Northern Ireland’s two main universities have been collectively ‘fined’ £2.4m over the last four years for exceeding their student quota.
Queen’s University Belfast and the University of Ulster have enrolled almost 2,000 students above strict Department of Employment and Learning (DEL) limits — called the Maximum Student Numbers (MaSN) — since the 2008/09 academic year.
It means that over that period Queen’s has had £325,394 stripped from its funding by DEL to cover the cost of the additional 256 students it accepted, while the University of Ulster has lost more than £2m in funding to pay for the extra 1,672 students it admitted.
A DEL spokesman said: “Both universities in Northern Ireland have exceeded their limits in the past and consequently sustained grant adjustments [reductions].”
The department has also stated it has never turned a blind eye to a breach of MaSN which strictly limits the number of students the universities are allowed to take in.
A statement from the University of Ulster said: “Both universities in Northern Ireland have suffered a reduction of grant due to overshooting MaSN targets.
“It is unfair to penalise universities for recruiting bright, talented local young people who wish to study for a degree and who can benefit from a university education — especially because of the increase in the cost of studying in England — and we welcome the minster’s commitment as part of his higher education review to overhaul the MaSN system which he has described as a ‘blunt instrument’.”
Queen’s refused to comment on why it had exceeded its quota.
The financial penalties imposed by DEL are a drop in the ocean when you look at the 2010/11 accounts for the two universities.
According to their most recent reports, Queen’s has reserves of around £80m, while University of Ulster’s reserves are around £59m.
Both universities are, however, operating on far tighter budgets after being forced to make significant efficiency savings. Millions of pounds have been wiped off their budgets after DEL minister Stephen Farry had to slash higher education funding until 2014/15.
The previous breaches revelation comes just 10 days after an IT glitch at the University of Ulster resulted in 370 emails inadvertently being sent out advising applicants — including those who didn’t achieve the required grades — that they had secured a place on a course within its school of engineering.
Six hours later they received a second email stating that in fact no decision had been taken.
The costly blunder could cause the university to surpass its maximum student numbers for 2012/13 by around 100.
Every additional student will shave £2,840 off the University of Ulster’s 2012/13 grant from DEL.
Mr Farry, who has commissioned a report on the admissions mess, said while no “arbitrary deadline” had been set for its conclusion “it is important for the report to be completed swiftly but thoroughly and confidence in the University of Ulster restored”.
The UU has 194 engineering places for this autumn but as a result of the error has offered 285 places — 91 above its MaSN.
So far 147 applicants have accepted a place and the remaining 138 have until September 17 to make a decision, though University of Ulster will not know until December 1 whether or not it has surpassed its MaSN for 2012/13.
For the new academic year, DEL has capped its full-time undergraduate student numbers at 12,637 across all years.
But once students who have failed exams, switched universities, got a job or dropped out, for example, are brought into the equation, University of Ulster may not exceed its quota.
The Department spokesman added: “There is no point speculating on the nature of any potential MaSN breach from UU until the university’s entire enrolment figures are known. Decisions on the application of grant adjustments are usually taken in the period February to April for the academic year based on enrolment on the previous December 1.
“The minister has received a number of updates based on the emerging situation. He has asked for a full account of how the error occurred and the actions to be taken to correct this and prevent any recurrence. This is expected to be concluded once the enrolment position has been stabilised.”