I'm concerned about university cuts, but money won't drop from the sky, Finance Minister Simon Hamilton warns
The Finance Minister has admitted he has concerns about the major budget cuts facing universities and colleges.
Simon Hamilton told the Assembly he intends to meet Employment and Learning Minister Stephen Farry along with representatives from Queen's and Ulster Universities and further education colleges in the near future.
But he also warned MLAs: "Money is not going to drop from the skies."
His comments came after an unprecedented move last week in which the heads of the two universities joined forces to warn that the 11% cuts will force many more students to leave Northern Ireland - increasing from the 35% at present to an estimated 40%.
Writing in the Belfast Telegraph last week, Queen's University chief Professor Patrick Johnston and the head of the University of Ulster Professor Richard Barnett warned the extent of the proposed cuts would send out the wrong message internationally.
"One of Northern Ireland's biggest selling points lies in the quality of our universities and the steady supply of high quality graduates," they said. "Reducing the number of graduates will affect the skills base and ultimately have a devastating impact on this region's investment proposition."
Yesterday, just over a week into the Executive's eight-week consultation on its draft budget, Mr Hamilton said the area where he had most concerns was funding for the Department for Employment and Learning.
He said he was receiving representations from a wide range of groups about budget pressures.
"I very rarely get any suggestions as to where that money should be found, or what other budget should be cut," the minister added.
But he added: "The area of the budget settlement I have most concerns about is probably the Department for Employment and Learning."
"Let us bear in mind that money is not just going to drop from the sky to the Executive between draft and final stage to allow us to give it all to universities or colleges, much as we might like that.
"However, I am prepared to commit myself to working towards doing that. It is an area of the budget that I would like to see increased, or certainly the impact of the cuts on it reduced, between draft and final budget.
"However, that will take considerable effort, and it will not be an easy task, given the financial circumstances that we find ourselves in.
Speaking at question time in Stormont, Mr Hamilton also rebuffed suggestions that the Executive should consider raising more taxes - but said he was not opposed to a study of the so-called living wage in Northern Ireland.
Attacking Sinn Fein for its approach to tax-raising, however, he said the party was "prone to thinking that money goes on trees".
"We have got to be very careful about increasing the tax take from people who are already struggling," he said.
"The one place I do not think economic recovery is being felt is in people's pockets. So I do want to see, as the economy grows, employers uplifting the pay of their employees. I think that we would all agree with that."
He said he consulted colleagues about a study on the living wage, but was unsure whether his department or Enterprise and Trade should be responsible for it.
Northern Ireland's two vice chancellors, Professor Richard Barnett of Ulster University and Professor Patrick Johnston of Queen's University Belfast, last week issued a stark warning. They said that next September Queen's and Ulster University will accept up to 1,100 fewer students. Those forced to leave for England or Scotland will pay tuition fees of £9,000. Both universities have had to make major savings over the past four years, and have had their budgets cut by 18% already, including 4% this year. "Further cuts just cannot be absorbed," the academics warned.