Belfast Telegraph

Investing in education is the key to recovery

Our universities must rise to the challenge of enabling Northern Ireland to compete on a world stage, says Sir Reg Empey

In 2007, when I became Minister for Employment and Learning, the Northern Ireland economy was on an upward trend.

Unemployment was at its lowest for many years and was amongst the lowest rates in the United Kingdom. The Executive had agreed a Programme for Government with a strong, dynamic, innovative economy at its heart and had just hosted its first major investment conference.

Since then, economic conditions have changed significantly and the amount of money available to the public sector must reduce if the deficit which threatens the UK's economic future is to be brought under control.

In the midst of these challenges, my key focus has been to ensure our workforce has the necessary skills and support to drive forward our economy and to ensure it can continue to compete on a global stage. But that task cannot be completed in isolation.

At the heart of the recovery lie our higher education institutions which, in their own right, have long been a cornerstone of our economy.

Higher education in Northern Ireland is in a strong position.

Financially, our higher education institutions have benefited from a 21% increase in recurrent funding over the last five years. In the current Comprehensive Spending review to 2011, my department plans to spend £62m of capital funding in the HE sector.

This includes £7.5m in respect of Funding for Innovation which was not previously available. This funding was used to invest in the research facilities at Queen's University and the University of Ulster. My department also contributed a further £15m for investment in research. And then there are the students themselves, who receive significant funding to support them in entering higher education.

In the 2009/10 academic year, my department provided some £286m of funding for students embarking upon a course of higher education; a figure which has risen year-on-year across the last five years.

It is my aim to develop a Higher Education Strategy for Northern Ireland which will meet the needs of our economy and wider society.

Having around a 60% share of my department's budget, it is inevitable that the current pressures on the public purse will have an impact on our ability to sustain past levels of investment in higher education and the higher education sector will not be immune from budget reductions.

This will require a reasoned and informed debate around the balance between higher education funding, tuition fees and the wider skills agenda. The investment in our recovery, therefore, must be a balanced one.

To simply continue to support an increasing number of full-time students through higher education may no longer be sustainable. And we have to consider the balance being struck between higher and further education.

Last month, I had occasion to visit the Farnborough International Airshow where I saw first hand a number of local companies competing successfully on a worldwide stage. It is companies such as these which benefit from the high-calibre employees emerging from our further education colleges and universities. It's essential that local businesses such as these continue to have the workforce and support available to them to enable them to continue as successfully as they have.

A balanced economic recovery requires, therefore, a proactive approach in which government, the business and educational communities work towards a common goal - providing the skills that will allow Northern Ireland's private sector to grow and creating jobs and prosperity.

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