Belfast Telegraph

Both Northern Ireland universities would quibble over funding levels


Queen's University
Queen's University
John Simpson

By John Simpson

Northern Ireland is home to two large ambitious universities - Queen's and Ulster. They are a major asset making an important contribution to the quality of our society.

The two universities spend more than £579m a year. University tuition fees and official teaching contracts create about £185m, much of which comes from student loans which become repayable after students complete their studies.

Government grants provide a further £190m, leaving more than £195m to come from research income and other external sources.

There is no easy way to demonstrate that these funds are used to the maximum benefit of Northern Ireland.

Both universities are unhappy with their funding.

In a shared comment, both include in their separate annual reports a presentation to suggest that total Government funding since 2009-10 has reduced in cash terms by £34m, which they argue equates to 28% in real terms.

Funding per student has fallen by more than 7% since 2010-11 which contrasts with an increase in England of more than 7%.

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The recent funding gap stems from a rise in fees being paid by students in England, often up to £9,000 pa, which is not matched by Northern Ireland increases. To assess the contribution of each of university using simple comparators of total spending is interesting but does not touch on a wider range of questions in a wider policy debate.

Queen's and Ulster have ambitions to increase their undergraduate and postgraduate student numbers. However, that ambition must be judged alongside the open access which is available for Northern Ireland students to apply to study in other British and Irish universities.

The proportion of the age group from Northern Ireland enrolling for university courses is already high. Each year, several thousand students travel outside Northern Ireland.

Whilst there is a valid debate about the number of local university places, it merits debate on too many places as much as about too few.

Queen's and Ulster operate on around six sites.

Since the early 1980s there has been no public scrutiny of the merits of the present administrative and spatial structures. In the absence of a wider debate, Ulster has made a strategic decision to develop a Belfast-based large campus.

This is now nearing completion (with a serious delay and financial over-commitment) as part of the current capital programme.

Alongside parallel development ambitions in the recently reformed further education sector, also linked with an important task to enhance the provision for more advanced vocational skills, there is little evidence of any rationalisation of third level education across Northern Ireland.

An initiative to enhance third level capacity to provide an improved skills programme, along with a rationalisation of capacity, is overdue.

Undergraduate fees here are now about half the levels in England. The logic of retaining lower fees is an unfinished critical debate.

Queen's is very ready to advertise itself as one of the Russell Group of UK universities. Ulster asks to be recognised as a major civic university.

These characteristics are useful as part of their promotion tactics bringing an implied emphasis on setting standards. Both, if delivered to high standards, can be commended.

One of the more difficult questions in terms of university performance and governance is whether public representatives should ask questions about these qualities.

Both universities are subject to the demanding research evaluation exercise conducted on a UK basis. That sets standards for academic and research performance. However, is the local governance of Queen's and Ulster efficient?

One final comparator calls for an appraisal. Ulster has 17 staff members who are paid more than £100,000 pa: Queen's (with many higher paid medical professionals) has 91.

Is this a necessary consequence of a devolved structure?

Belfast Telegraph