Belfast Telegraph

Monday 14 July 2014

It's time to remove cap on higher education numbers

Investing in local universities makes sound, financial sense for everyone, argues Professor Richard Barnett

Northern Ireland desperately needs the right investment to lead us out of recession. That key investment is in the skills that will rebuild and rebalance our economy. Further education colleges and employers' training programmes generate important skills for the economy. However, in today's knowledge economy it is higher education - and its research and development - that will drive our economic growth and make us internationally competitive.

Many of Northern Ireland's schools are excellent and half of school leavers go on to university - a superb ratio and best in the UK. Yet there is something very wrong. A third of those school leavers go on to study in Scotland, England, Wales or the Republic. Most do not return to Northern Ireland. Instead, they help build the economies in the areas where they study. Meanwhile, we subsidise the living expenses of our undergraduates who study outside Northern Ireland, so paying many of our best people to develop other nations' economies. This was understandable during the Troubles, when many students wanted to leave. We are now in a different situation. Many more students want to stay and go to university here. Others, from elsewhere, want to come to Northern Ireland to study.

This was demonstrated by the record number of applications to the University of Ulster last year. In particular, applications to Ulster's Magee campus rose substantially. This is a reflection both on the high quality courses on offer and the growing profile of Derry-Londonderry as City of Culture 2013.

But, tragically, the university had to turn down many applicants.

Universities in Northern Ireland are restricted in size by the Maximum Student Numbers cap. This cap needs to be removed if more graduates are to be produced here and if our skill base is to improve to enable our economy to grow. Relative to population, we have the UK's smallest higher education sector.

The Government recognises the need to 'rebalance the Northern Ireland economy'. As part of this, our sub-regions - particularly the north west - must get stronger. This is why the University of Ulster has joined with the University for Derry group, Derry City Council and the Ilex urban regeneration company to propose a three-fold expansion of Magee - and this is central to the regeneration plan for the city.

That plan proposes the expansion of our Magee campus to 9,400 full-time equivalent students, focused especially on courses that drive the modern economy - science, technology, engineering, maths (STEM) and in the new creative and sustainable technology industries. This would provide the raw materials - skilled graduates - for new high tech indigenous and inward investment companies.

The projected benefits of expansion vastly exceed the cost. Economic modelling shows it would generate a benefit to the city and Northern Ireland of over £400m a year and rising. It would also enhance Derry-Londonderry's reputation as a University City.

As a first stage in that expansion, we have made a bid to the Executive to increase full-time undergraduate numbers by 1,000 students over the next few years. This has received widespread political support.

Thousands of new jobs can be created. It would help solidify the peace process. And we can learn from many other countries - including the US, China and India - that have increased investment in higher education, in part to combat the economic crisis.

They understand the importance of investing in skills to grow high value economies. We should too.

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