graduate, you get a job stacking shelves somewhere.

Robin, my final comment is to you. ESF should be based on outcomes and not on protecting the needs of the community and voluntary sector. We should be cognisant of that at all times. I am not accusing you of anything.

The Chairperson (Mr Swann): They are just challenging questions, Phil.

Mr Lyness: It would be unfair and unsustainable to ask students to pay more for the same or a lower quality of education, especially when you take into account the fact that the resource accounting and budgeting (RAB) charge is nearing 48·6%, the point at which having a higher fee system is going to be more expensive than it was. Asking students to pay for the same or a lower quality of education is not really a good business model, in my opinion. We also have to consider the fact that NUS-USI found that 58% of students said that they did not think that their university education was worth the money that they paid for it. That is now. Asking them to pay more will —

Mr Flanagan: From a politician's point of view, what is happening is that we are shifting the burden onto the current generation of students, many of whom, hopefully, will be the future generation of politicians who will have to deal with the problem of how we bail out the Student Loans Company because student debt has not been repaid. That is another problem that you will have to face in 15 or 20 years.

Mr Mackey: We see it as a fundamental problem to fund a higher education system by writing off loans rather than directly investing in teaching grants. It just does not seem to make any logical sense. It is a burden that will be put on us 20 years from now.

Ms Murnion: Look at the economy as a whole. There are other places across the border. The fees and the scale of student debt mean that is not attractive for anyone to come here to study. There are other places where they can get it more cheaply and will not have the student debt hanging over their head.

The Chairperson (Mr Swann): Colum, Michael, Kellie and Elliot, thank you very much.

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