Brain drain fears if student numbers slashed
University budget cuts put at risk the highly skilled workforce needed to grow Northern Ireland's economy.
That is the view of the UUP and the SDLP after Queen's University and the Ulster University warned that they will be forced to take 1,100 fewer students next September as they grapple with cuts of 11%.
Around 35% of students leave Northern Ireland for university and that is now expected to grow to 40%, prompting fears of a 'brain drain'.
MLA Robin Swann, the Ulster Unionist chair of Stormont's Employment and Learning committee, said: "If we cut further and higher education, how are we to produce the highly skilled workforce we need if we are to take advantage of foreign direct investment and the anticipated expansion of the private sector?
"It just does not make sense. It is not joined up government.
"I welcome the statements from the Pro Vice Chancellors of Queen's and the Ulster University, and the colleges, which should stimulate a lot of debate about where we are going with regards to skills and employability in our workforce. The Department of Employment and Learning committee will want to be part of this debate over the draft budget.
"Above all we must do all we can to discourage a brain drain of our young people out of Northern Ireland."
He added: "It has long been the policy of the Ulster Unionist Party that there should be one joined-up Department for the Economy.
"What we have at the moment is the Department for Employment and Learning facing a reduction in funding, yet the Department for Enterprise, Trade and Investment is being promised an uplift in its budget for next year."
A SDLP spokeswoman said: "These savage cuts to education are part of the reason that the SDLP was opposed to the draft budget.
"If students are forced to leave Northern Ireland to go to university, then there is a very real risk they will not return here to work and to help grow our economy which would be very regrettable.
"The impact of this brain drain would be felt over the next 20 years and beyond."
Earlier this month the Alliance Employment and Learning Minister Stephen Farry issued the warning of budget cuts to both universities.
He said he had to warn staff of cuts as he was "part of an Executive that is not properly managing its budget".
Queen's University Student Union spokesman, Colin Stevenson, said: "It is important to highlight the fact that, by locally reducing the student intake by 1,100 next year, many of these potential Queen's and UU students will travel to Great Britain to study.
"It is a fact of life that many local students who leave to study often do not return."