We are frequently reminded of the importance of higher education in growing a dynamic and innovative economy, as laid out in the Programme for Government.
Ministers and other Assembly members rightly commend the enormous economic, social and cultural contribution of our universities and colleges. The US economic envoy to Northern Ireland, Declan Kelly, recently said that the high quality of graduates is Northern Ireland’s greatest asset.
Retaining a world-class higher education system in Northern Ireland must, therefore, remain a priority for society.
It must be adequately funded to enable the universities and colleges to remain competitive, to allow students who wish to access a high-quality education locally to do so and to ensure that higher education continues to play its key role in Northern Ireland’s development.
However, under the draft Budget proposals of the Department for Employment and Learning, Government funding of universities and colleges of Northern Ireland will be cut by £68m-per-annum from a budget of just £230m by 2014-15.
This cut is equivalent to 1,300 jobs and would inevitably lead to a substantial reduction in capacity and quality of higher education in Northern Ireland.
The impact on the economy will be very significant. After allowing for the reduction in leveraged income to the universities and the multiplier effect on jobs, this is equivalent to removing £350m-per-annum from our economy by 2014-15.
The department has proposed that 40% (£28m-per-annum) of the cut be shouldered by the universities and colleges.
Queen’s University appreciates that these are difficult financial times for the Northern Ireland Executive and all publicly-funded bodies have a responsibility to make their contribution.
Queen’s has a strong track-record in identifying and delivering efficiencies, while investing in key strategic priorities. Indeed, our forward plans had accounted for reductions in Government funding, but the cuts are greater than expected.
The department has further proposed that the remaining 60%, or £40m-per-annum, should be addressed through so-called ‘structural levers’.
Reducing student capacity is one option, but this would be contrary to Northern Ireland’s proud tradition of leading the UK in higher education participation and, in any case, the department can only control the numbers of students attending the universities and colleges in Northern Ireland.
Reducing student support is another option, but this would impact directly on the maintenance grants provided to students from low-income families and runs counter to all our efforts to widen access to higher education.
Increasing deferred fees is another, and the options outlined in the revised Stuart Report would ensure that higher education remains free at the point of entry.
As now, students would access loans and grants to cover fees and living costs while at university. Students from low-income households would receive a non-repayable maintenance grant. The deferred fees would be income-contingent and repaid only when a graduate’s income exceeded £21,000-per-annum.
The only remaining option is a reallocation of government funding of £40m-per-annum either within the Employment and Learning budget, or from other departments.
This would be a very strong statement of the commitment of the Executive and the Assembly to higher education in Northern Ireland and its contribution to the economic growth of the region.
It would mean that the private contributions to the cost of education at Northern Ireland’s universities and colleges could remain at the current level of just 14%.
But now is the time for decision. The minister has stated that he will be taking his proposals to the Executive and thence to consultation before the forthcoming elections. It will be for the incoming Assembly to decide on the right solution for the future funding of higher education in Northern Ireland. Students applying for entry into the universities and colleges in 2012 do so in September 2011; they need to know the funding framework and the Student Loans Company has to be informed of their commitments for university entrants in 2012.
These are the tough choices that face our elected representatives. In meetings with the |minister and Employment and Learning Committee, there is a shared commitment to maintain a high-quality higher education provision.
Increasing deferred fees, or replacing the cut of £40m-per-annum in Government funding, meet the long-standing principles set out by Queen’s University that higher education should remain free at the point of access; that graduate repayments should be linked to income, not debt; and that progressive thresholds for maintenance grants should exist to support our excellent record of widening participation.
No student from Northern Ireland should be prevented from aspiring to the best higher education experience.
Professor Peter Gregson is Vice-Chancellor of Queen’s University, Belfast