University cuts are short-sighted
The vice-chancellors of our two universities have delivered an erudite and compelling response to the funding cuts they face in the next financial year. Between them Queen's and Ulster universities will take in 1,100 less students next September if the 11% budget reductions become a reality.
Northern Ireland is short on natural resources, but our young people are our greatest asset. It is difficult to disagree with the vice-chancellors' argument that cuts to the universities' budgets is a failure to invest in our future prospects.
For it is our young people who hold the key to creating a stronger economy in Northern Ireland. Look at the 11,000 high value jobs created in the province during the last 12 months. Those investments were made possible because we were able to convince the companies that we have a well-educated skilled workforce deserving of premium pay levels.
But forcing 1,100 young people to seek a university education elsewhere in the UK is a short-term folly. Experience shows that when young people go away to study, the majority of them never return and their talent is lost to the province.
This folly is compounded by the fact that Stormont will have to pay to support students who leave here to study in England. Money which could be better spent in Northern Ireland will instead support institutions in England.
Professor Richard Barnett from the University of Ulster is particularly incensed by the proposed cuts and made the telling point that Scotland, which does not charge its students tuition fees, still manages to fund its universities to a higher level than here. Does that mean Scotland values its young people more highly, he wondered.
The local universities are concerned at the impact of the cuts on their staffing levels and course provision. They argue they would be £45m a year better off if they were sited in England, but what politicians here must resist is the temptation to increase tuition fees to help the universities balance their books. In England, students have to pay fees of £9,000 and that has saddled them with inexcusable debts in many instances.
The vice-chancellors are right to press the case for more, not less, investment in our young people. Cutting budgets can be a blunt exercise, where the cost of services rather than their value is the primary consideration.