12/09/2011 Stormont Today


12/09/2011

Late night political programme focusing on the day's events at the Assembly and Northern Ireland Executive. Tara Mills guides viewers through the corridors of power at Stormont.


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Transcript


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Hello and welcome to a new term of Stormont Today with me, Tara Mills.

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The stormy weather outside made it hard to believe this was the first

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sitting of the chamber after the summer holidays, and it was an

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issue much-debated away from storm was during the recess that took up

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the main time of the day, university tuition fees. I can now

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confirm that tuition fees for local students in Northern Ireland will

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be capped at local levels, subject only to inflation increases. But

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how will the funding gap be filled? And the ayes have it, just who are

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the new faces on the walls at Stormont? We have the President of

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We learned today where the Minister for higher education will find the

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money to freeze tuition fees here. Or did we? There will be no cuts to

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frontline services, no impact on further education and a review of

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the education maintenance allowance. So how will the �40 million gap we

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have heard so much about be filled? This is what he told members.

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decisions reached by the Executive last week mean that I can now

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confirm that higher education tuition fees for local students in

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Northern Ireland will be capped at current levels, subject only to

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inflationary increases. A funding package has been put in place to

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address the resulting budgetary pressures while ensuring the stable

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funding of the higher education sector. My concerns are to ensure

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Northern Ireland continues to have a world-class higher education

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system, and that access to university is not determined by the

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ability to pay. As we look to grow our economy, and take full

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advantage of the economic opportunities coming our way in the

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near future, it is critical that we support and recognise the role of

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higher education in producing school graduates. Today's

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announcements on tuition fees and funding for higher education

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demonstrates that we are delivering on these policies and commitments.

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These decisions are a clear indication that the Executive is

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working in Northern Ireland for our future students and graduates, for

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their families and indeed the wider economy. Cash-strapped students

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have welcome today's's announcement. With me to look at the small print

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of what the announcement really means is Adrian pelts. Thank you

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for joining us. You are pretty pleased? We are delighted, and

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certainly myself and the other students across Northern Ireland

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will be delighted after a summer of uncertainty when there were so many

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questions around tuition fees, so many people asking what the

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Minister would do. So today really has quelled all those questions,

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and we are delighted. There are still going to be tough decisions

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ahead for students, and tough competition. So Italy. What we need

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to look at is the wider picture in Northern Ireland, and think what

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concerns me the most is the question over EMA. What the

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Minister has done is not looked at a wider picture, and he has not

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necessarily placed the writer meant a value on further education, and

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they think certainly for myself, I was a further education student,

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and I worry about the future for further education in Northern

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Ireland. But he has said there will be no cuts. Certainly there will be

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no cuts, but they're also won't be any extra investment, so we have to

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ask ourselves how the sector is supposed to grow. I would ask the

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question, with a group of students as big as 150,000, how exactly will

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refund their futures when there is no money going into their further

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education budget. The cap will not be increased by as much as the

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Minister had initially hoped and planned for. Do think that is going

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to create havoc for a lot of students? May be the less well able

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students who will have got in at the tail-end, through the clearing

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system? I think we are going to see a huge demand in the next 12 months

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for higher education places. I'm disappointed that the Minister

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didn't make any announcement about more places for students. In

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Northern Ireland we have the biggest demand for places at our

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universities, and students on the lower rungs could be forced out

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with no place to go. Further education has always been one of

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the areas that tends to mop up students that weren't necessarily

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able to get into university. So in terms of the widening access and

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widening participation strategy, I have great concerns about the

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future. Stay with us, and we will talk more later in the programme.

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Now back to the chamber, and the Regional Development Minister Danny

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Kennedy had the honour of answering the first Ministerial Questions of

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the new term. He said he recognised the benefits of improving Cycling

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facilities, and pointed out the road surface has a target to

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quadruple the number of bike trips by the end of 2015. But he couldn't

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resist poking a bit of fun when the SDLP's Martin McGuinness also a

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question on the provision of cycling lanes. Perhaps he could

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indicate on his own line of thought, and perhaps he could use a cycling

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analogy to say whether or not he wants to ride to the rescue of the

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SDLP, Warwick least get his spoke I will ensure that the member

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receives that information as quickly as possible. From bikes to

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planes, and the Minister told Mitchell McLaughlin that he doesn't

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share the enthusiasm for Northern Ireland's strategy. There is

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widespread concern on the issue of air passenger duty. If it is a

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revenue and taxation matter, which I know is being pursued by

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Executive colleagues, I am aware of those issues, and would seek to see

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that resolved as quickly as possible. I don't share his

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enthusiasm for an All Ireland approach at this point. We would be

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sensible to wait. We would seek to influence the report by the

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Department of Transport in London. Mr Speaker, I thank the Minister

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for his response in terms of any All-Ireland aviation strategy. Were

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he ensure that they will offer to a central government in any

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discussion about aviation strategy a much more practical approach,

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which is the close proximity that we have in all of Northern Ireland

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to the Air Show and Strathclyde region? I accept the point that the

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member makes, and what we want to do is concentrate on how that

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strategy, win in place, will impact on Northern Ireland. And indeed the

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travelling public of Northern Ireland. I think that will be the

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first used for part of what we discuss. Then it was back to terra

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firma with a bump, particularly if you are on a country road.

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Given the state of many of our rural roads, it is imperative that

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a budget is made to keep the roads up to standard. I have great

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sympathy for the argument that the member makes, and as someone who

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shares the same constituency and can see it first hand, the impact

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of the lack of structure and maintenance. The Budget that I have

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inherited and am now expected to manage has over the next four years

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a shortfall of some �210 million in terms of structural maintenance.

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Obviously that is a huge sum of money, and it is particularly

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difficult over the next couple of years. I will of course make

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representations and keep the issue in the attention of Executive

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colleagues. But the Executive continues to take decisions, and

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the most recent decision about student fees, aside from the merits

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of that decision, means that my budget has been further cut, that

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undoubtedly will reflect in some shape or form on roads maintenance.

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So there are competing priorities, we are all aware of them, and

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certainly and patently aware of the need to maintain a road

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infrastructure that makes it safe for people to travel on the roads

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of northern Ireland. Her later during the session, the Minister

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said he was reluctant to place a specific dates on the timing for a

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rapid transit system for west and east Belfast, although he did so

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the target date is 2017. Then Steven Farrer was back to answer

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questions on the proposed merger of Stranraer a teacher training

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college at Queen's University. student population has come from

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the local background. There a significant representations around

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that, and certainly the ethos, we will have a discussion as to

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exactly what that entails, will be carried through in terms of the

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merger, if indeed that is what we do take forward. Proper

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consideration will be given to all of the different face interests.

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Can I ask the Minister if the post merger will lead -- the proposed

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merger will lead to savings? think the key point to stress is

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the urgent need for investment in the college, and also to make the

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college financially sustainable. I want to stress the only viable

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means by which this can be done would seem to be the proposal in

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terms of the merger with Queen's University. We are talking about

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some 16 million in terms of capital, and I saw for myself last week the

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dilapidated state of some buildings, and some have been condemned and

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were beyond use. So in the event this doesn't go ahead, that short

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for in terms of that investment will have to be found, and there is

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no money available. We have discussed finance today. So that

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would remain an unresolved issue if we did get this merger. Thank you,

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Mr Speaker. I joined with the Minister in acknowledging the need

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for investment on the college site, and I welcome his commitment to

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identifying and acknowledging that need. I specifically asked to the

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Minister, Mr Speaker, if he would give the House at commitment that

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teacher training will continue at both sites, and that will remain

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the policy of the department. Queen's University and St Mary's

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are independent institutions, and these decisions are for them to

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take. Funding will be made as appropriate to all of those, and

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obviously we have the potential for a merger, and creating a school of

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education at Queen's. That is something we are focused on at the

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moment. More now on those tuition fees, and the Minister employment

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and learning is here along with committee chaired Basil McCrea.

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Thank you very much indeed for joining us. Minister, some people

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have described the figures as jiggery-pokery. They can't make

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The figures are sound. I had certainty around the budget backing

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up the policy. To do anything different would be utterly

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irresponsible. The department stands over its figures and the

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Finance Minister wouldn't have recommended to the executive we

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move ahead unless the figures were sound. I can give that guarantee

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the flings -- figures are sound. There's no risk in terms of the

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figures. In terms of my department, theres no cuts in terms of fronts

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line services, further education, apresentsship, the employment

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service. You say that you can save 17 million in internal department

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savings. There's two elements to that. There's five million added on

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to an existing target of �145 million, that I have to find as

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part of the current budget. That will be things through better

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management of the estate, as regarding travel and subsistence

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for staff and how we control staff vacancies. The remaining �12

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million, the notional loan subsidy, whenever we took a decision not to

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have fees at �4,500, instead go for �3,500, there's a savings in terms

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of loan subsidy, which enables us to balance the books. Would you

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have preferred the fees to �4500. There's a consensus in Northern

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Ireland that we don't want to raise the fees. Would it have made it

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ease tkwror balance the books? Certainly there was an argument for

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raising fees. It brings additional revenue in the system. When we have

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a situation where we're talking about keeping fees at the current

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level, that means that funding gap has to be resolved in terms of the

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Northern Ireland block grant. Obviously, there are consequences

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from that decision in terms of how it's funded, either my own

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department or within the executive as a whole. Basil McCrea, you're

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chair of the watchdog committee looking into those figures. You

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don't think they add up? I'm not sure yet to be honest. The minister

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did say he felt his figures were sound, but they're not particularly

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clear. One of the things I'm sure that the committee will want to do

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is have a good look at the figures to see exactly what they mean. The

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minister also mentioned about risk. He feels there isn't that much of a

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risk. Throughout his entire statement there were caveats and

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warnings that if things did not work out the way we expected, that

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we'd have to look at things again. It's something we need to keep an

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eye on. Is that not reality though? Is that not what every budget in

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every department is going to face? We don't know how the recession's

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going to pan out. We don't know how much money the economy is going to

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make. That's a fair point to make. I personally was surprised by the

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amount of cuts that were going to have to be found from the

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department. You know, we've been talking before the summer about

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some of the pressures and it will be interesting just to see how

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those work out in reality. The trouble with student flows, the

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differential between England and Wales and with Northern Ireland,

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the potential for some of our students from Northern Ireland not

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being able to get places in Northern Ireland, I think we've yet

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to work out exactly how that will play and it could end up to be

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difficult decisions for people. There's a range of things that at

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the moment we're in wait and see mode. If the economy does go worse,

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if the student fees change as drastically, if EMA review doesn't

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work the way it's hoped to be worked, all of those things will

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cause problems for the minister. I'm sure it's something that we'll

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be talking about. The risks are very much less to do with the

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finance. The risks lie in terms how you manage student flows. Whenever

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we have a situation under devolution, different regions of

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the UK, take different decisions in terms of student fees, there is a

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conconstituency in terms of student flow that's we will have to manage.

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Until we see what happens, it is difficult to speculate around that.

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Are next year's students Guinea pigs then? Certainly not. I mean,

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we're going through a transition in terms of this. One thing that we're

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clear on that we have to do is to charge, the two local universities,

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to charge higher fees to students from Great Britain. For some people

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this might seem incongruous that we charge different fees. The stark

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reality is once we took that level -- decision, there's a major risk

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of a flood of applications coming in. If we don't take action, that

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will crowd the market out for local students and people will be

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complaining about that. We have to act now in order to protect

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ourselves in that regard. University of Ulster said they're

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going to charge �8,000. proposal is we would pass that

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through the Assembly, given the two local universities the discretion

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to charge a level of fee and in practice, that would be up to

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�9,000. You are talking about that region that Richard barns has

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declared. There's a court case pending in Scotland. What if we

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have a similar case here? Where does the money come from if they're

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successful? The case is largely speculative. I've taken my own

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legal advice locally in terms of what we're doing. Legal advice is

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only legal advice until it's tested in court. We are confident that

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what we're proposing will stand up. If it doesn't, we have to reassess.

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Situation. At this stage, it seems promising that we can follow

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through on that policy. What about the educational maintsnepbs

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allowance? That's something that's already means tested. Would you be

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concerned that the review will mean some students will miss out? That's

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the very clear direction of travel. There is a considerable amount of

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dead weight, that's to say, money being spent that doesn't provide

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value in the system. The question is: Are you robbing Peter to pay

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Paul? Can you find a way of encouraging people early on in

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their careers to stay on in education and still provide them

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with the right courses later on in life? I will just say, if you don't

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mind, picking up on the issue about student fees for different parts of

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the United Kingdom, personally, regardless of what the legal

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position is, because I've had a look at it, I do think it's unfair

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that you're expecting the taxpayers from England and Wales to give us a

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very substantial sum of money, which lets us run this particular

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part of the world and when they want to send their students to our

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part of the world, we're going to charge them almost three times as

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much. I wonder at some stage, in the bigger picture, in the longer

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term issue of trying to convince the United Kingdom that we have a

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constructive part to play, whether this is good politics. Briefly,

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minister? This is devolution working its way through the system.

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If we don't go down the line of higher fees for GB students, we run

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the risk of a major flood of applications. There is going to be

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increased places locally from Northern Ireland based students

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already. We're expecting difficulty in meeting that demand. If we have

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this influx it's going to be disaster. I will be disappointed if

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the committee doesn't follow through on the decision of the

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executive. This is essential. It's part of this package. People want

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to have lower fees in Northern Ireland. We have to manage the

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consequences around that. I only chair the committee, I don't decide

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for it. We can't have it both ways. There will be plentsy more time for

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debate. Thank you for joining us. In less than an hour's time, we

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find out how our political map is to be redrawn. I caught up with our

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political editor Mark Devenport. He gave me his assessment of what the

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boundary changes have in store. And he explained why love is in the air

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in the corridors of Parliament buildings.

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The precise detail is under embargo until after midnight. We got a good

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idea of the trust of the report. The Boundary Commissioners have

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been told to bring the number of local constituencies down from the

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current 18 down to 16. This is part of a move across the UK to make it

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a smaller Westminster, if you like. There's only so many ways to do

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that. We think it's highly likely that south Belfast will disappear

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off the political map. Belfast will have just three constituencies. And

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that we'll probably lose one of our constituencys in the west of the

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province and they'll have to reconfigure things there. This is

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not just a Westminster matter, because the same boundaries are

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used here at Stormont for elections as they are at Westminster. So

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there's going to be an inevitable knock-on effect, if we lose two

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constituencies, with six Assembly Members each, this Assembly will be

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reduced from 108MLAs to 96. We had the Sinn Fein on Saturday and

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Friday night, any Unionist MLAs today offering to hug a Sinn Fein

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politician? It has been said that at least one of them joked with a

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Sinn Fein counterpart "Are you going give me a hug?" And this

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Republican suddenly realised what the joke was all about. Others are

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still getting hot under the collar about David Lati mer's appearance.

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Gregory Campbell had been on the airways saying he wasn't sure it

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was a wise move for the minister to accept Martin McGuinness'

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invitation. Now it seems that the DUP MP's analysis was correct.

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David Latimer I think will have appealed to moderates who felt he

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was right in pursuing it. He hasn't converted many of the hard liners.

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The SDLP, the days are ticking down for people to throw their hat in

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the ring for the leadership campaign? Yeah, deadline is the end

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of the week. So, Alastair McDonald once he's got over the boundary

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review, will have to make his mind up about whether he's going to join

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Patsy Mcloen there. And also whether any of the young bucks

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might put their name forward and also Alex Atwo did. There's a

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question over him as a minister now, if a new minister gets a job. Has

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he got anything to lose by putting himself forward into the leadership

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race? Now the Great Hall at Stormont provides an impressive

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welcome to the tens of thousands of people who come through the

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revolving door every year. Now it's to become home to three major art

0:23:470:23:51

exhibitions every year. Earlier, I met up with the Speaker, Willie Hay,

0:23:510:23:54

who brought me on a tour of the exhibition.

0:23:540:23:58

It's something of a face lift for the Great Hall, tell us why you've

0:23:580:24:03

decided to exhibit these paintings? I've been very keen from 2007, when

0:24:030:24:07

I entered the job of Speaker, to open the building up tot public.

0:24:070:24:11

Today, we have over 70,000 visitors coming through Parliament buildings.

0:24:110:24:16

Certainly the first part of the building here is the front foyer.

0:24:160:24:22

Where better to display art than here in the front foyer? Adding

0:24:220:24:24

hopefully tot visitor number that's are already coming through the

0:24:240:24:30

buildings. Certainly from a public point of view, I think it will

0:24:300:24:33

increase visitors. When we look at arts exhibitions here within the

0:24:330:24:40

Great Hall. Local heart, is it mostly local? It is. This is an

0:24:400:24:44

exhibition in partnership with public works. We will look at doing

0:24:440:24:50

other art exhibitions, maybe look at it through the year and -- three

0:24:500:24:54

a year, a fairly big arts exhibition. We are careful what

0:24:540:25:00

type of art we hang in the building here, but we believe it all adds to

0:25:000:25:04

the engagement that we're doing with the wider public across

0:25:040:25:08

Northern Ireland. Institutions and Government in the past were very

0:25:080:25:13

much closed off and obviously, the building is described as the house

0:25:130:25:18

on the hill. Do you think this is, in some way, another step towards

0:25:180:25:21

bringing people in and getting even more people to come up and have a

0:25:210:25:26

look around? Very, very much so. Anything that we can do in this

0:25:260:25:31

building to add tot public coming here at the moment. To have 70,000

0:25:310:25:36

in one year, to have thousands of school children through this

0:25:360:25:38

particular building, it can only add to what we're trying to achieve

0:25:380:25:42

here. The doors are open tot public. It's free to come in, look around

0:25:420:25:47

and see what's on offer here in the Great Hall. Here we have a very

0:25:470:25:51

unique collection of paintings. That is very much on display. It

0:25:510:25:55

will be on display for some months. I'm encouraging the public please

0:25:550:25:59

come up and see the exhibition for themselves. Any of the pieces take

0:25:590:26:03

your fancy? They do. I must say I walked round them earlier, some of

0:26:030:26:07

them are very, very good. Once again, we're very protective of

0:26:070:26:13

this area building, just to make sure that we formulate the right

0:26:130:26:17

art exhibitions here within the Great Hall. And it's the start of a

0:26:170:26:21

new term for lots of different people, but obviously, for the MLAs

0:26:210:26:25

up here. Are you going to keep them in check for another term? I think

0:26:260:26:30

we will. I may say as well, all our MLAs have been very supportive of

0:26:300:26:35

opening the building up tot public and throwing open the front doors

0:26:350:26:39

to see exactly the work of the MLAs here and ministers in the Assembly.

0:26:390:26:44

That is all good to engage with the wider public in Northern

0:26:440:26:49

Irelandment Some -- Northern Ireland. Now a final word, Adrianne

0:26:490:26:53

Peltz is still with us. You heard the debate there between the

0:26:530:26:57

minister and the chair of the committee, are you reassured by

0:26:570:27:01

anything the minister said? certainly reassured with the fact

0:27:010:27:05

that they are prioritising young people and investing in higher

0:27:050:27:08

education and students. I'm a bit concerned about the question around

0:27:080:27:12

EMA. Just to come in on a positive note, something we haven't really

0:27:130:27:16

discussed is the issue around student support funds. One of the

0:27:160:27:19

key things that's come out of today is the fact that students from

0:27:200:27:23

Northern Ireland, who'll be travelling across to GB will be

0:27:230:27:27

funded by the department. I think that's incredibly important for

0:27:270:27:31

ensuring our students still get the opportunity to go across the water

0:27:310:27:35

and broaden their horriezons. We need to remember our students here

0:27:350:27:40

also get an extra �225 over and above what their counterparts in

0:27:400:27:44

England, Scotland and Wales receive. It didn't sound as if that

0:27:440:27:47

guarantee is in place for that long. We clarified it with the minister

0:27:470:27:51

earlier. It's three years at the very least. But it might not

0:27:510:27:55

continue. So many things depend on how the economy and the budget, how

0:27:550:28:02

they all pan out. Rge serge. I think that's incredibly --

0:28:020:28:06

Certainly. I think that's incredibly worrying for parents and

0:28:060:28:10

students. The sooner we get more questions answered by the minister

0:28:100:28:14

the better. Certainly around issues around the maximum students numbers,

0:28:140:28:16

certainly around widening participation, there are still so

0:28:170:28:21

many areas that we're uncertain about and I think, the sooner we

0:28:210:28:25

get those answered the better. cap on student numbers is a big

0:28:250:28:31

factor. By increasing, or by decreasing the number of student

0:28:310:28:36

place there's are, some of those students, less able students will

0:28:360:28:40

miss out. Certainly. Something that both the minister and Basil McCrea

0:28:400:28:45

touched on was the flows from GB students coming in. Certainly, we

0:28:450:28:49

had huge fears about the number of students that would come in and

0:28:490:28:53

potentially squeeze our students out. I think this move to raise the

0:28:530:28:56

tuition fees for GB students is certainly going to protect local

0:28:570:29:01

students and ring-fence the places. I'm quite delighted about that.

0:29:010:29:04

Late night political programme focusing on the day's events at the Assembly and Northern Ireland Executive. Tara Mills guides viewers through the corridors of power at Stormont. She is joined by key guests and decision-makers, making the experience enlightening and entertaining.


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