Belfast Telegraph

Friday 22 August 2014

Extra places will help meet our university challenges

The announcement of 500 new higher education places is good news for students who want to stay in Northern Ireland, says Stephen Farry

I was pleased last week to announce a second recent expansion of higher education places in Northern Ireland. These 500 STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) places follow 700 places confirmed last year.

Together, this is the biggest increase for the university sector since 2000, bringing the total increase in student places to 1,200 by 2015.

Half of these additional 500 places will be made available to the University of Ulster and places will also go to Queen's University and to further education colleges that deliver higher education courses.

It is also good news for the increasing number of young people who want to access higher education in Northern Ireland, but who are deterred from applying elsewhere due to the costs involved.

While we already have the highest participation rates of any UK region, we are still exporting too many of our young people. There is a good case for expanding higher education provision at home.

When I assumed office as Minister for Employment and Learning in May 2011, no budget allocation for the expansion of higher education existed. Indeed, there was a real danger that the freeze of tuition fees would have been funded through cuts to university spending, resulting in fewer places.

The first tranche of additional places was negotiated as part of proper financial settlement around tuition fees.

This was secured to manage the expected displacement of demand, as proportionately more students would wish to study locally to avoid higher fees elsewhere.

This autumn, as part of the Executive's jobs and economy package, I secured 500 more places to assist in rebalancing our economy through investing in the higher level skills necessary for this region to be competitive.

I understand the strong desire across the North-West for all of the additional places to be allocated to the University of Ulster at Magee and I understand the economic challenges. However, concentrating all of the additional places in one location is not realistic.

The new places are regional-wide investments both in managing student displacement and the investment in skills.

It is necessary to invest in a broader range of STEM subjects across different institutions and to give those bodies sufficient flexibility to adjust to changing skill projections.

It is alleged that only the University of Ulster asked for additional places. This is absolutely not the case.

Furthermore, it is argued that a business case for expansion only exists in relation to Magee.

In fact, there is only at this stage a strategic outline case and any future decisions on an exclusive award of places would need a full business case for any allocation of places.

However, creating this could be counter-productive for Magee. While it may reinforce the case for development there, it could equally make the case for the further consolidation of higher education in other locations. A business case is not required for the general allocation of places across institutions.

Nevertheless, given the Executive's commitment to the One Plan, I did top-slice 10% of the new 500 places, before distributing the remaining places on a pro-rata basis.

At present, my actions are benefitting Northern Ireland, including Derry. The Magee campus will have been awarded almost 600 new places, and is now well on the path to the 1,000 target in the One Plan.

Furthermore, if it wishes, the University of Ulster has the freedom to redirect some of its existing places to the North West. A rising tide is lifting all boats.

With the support of my colleagues on the Executive and a solid evidence-base, I remain committed to seeking to expand higher education provision in Northern Ireland.

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