Higher education policy

The aim of higher education policy branch is to develop, communicate and evaluate higher education policy for Northern Ireland, in consultation with the sector, and other regions of the United Kingdom and Republic of Ireland.

This includes policy areas such as: teaching and learning policies; student support; alternative providers; teaching funding; student number control; and the provision of information about higher education.


Teaching and learning

The department is committed to ensuring that all HE students benefit from a high quality learning experience fully meeting their needs and the needs of the economy and society.

In order to encourage excellence in teaching and learning at Northern Ireland’s HEIs, Higher Education Policy branch co-funds a range of teaching and learning initiatives and activities.

Higher Education Policy branch manages a range of teaching and learning initiatives and activities,it also, assesses, approves and manages funding allocations to support the core activities of Northern Ireland higher education institutions.

Publishing and maintaining a list of higher education providers

The UK has a well-deserved reputation world-wide for providing high quality and well-respected higher education. There are well over 100 institutions in the UK that are permitted to award a wide variety of degrees to suit most educational aspirations. All those institutions have degree awarding powers recognised by the UK authorities (UK and Scottish Parliament, Welsh and Northern Ireland Assemblies). These are known as ‘Recognised Bodies’.

In addition to institutions awarding degrees, there are also several hundred colleges and other institutions which do not have degree-awarding powers but who provide complete courses leading to recognised UK degrees. Courses at these institutions are validated by institutions which have degree awarding powers. These are known as ‘Listed Bodies’.

The branch is responsible for maintaining the lists of Recognised Bodies and Listed Bodies. This is done through legislation, which can be found at the following links –

Alternative provider policy

The branch is responsible for reviewing current policy in this area and formulating and developing policies in relation to student support for learners at alternative providers. The branch works closely with the other devolved administrations and keeps abreast of policy developments throughout the UK and Ireland and the impact this can have on students and the sector here. 

Alternative providers of higher education

An ‘alternative provider’ is any provider of higher education courses which:

  • is not in direct receipt of recurrent funding from the Department for the Economy or from equivalent funding bodies in the devolved Administrations
  • does not receive direct recurrent public funding (for example, from a local authority, or the Secretary of State for Education)
  • is not registered as 'approved (fee cap)' on the Office for Students (OfS) register.

In order for NI students who are undertaking higher education courses with these alternative providers to avail of student support, the provider must secure specific course designation from the Department for the Economy.

Specific course designation

Specific course designation is the process by which private/alternative providers of higher education, and those providers in the 'approved' category of the Office for Students (OfS) register in England, can gain access for their eligible students to undergraduate student support (tuition fee and maintenance fee loans) and Disabled Students Allowance (DSA). This student support is funded by the department through the Student Loans Company.

    Higher education - specific course designation

    This guidance sets out the specific course designation process for alternative providers of higher education in Northern Ireland. In particular, the guidance explains:

    • the criteria for granting specific course designation;
    • the assessment and decision making process; and
    • the conditions of specific course designation.

    The guidance is intended for alternative providers who wish to apply for specific course designation and for those with existing designation.

    Full guidance on specific course designation for alternative providers of higher education in NI, covering the eligibility criteria and the full application process, is available:

    Alternative providers who wish to apply for specific must complete and return, in line with the guidance, these documents:

    The privacy notice, which outlines how personal data is handled when alternative providers submit an application for specific course designation, is available:

    Future sustainability of the higher education system in Northern Ireland

    The branch is responsible for the formulation and development of any future policy in regard to securing financial sustainability of the higher education system in Northern Ireland.

    Teaching funding policy

    The branch is responsible for overseeing and developing funding policy in regard to teaching activities at the universities, taking forward Project 13 (Review of the Higher Education Funding Model) and Project 15 (Review of MaSN) within ‘Graduating to Success: A Higher Education for Northern Ireland’.

    Student Support Policy

    Undergraduate and Postgraduate

    The Branch is responsible for developing and overseeing Northern Ireland policy in relation to undergraduate and postgraduate student support. This includes: the undergraduate maintenance support package, the undergraduate tuition fee loan and postgraduate taught loans. Postgraduate education is defined as qualifications at Levels 7 and 8 on the Framework for Higher Education Qualification in England, Wales and Northern Ireland (FEHQ).  The Branch is currently working with colleagues responsible for postgraduate provision, along with other stakeholders, in taking forward a review of the current provision.

    Disabled Students’ Allowance (DSA)

    The branch is also responsible for overseeing and developing funding policy in regard to the Disabled Students’ Allowance (DSA). This grant aims to help meet the extra course costs which students can face as a direct result of a disability or specific learning difficulty. This grant is intended to cover costs that the student’s institution is not legally required to meet under the Special Educational Needs and Disability (Northern Ireland) Order 2005 (Amendment) (Further and Higher Education) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2006.

    The Provision of Information about higher education


    Providing information about higher education is one of the priorities for higher education division. Higher Education Policy Branch therefore works with the HE sector in NI and with the UK HE Funding bodies to ensure that accurate, relevant information is available to prospective students in order to assist them in their decision-making regarding their higher education needs.

    The Branch works with the other UK funding bodies on a number of UK-wide information initiatives including the National Student Survey (NSS) and Unistats.

    • The NSS gives the UK’s students the chance to express their views about their course. The results of the NSS are published, along with other key information, on Unistats.
    • The Unistats website provides access to key statistics on courses at all HEIs in the UK, giving official detailed quantitative data on graduate employment data, course continuation rates, degree results and entry requirements, etc.

    Information about Northern Ireland’s Higher Education Sector

    More information for prospective students, including information on course fees, financial support, teaching and learning assessment methods, the cost of living, student satisfaction, future career prospects, Northern Ireland’s universities and colleges and  other relevant information can be found at the Higher Education section of NIDirect.

    Contacts

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