Belfast Telegraph

Why university challenge to MLAs is in all our interests

Assembly candidates must come clean about where they stand on education fees, says Professor Tony Gallagher

Earlier this month, I launched the Election Doorstep Challenge as part of Queen's University's campaign around the funding of higher education.

The point of the initiative is to encourage Queen's staff and students to ask Assembly election candidates how they and their parties will protect the benefits to the community that flow from investment in higher education.

Why did we launch the challenge? The Northern Ireland Assembly recently passed a Budget in which £68 million was cut from the universities and university colleges.

A cut of this scale - 30% - will have a devastating impact on the sector. It could mean hundreds of job losses in higher education directly and thousands of job losses in the wider economy.

Since many international companies highlight the steady flow of high quality graduates as one of the key attractions for investment in Northern Ireland, a cut on this level will seriously limit the ability of the Executive to attract inward investment and generate jobs.

Within the universities and university colleges themselves, it will lead to reduced student services. My fear is that we will end up with a second-class university system in Northern Ireland, leading to a 'brain-drain' in which many of our brightest young people will leave to study elsewhere.

Why is this important to anyone outside the universities? Well, one important reason is that higher education helps create economic activity and jobs: a cut of £68m in the direct grant to universities will lead to an immediate loss of £350m of economic activity.

This means thousands of jobs lost to the economy - on top of the risk to inward investment I have mentioned already.

The skills' base in Northern Ireland arises from the contribution of schools, further education and higher education, with undergraduate and postgraduate study providing the highest level of skills.

Entrepreneurship and employability skills are key attributes of the Queen's student experience and are embedded in the curriculum across the university: the vast majority of our graduates are in employment, or further study, six months after graduation and most are in graduate level jobs within three years.

The entrepreneurial spirit is evident also in our success in translating ideas into commercial products. Queen's spin-off companies have created more than 1,000 high-value jobs and have a collective turnover in excess of £100m annually.

Healthcare touches everyone. Major investment in the university's new health campus is bringing about transformational change in research, clinical trials and effective new drugs and treatments. All these achievements are built on a foundation of academic excellence.

As a magnet for talent, Queen's encourages the brightest and best young people to stay in Northern Ireland, while attracting the brightest and best from across the world to study and work here.

When the new Assembly meets after the May 5 election, MLAs will face important decisions and we are already campaigning hard to ensure they protect our ability to provide a high quality higher education experience. The Doorstep Challenge is an opportunity for staff, students and those interested in retaining high quality higher education to question election candidates canvassing their homes.

A cut on this scale is unprecedented in the history of higher education here. Since higher education has such important consequences for the economic, cultural and social life of Northern Ireland, it is in all of our interests to ensure that the political parties take this issue seriously.

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