Graduation ceremonies and garden parties are the usual features of university calendars in early July. This year, the physical and financial environments for both local universities are severely stretched.
There are serious policy questions to be posed and answered on how university provision is organised and funded here.
Both Queen's University and the University of Ulster are large institutions. Each attracts several thousand new students each year and they both offer an extensive range of subjects at undergraduate and post-graduate levels.
In financial terms, both universities argue that, in recent years, they have taken a financial hit as the government part of their funding has lagged below what has been allocated to universities in England.
Both Queen's and UU quote from a common source showing that from 2010 to 2019 the grant from Government fell by 30% in real terms.
This comparison allows them to plead that they are being asked to provide university education to national standards but with inadequate funding.
That plea opens the way to ask questions.
• Do Queen's and UU admit too few students?
• Should students from NI be dissuaded from going to GB or Irish universities?
• Should students at NI universities continue to pay lower fees than students at GB universities?
Both the local universities try to attract as many well qualified students, local or from elsewhere, as they can. There is no suggestion from the local universities that they would wish to limit student mobility to GB or Ireland. That would be a dangerous argument since it would detract from the ability to offer comparable (or better) undergraduate provision. The NI Executive stands back from this argument but indirectly acts to influence the outcome by setting maximum student intake numbers which is also a way of limiting the size of the annual financing of student grants and loans.
The latest annual accounts for Queen's and UU illustrate emerging financial problems.
Annual accounts for Queen's University have been filed for the year 2018-19. They show: 2018-19
Deficit: (£ 64.0m)
Net assets: £527.5m
The deficit in 2018-19 can be explained by the need to take an exceptional charge in the accounts because of a revised actuarial assessment of the accrued deficit on the defined benefit pension schemes for staff. In 2018-19, this added a one-off charge of £72.9m. as part of a UK-wide actuarial outcome. Without the unusual pension scheme provision, there would have been a surplus of £8.8m. The accounts do however confirm that there are financial constraints.
The latest filed accounts for UU are for the year ending in September 2018, and show: 2017-18
Net assets: £308.7m
UU, when the next accounts are available, may be expected to show both its actuarial share of the cost of the recent pensions revaluation and, in addition, the incidence of the additional costs of the delay in the large capital building programme in Belfast. The acting Vice-Chancellor has quoted expected losses of £64m over the next three years. A financial squeeze is underway.
The financial problems of UU seem more demanding than the budgetary arithmetic at Queen's. Operating through four different campuses with new commitments for a post-graduate medical school at Magee in a period of limited extra finance will be a major management challenge.
For the Northern Ireland Executive there is an urgent challenge. Can Ministers agree to initiate a competent professional review of the way in which university provision should be developed so that a coherent plan can be devised to rationalise the scale of current ambitions and give a clear lead to each of the universities on what is expected from them.
University standards need to be maintained and strengthened. Unrestrained and excessive individual ambitions are dangerous.
As a suggestion: the questions asked in an earlier paragraph might attract a negative set of answers!