A solicitor involved in a tuition fees challenge in England and Wales has warned that attempts to charge students from the rest of the UK more than their local counterparts is in breach of Northern Ireland and European law.
Earlier this week Universities Minister Stephen Farry announced that students from England, Scotland and Wales could be charged up to £9,000 to study at Northern Ireland universities.
But the move, which means that they would pay £5,535 more in tuition fees than local students, has led to warnings that the Executive could be leaving itself open to legal challenges from students. The Scottish Executive already faces a court battle over claims its fees policy is discriminatory.
Jim Duffy, from Public Interest Lawyers, told the Belfast Telegraph: “The UK’s Equality Act is only one of the relevant pieces of law here. The Executive is prevented by the Northern Ireland Act from doing anything that would be contrary to EU law or the Convention, which require free movement and prohibit unlawful discrimination. In this way, the situation in Northern Ireland and Scotland is very similar.”
His Birmingham-based firm acts for Calum Hurley and Katy Moore who are challenging the three-fold increase in tuition fees in England and Wales. That case is due to be heard in November.
Public Interest Lawyers have also instructed a top human rights QC to examine the Scottish government’s controversial plans to allow universities to charge up to £9,000 a year to ‘Rest of UK’ students despite the fact that students based north of the border and elsewhere throughout the EU can study in Scotland for free. North Belfast MLA Alban Maginness, a barrister with experience in human rights, also believes the Department of Employment and Learning and the universities could be challenged under the European Convention of Human Rights.
He explained: “There is an arguable case that it discriminates against students from outside Northern Ireland to their detriment, therefore they are entitled to the same treatment as students who reside in Northern Ireland.”
Mr Maginness added: “The contrary argument is that if these students were going to university in England, they would have to pay £9,000 anyway.”
However, of the 25,000 undergraduate students in Northern Ireland just 520 — less than 2% — are from England, Scotland and Wales.
The National Union of Students and Students Union of Ireland, which represents all students in Northern Ireland, expressed concern at the move.
Its president, Adrianne Peltz, said: “Our block grant comes from Westminster and we will be penalising students just because they are born in a different part of the UK.
“It is unfair from an equality perspective as people will be experiencing the same quality of teaching and learning but paying nearly three times more for it.
“I definitely think there will be a legal challenge and I would stand up and support anybody who feels they are being treated unfairly. I do not think this is a sustainable model.”