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By Professor Richard Barnett, Vice Chancellor, Ulster University and Professor Patrick Johnston, Vice-Chancellor, Queen ’ s University Belfast

One of Northern Ireland's greatest natural resources is our skilled, talented people. People who are the lifeblood of local and international businesses, the research base and ultimately, our economy.

Higher education contributes £1.5 billion annually to the local economy, and is a key economic driver providing 8,000 high-quality graduates each year who are sought after by investors and indigenous businesses.

The budget agreed by the Executive has imposed one of the biggest cuts on the Department of Employment and Learning and, in consequence, the budget to higher education could potentially be cut by at least 10.8%.

The effects of this cut will be immediate: next September Queen's and Ulster University will accept up to 1,100 fewer students. Most of them are still likely to go to university, but they will be forced to leave for England or Scotland where they will pay tuition fees of £9,000.

Past experience suggests that the majority of our young people who are forced to leave will never return. And the irony is that the Northern Ireland Executive will still have to cover a significant part of the cost of educating these students. In effect, the Executive will be encouraging local talent to leave Northern Ireland whilst subsidising universities in England and Scotland.

The strategic implications for Northern Ireland are worrying.

Over the past twelve months Invest NI has attracted 11,000 new jobs, a significant proportion of which are quality jobs paying well above the NI Private Sector Median.

Everyone who is involved in selling Northern Ireland abroad, and trying to attract inward investment, knows that one of our biggest selling points lies in the quality of our universities and the steady support of high quality graduates. Reducing the number of graduates will affect the skills base and ultimately have a devastating impact on this region’s investment proposition.

As well as attracting inward investment both universities play a crucial role in supporting local businesses and creating new employment. Queen's and Ulster have run over 550 Knowledge Transfer Partnerships (KTPs) with local companies, connecting them with university expertise to help grow and develop their businesses. Our local universities have created over 110 spin-out companies, with a combined annual turnover exceeding £310 million, and several thousand high value jobs.

More than this, our university sector is a major economic actor in its own right. Higher Education is an investment, not an expenditure line. Northern Ireland is already under-investing in Higher Education.

Over the past four years both Ulster University and Queen’s University have had to make major efficiency savings as their budget has already been cut by some 18 per cent, including 4 per cent in the current year. If Queen's and Ulster were located in England they would have an additional £45 million per year to spend on students and services. Further cuts just cannot be absorbed. They will have a significant and long term impact.

The devastating impact of cuts on skills levels and FDI is clear. Harder to predict is the consequence of the cuts on our world-class research. From improving survival rates for cancer patients to engineering new materials that aim to revolutionise the global aerospace industry, our universities are at the heart of internationally leading research.

Some of the world’s greatest advances have been pioneered by our universities and Northern Ireland has the second fastest growing knowledge economy in the UK. The decision to cut the higher education budget places this achievement, and our future, at risk.

We are now entering a period of consultation on the draft budget accepted by the Executive. As we begin the process of how we will manage the damaging consequence of these cuts, we will at the same time urge the Executive to think again, to think of the strategic importance of higher education to our economy, to investment and to the future opportunities for our young people.

In 2011 the Executive faced a similar, stark range of options, and decided to restore a large part of the public investment in higher education. That's part of the reason why we now have the second fastest growing knowledge economy in the UK, and are more successful than ever in attracting jobs and investment to Northern Ireland. We cannot put these achievements at risk.