Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland University funding is now badly neglected


By John Simpson

Public sector spending for each person is higher in Northern Ireland by comparison with Scotland and most of the English regions. That advantage is rejected by some of the critics because, across the full range of public services, pressing financial needs cannot be met.

Northern Ireland is served badly by this difference of opinion, which feeds the argument that the province is being selectively and unfairly hit by Tory austerity.

There are numerous examples of possible selected reductions in local public spending to ease the NI budget shortfall.

Surprisingly, the extensive evidence from the Department of Finance and the Department for the Economy takes no specific account of the pain that has already been applied to the two universities here, in both of which this writer should declare his interests.

Both face budgetary pressure in part because Government recurrent spending support has been reduced to the point that they face serious problems.

The recent budgetary outlook statement by the Department of Finance reviews the public sector budget pressures for the next three years. Interestingly, two departments are exempted from the proposed proportional spending cuts: health and education.

Unfortunately, the education exemption does not include the universities whose Government support comes not from the Education Department, but from the Department for the Economy.

The recent review has seriously understated the emerging problems.

Universities are complex organisations and exercise degrees of freedom in the way that they manage their affairs.

But, a critical yardstick is the scale, quality and cost of undergraduate training.

The local universities know that they must enhance their academic standards to build credibility on the international stage.

The national league tables offer an unofficial ranking. That acknowledgement needs to be backed up by ensuring that they have the resources to deliver against international standards.

There is a concern that the two universities here are being disadvantaged through the way in which funding arrangements have changed.

Ulster University has documented how it has been affected.

The chief operating officer Niamh Lamont has reviewed the financial situation, backing up a strong plea from the vice-chancellor to the Secretary of State, pointing to the harsh arithmetic of today's annual operating budget of £200m, which by recent precedents might have expected to be nearer to £250m.

The change in the recurrent financing of Ulster University depends on the outcome of several variables. A critical source of income is university fees which, directly or with student loans, are paid by the students. Then there is Government grant support, including support for teaching, supplemented further by other recurrent income including fees from international (EU and non-EU) students.

The current budget problems can be attributed, in the main, to the serious reduction in the level of Government grant support combined with the continuing effects of Northern Ireland charging university tuition fees that are now even further below the levels charged by English universities. Both of these decisions stem from the Stormont administration.

Ulster University has demonstrated its concerns to the Secretary of State, arguing that the deterioration since 2011 has now reached a tipping point in its ability to deliver higher education. On one calculation, the funding reduction from 2011 to 2017 is said to be about £71m.

There are obvious concerns that university funding is being seriously neglected. Are the decision-makers listening?

Belfast Telegraph

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