Belfast Telegraph

Universities revolt: Academic chiefs team up to blast Stormont over 'madness' that will mean 1,100 fewer student places

Warning budget cuts will fuel brain drain of our brightest

By Rebecca Black

The heads of Northern Ireland's two universities have come together to warn that Stormont cuts will force some of our brightest young people to leave the country.

In an unprecedented joint appeal the pro-vice-chancellors of both Queen's University and the University of Ulster have revealed they will be forced to take 1,100 fewer students next September as they grapple with cuts of 11%.

Around 35% of our students leave Northern Ireland for university - that figure is now expected to go up to an estimated 40%.

Queen's University chief Professor Patrick Johnston and the head of the University of Ulster Professor Richard Barnett warned the strategic implications of fewer graduates will be devastating.

"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."

Prof Johnston added: "It sends a signal both nationally and internationally that we are not going to drive forward a knowledge economy, which is so vital for society.

"Universities are very much at the core of driving forward societies, both the cultural but also the economic investment."

Both universities have already been faced with cuts of around 18% in the last four years.

The Department for Employment and Learning (DEL) was the third biggest loser in the draft budget unveiled this week, facing a cut of £10.8% (£81m).

The funding cut that will be passed on to the universities has not been confirmed yet, but is expected to be around 11%.

Both university heads slammed as "ridiculous" the fact that even if the 1,100 students who won't get places at local institutions go across the water, Stormont will still be paying for then, and in effect investing in English and Scottish universities.

"Many of the people that we will end up not being able to offer places to will end up going to England where they will have to pay £9,000 in fees, but the ridiculous thing is that the Government here will pay for student support," Prof Barnett said.

"So what we will actually be doing is, the money that is coming from London will end up being sent straight back in the form of student support.

"It's madness."

In terms of the cuts so far, Prof Johnston said Queen's had managed to make savings on its corporate side, but said now that cutting student numbers was the only way left.

Prof Barnett added: "To maintain the quality of service the only option we have is to cut student numbers.

"We have no other options now.

So both universities will be cutting student numbers unless there is some adjustment to the budget in the consultation period." Each university will take around 550 fewer students next September.

That is almost 10% less than last year when the University of Ulster took in 4,500 full-time undergraduates.

Both universities are already oversubscribed and cutting places is likely to mean entry requirements will get even tougher.

The universities cannot raise student fees as those are set by the Stormont Executive.

Neither vice-chancellor wants to see fees raised but say it may have to happen.

"When fees were introduced in England we lobbied against those," Prof Barnett said.

"When they were introduced here, Stormont got the right balance between student contribution and public contribution.

"But since that time the public contribution has been eroded substantially and will be eroded further.

"That does raise an issue for us of how we actually fund student places and invest in the future of our young people.

"If they are not willing to maintain public funding and if they don't want to see the number of students here continue to fall, fees are the only way up.

"Why is it in Scotland, where they have no fees, they can fund universities to a higher level than we can here.

"How is it that the Scottish Executive can manage its budget so much better than the Executive can here?

"Obviously in Scotland they care about the future of their young people more than we care about the future of our young people."

The effect on higher education

Tuition fees

Universities in Northern Ireland can charge up to £3,685 for tuition fees to students coming from Northern Ireland and non-UK EU countries in 2014-15. This is significantly lower than the £9,000 that students in England pay.

Queen's University charges £9,000 and the University of Ulster £6,000 to students who normally live in England, Scotland and Wales.University fees in Northern Ireland are set by Stormont and no political party has openly advocated raising them, and the universities cannot change the rate. The situation is different in Scotland where Scottish students attending Scottish universities do not have to pay fees. Scottish universities also receive more funding per student than universities in Northern Ireland.

Neither universty is calling for fees to be raised, however UU vice-chancellor Richard Barnett has said it may become inevitable.

Role in the economy

Our highly skilled workforce and supply of quality graduates has been a key factor in attracting scores of international companies to set up bases here.

From IT companies to law firms to major production companies such as HBO, a key part of DETI Minister Arlene Foster's pitch to foreign investors is the high standard of the workforce in Northern Ireland.

Finance Minister Simon Hamilton billed his draft budget proposals as an attempt to revitalise the economy and boost the private sector.

DETI has been granted more money to help attract more new companies to Northern Ireland in the draft budget proposals.

However, if our universities lose funding next year, and again in subsequent years, the number of graduates is going to drop as the number of student places in Northern Ireland falls.

Brain drain

Around 35% of our students leave Northern Ireland for university - that figure is expected to go up to 40% when 1,100 fewer students are able to gain places at our local institutions.

Most of these young people who travel across the water to study tend not to return after they graduate.

A LucidTalk poll carried out for the Belfast Telegraph last year found that just one in three of our graduates came home after going away for university. In August 2013 it emerged that just one in three of our graduates was coming home. Of 2,470 students who went to England, Scotland or Wales to study, 1,550 did not return in 2011/12. Around 88% of graduates from local universities are employed in Northern Ireland. The brain drain has traditionally been an issue which has exercised unionists as more Protestants than Catholics tend to leave for university.

Further Education

Today the leaders of our two universities have spoken out about the cuts they are set to face and how they are planning to cope with them, but our six further education colleges are also being hit. They have been advised by the Department for Employment and Learning to prepare for a 15% reduction in funding.

The colleges educate 90,000 students each year and employ more than 4,100 full-time equivalent staff. They are often the institutions which pick up the pieces for young people who fell through the cracks of the education system, and left school with poor literacy skills. Colleges NI warned that the colleges would not be able to take on the 90,000 students they educate each year under the cuts and that thousands of places may be cut, including for disabled and disadvantaged people. It also warned of the possibility of hundreds of job losses.

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