In a hard-hitting address at the Winter Graduation ceremonies held at Londonderry's Millennium Forum today, he voiced fears for the future of disadvantaged young people if the tuition fee policy proposed for England is replicated in Northern Ireland.
He said: “I fear that should the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly follow England, or tinker around the edges with the English policy, that access to higher education will in the future relate more to family circumstances than it does to ability to learn. And while this university will continue to be strong – as indicated by most of the conventional measures of success – we would be weakened by so flawed a policy."
Professor Barnett, who wants the Northern Ireland Executive to allow Ulster to take on an extra 1,000 full-time undergraduates at Magee, said students who want to study at university here must have that opportunity rather than having to apply to universities in England, where education costs are set to rise dramatically.
“What is clear is that the high fees regime in England makes this university’s bid to expand our Magee campus in Derry-Londonderry all the more important.
“Currently about 1/3 of Northern Ireland’s students study outside of the province, mainly in England. Some do so voluntarily, but many do so because they cannot obtain a place here.
“As the fees increase, more students will be seeking to study closer to home, continuing a trend that is already well underway. But per head of population Northern Ireland already has the smallest university sector of all the UK regions.
“If our young people are not to be denied access to locally available higher education which is available to others throughout the UK we must be allowed to expand our Magee campus here in this city.
On the current controversy about UK government plans on tuition fees, the Vice-Chancellor said: “Why do I have this fear about the impact of the coalition government’s policy on access to higher education?
“I do so because the scale of the change being implemented in England – the doubling at least of student fees – means that nobody can predict with any degree of certainty what the consequences will be. Put quite simply, it is impossible to make policy predictions with any sensible degree of accuracy given policy changes of this immense scale. Instead, the coalition government are taking a gamble: a gamble with the future of young people from less-privileged backgrounds." Drawing on his personal experiences, Professor Barnett told his audience, comprising several hundred students, parents and staff, that he was the first person from his family ever to receive a university education:“I was the first member of my family to go to University and I did so at a time when fees were paid by the local education authority who also gave generous grants. So I benefited from free higher education as did most, if not all, of the Ministers who are implementing these changes and as did most, if not all, of the Vice–Chancellors who are supporting them.
“I was the second son of a mother who was widowed at a young age being left with four sons to bring up. Given these circumstances, over the past few weeks since the coalition government’s proposals have been taking shape I’ve asked myself many times if the fees regime that is being implemented in England now had existed when I was young would I have gone to University? And I have to say that the only answer that I can come up with is that I don’t know. I don’t know.
"Yet the architects of the policy, who in the main come from privileged backgrounds, are certain that I would have still progressed to university. In truth, of course, like me, they don’t know. They don’t know and given the scale of the changes, they can’t know.
“The difference between us is that they believe that the gamble – the gamble with the future of young people from less-privileged backgrounds is acceptable.”
He pointed to the strengths of the University of Ulster: its attractiveness to students in terms of the number of applications: the quality of its teaching and research: its effectiveness in preparing students for the world of work: its achievements in innovation and its commitment to widening participation.
Turning to the financial cuts that are presently being applied to higher education across the UK, the Vice-Chancellor hit out at the flawed rationale behind them:
"Of course we face challenging economic times over the next few years. Across the UK as a whole, public spending is being cut by up to 20% - although the cut here in Northern Ireland is less than that – and students might understand that some increase in fees is necessary. But why when the average cut is 20% are student fees to be increased by over 200%?"
“At the University of Ulster we urge the Executive and Assembly to ensure that all sections of our society share in these dividends. And that in Northern Ireland we do not follow the English and gamble with the future of our young people from less-privileged backgrounds.”
ENDS A full copy of Professor Barnett's speech can be downloaded from:http://news.ulster.ac.uk/podcasts/Gradspeechwinter2010.docA gallery of images from the Winter Graduations can be viewed at http://www.flickr.com/photos/universityofulster/sets/72157625590949062/ For further information, please contact:
Telephone: 028 90366074
Email: David Young