Business chiefs warn against cutting number of university places
Cutting university places in Northern Ireland will undermine the region's ability to attract new overseas investment in 2016, a leading business organisation has warned.
The Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce and Industry (NI Chamber) stressed the importance of growing the skills base as it outlined a series of key priorities to help grow the local economy.
The chamber has welcomed last year's Fresh Start political agreement at Stormont that, among other things, will see corporation tax cut to 12.5% in 2018.
However the organisation, which represents more than 1,200 businesses, said a tax cut alone would not guarantee an increase in foreign direct investment.
The chamber expressed concern at reductions in student places offered by both Queen's University and Ulster University, brought about by Stormont funding cuts to third level education.
Stephen McCully, president of the NI Chamber, said: "We need to increase the size of our workforce to meet the demands of many industries and that means that 2016 is certainly not the time to reduce the number of students in our universities.
"To attract quality overseas investment we have to be able to offer quality employees in the right quantity.
"We have worked with a range of incoming companies to Northern Ireland and we know that the mix and ability of our employee pool is absolutely vital to them. This will require an on-going liaison between higher and further education and the business community."
On the planned corporation tax cut, Mr McCully said: "Knowing the date and the new lower rate will help to attract new high-end foreign investment. However, we have always maintained that reduced tax alone is not the whole answer to fostering business growth.
"It is essential that we start with sufficient budget allocated to (Stormont business support agency) Invest NI so it has the resources to market the new inward investment proposition in relation to the devolution of corporation tax and to continue to support high value job promotion."
Mr McCully said other priorities for 2016 included the provision of more grade A office space, transport infrastructure improvements and expanding Northern Ireland's relatively small export base.
"As we begin another year, it is an appropriate time to look ahead at what is possible, or achievable, in the 12 months to come," he said.
"At Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce and Industry there is a real belief that we can be positive about 2016, with the convergence of a variety of economic and political factors meaning that the foundations for sustainable economic growth could finally be in place.
"NI Chamber shares the view of the wider business community in regard to the political settlement reached late last year. The 'Fresh Start' Agreement provides the prospect for the kind of political stability required to foster economic growth, and allow our member businesses to plan growth with the assurance that our institutions are settled."
Mr McCully added: "NI Chamber is confidently optimistic as we enter 2016.
"Our series of Quarterly Economic Surveys in 2015 showed that our members had a determination to grow and succeed but were frustrated by the stalled political process.
"These conditions will be better in 2016 and that allows for a better context for growth."