This week Irish Minister Stephen Farry announced that students from other parts of the UK could be charged up to £9,000 per year to study in Northern Ireland.
But solicitors currently involved in the legal battle against rising tuition fees in England and Wales have claimed that the move would be unlawful and may face legal challenges from disgruntled students.
Public Interest Lawyers, a Birmingham-based firm representing two students who are challenging the increased tuition fees in England, believe that the fee hike is tantamount to discrimination.
Jim Duffy, of Public Interest Lawyers, said: “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.”
The Scottish Government is also considering plans to charge ‘rest of UK’ students up to £9,000 per year, despite Scottish students and other EU students being allowed to study for free. The same would apply in Northern Ireland, where students from the area, the Republic of Ireland and from other EU countries would not have to pay higher fees.
Human rights barrister Alban Maginness MLA said: “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.”
He added: “The contrary argument is that if these students were going to university in England, they would have to pay £9,000 anyway.”
The president of the National Union of Students and Students Union of Ireland, 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.”
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