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Universities Warn Against £40m "Disinvestment in Higher Education"

The Vice-Chancellor ,Professor Richard Barnett, and QUB VC Peter Gregson write in today's Belfast Telegraph about the consequences of underfunding Northern Ireland's universities.

AS THE new Minister for Employment and Learning, Dr Stephen Farry, takes up the reins of office, the University of Ulster and Queen’s University look forward to working with him, the new Executive and Assembly, as we strive to achieve the “Northern Ireland solution” to the issue of higher education funding and student support.

Both institutions were heartened to hear the Minister’s First Day remarks on how important it is for the Northern Ireland Executive to get the decision right on tuition fees if we are to enjoy continued excellence in our higher education standards, whilst at the same time ensuring that university study is available to all, irrespective of background.

Queen’s University and the University of Ulster will not be found wanting in assisting Dr Farry and the Assembly in ensuring Northern Ireland retains a world-class higher education provision - one which continues to have the highest participation rates and highest widening participation credentials across these islands.

The new Minister went on to say that the economy will be a key priority for the Executive and that he is committed to ensuring Northern Ireland is equipped with a highly skilled workforce. In supporting the Minister and the Executive with this objective it is important that Northern Ireland’s higher education institutions are not only recognised for their world-class provision, but remain competitive in today’s global higher education market place. This requires continued investment in the universities and colleges of Northern Ireland.

Prior to the dissolution of the last Assembly, the agreed budget painted an extremely bleak picture for higher education in Northern Ireland, with a £68 million per annum cut in government funding to be imposed by 2014/15. This is a real terms disinvestment of some, 40%, of which £28m per annum cash efficiencies must be made within two years.

In these difficult economic times both institutions recognise that they must make their contribution and make efficiency savings – and are willing to do so.  The efficiency savings already required - £28m per annum or 12% in cash terms, much more after allowing for inflation – will have consequences for jobs, student services and possibly the range of course provision also.

But once we have made our £28m per annum contribution this still leaves a hole of some £40m per annum in the higher education budget.

Currently, within the public consultation document on higher education tuition fees and student finance arrangements, a range of options to address the short-fall are set out. These options include reducing student numbers, raising tuition fees and reducing student support.

Reducing student numbers would run counter to the commitment to increase participation and widen access to higher education which has been a key priority in Northern Ireland and has resulted in excellent participation rates of which we are justly proud. It would also undermine the Executive’s objective of promoting a high-skill economy and threaten the regions competitiveness.That leaves addressing the funding gap either through maintaining public funding, recognising the public benefit of higher education, or by increasing the level of deferred fees.

With the consultation closing date of 10 June fast approaching, the Minister, the Executive and the Northern Ireland Assembly are soon to be faced with a decision that will determine the future of higher education for many years to come.

But before they make this decision it is worth reminding our newly elected Assembly members about the impact of higher education in Northern Ireland and how it plays such an important role across all sectors.

Any future decisions should be taken in the light of the contribution that our local higher education institutions make to the economy. Our universities and colleges employ 6,500 jobs directly and lever the same number again in the labour market. They contribute significantly to the skills base through highly qualified graduates, a factor which plays a crucial role in attracting inward investment. This was seen as critical to the economic success of Northern Ireland by the former US Economic Envoy to the region, Declan Kelly. It should also be noted that over 90 per cent of our graduates gain high level employment.

Public investment in research activity in the two universities is more than doubled through the attraction of research funding from external sources. And healthcare is enhanced through our ability to translate research in health sciences to new treatments at the bed-side.

Collaboration between the two universities has led to the creation of the Northern Ireland Science Park, which in turn has generated thousands of jobs and much-needed inward investment, and through ‘NISP Connect’, has established a model to promote innovation and successful business expansion.

Within the Northern Ireland Centre of Entrepreneurship both institutions promote entrepreneurship amongst their students, and through the Knowledge Transfer Partnerships the universities provide support for local companies in the development of new products and processes.

And earlier this year we jointly launched with Bombardier Aerospace, the £6 million Northern Ireland Advanced Composites and Engineering Centre to support the local manufacturing sector. This state-of-the-art facility will offer firms the opportunity to develop technologies that will maintain their competitiveness and support their future business needs.

University of Ulster and QUB are critical to the success of Northern Ireland. Disinvestment in higher education above the 12% cash savings which we are currently addressing would have a catastrophic impact on not only our institutions but on all of Northern Ireland.

Our elected representatives have expressed their desire for world-class higher education in Northern Ireland. They have stated their recognition of the excellence of our universities and their outstanding work in supporting economic development.

That is why we, as leaders of higher education here, look forward to working with the Minister and our other elected representatives to secure a Northern Ireland solution to the funding of higher education and student support which meets the needs of future generations of students.

Failure to address the further £40m per annum disinvestment in higher education, either by  maintaining public funding or by increasing the private contribution to higher education provided through deferred fees, will inevitably limit the ability of our universities to provide a competitive experience for the students of Northern Ireland and reduce our contribution to economic growth.

Our newly elected representatives have the responsibility to determine the ‘made in Northern Ireland’ solution, and we stand ready to assist so that our respective universities can continue to provide a world-class higher education for the students of Northern Ireland. 

Richard Barnett

Peter Gregson