Tue 18th Nov 2014
Nov 14: University places are key to future growth
The agreement among the main political parties on a draft budget for Northern Ireland has been broadly welcomed, and rightly so. Political stability is a key facilitator of economic growth, and the consensus on the budget was a positive indication that progress can be made, though we appreciate that tougher issues lie in wait.
That broad welcome doesn’t mean that we do not reserve the right to critically evaluate the budget and already there has been public outcry over some elements, most notably at the measures taken to save money in the health service.
A key concern for the business community, however, is the threat to the future of our higher education establishments. Both Ulster University and Queen’s University have stated clearly that the draft budget as it stands will lead to a reduction in undergraduate third level places in the region of 15 per cent, and will also impact on post graduate places.
There are serious negative outcomes with this proposition. Taking more than 1,000 places out of Queen’s and Ulster University, will directly lead to our young people seeking opportunities outside of Northern Ireland in greater numbers than before. That talent will more than likely be lost to Northern Ireland permanently, and we cannot afford that kind of brain drain. In fact, because of the complex funding arrangements within the UK, our Executive would end up subsiding universities in GB to take our students.
Invest NI has been doing a sterling job in recent months and the flow of FDI investment projects has been dazzling. However, that creates a demand for employees at all levels. This is not the time to be turning off the tap of graduate entries to the jobs market. It is also not the time –when is it ever the time? – to slow down the mission to attract investment to the region. The reputation of our universities and particularly the research associated with Queen’s and Ulster helps sell Northern Ireland on the world stage.
The universities have already absorbed significant funding cuts. It may be that we have finally reached the point where some imagination is required politically on the issue of tuition fees, which are far below that of UK institutions.
The two Vice Chancellors – Patrick Johnston of Queen’s and Richard Barnett of Ulster – have indicated that they are open to those discussions.
That may form part of a longer term resolution, but in the meantime, there is an opportunity to protect our student numbers and our universities in the finalised budget due to be signed off at the end of the year.