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Third level education in Northern Ireland facing ‘perfect storm,’ Queen’s University chief warns

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From left, DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, Sinn Fein's Conor Murphy, SDLP's Claire Hanna, Stephen Farry, of the Alliance Party and the Ulster Unionist party's Mike Nesbitt

From left, DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, Sinn Fein's Conor Murphy, SDLP's Claire Hanna, Stephen Farry, of the Alliance Party and the Ulster Unionist party's Mike Nesbitt

PA

From left, DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, Sinn Fein's Conor Murphy, SDLP's Claire Hanna, Stephen Farry, of the Alliance Party and the Ulster Unionist party's Mike Nesbitt

Queen's University Vice-Chancellor Ian Greer has warned of a "perfect storm" approaching third level education amid limits on local students and increasing numbers of young people wanting to access a university education.

Mr Greer, speaking at the opening of a broader political debate on the economy, said the squeeze on university places is happening when there is a growing economic need for graduates.

At 30%, just under one third of students, approximately 5,000, will leave Northern Ireland for university - and more than two thirds will not return, Mr Greer said at the CBI-organised event at Queen's.

His opening remarks prompted politicians at the event to raise the issue of the cap on students able to attend university locally.

The numbers are capped due to cost controls embedded in the Department for the Economy budget, which subsidises tuition fee costs.

While both Stephen Farry of Alliance, who is MP for North Down, and Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, the DUP leader, both mentioned the cap and how to increase university places, they and the other representatives believe the focus should be more on further education and vocational training when tackling the looming skills gap between what is available and what employers need.

The panel, which also included South Belfast MP Claire Hanna of the SDLP; Mike Nesbitt, UUP MLA candidate for Strangford; and Conor Murphy, Sinn Fein MLA candidate for Newry and Armagh, faced questions on skills, infrastructure and the drive towards developing a green-based economy.

All of the panellists agreed there are major issues around planning, in connection with increasing renewable energy production, infrastructure, housing and developing the economy more broadly.

Mr Nesbitt, recounting a conversation with someone from overseas, said he had been told the planning system was “outstanding...outstandingly the worst”.

Mr Murphy noted that the process was different depending on the council area.

Ms Hanna, linking the issues over planning to renewables, said there are opportunities for the island of Ireland to be self sustaining in renewable energy, largely because of wind.

But she noted it takes years to win planning permission for projects. Environmental issues must be considered but the process can be condensed, she said.

More broadly, when it comes to growing the economy, Ms Hanna said “we need to address the obsession...with GDP”.

Smoking and car crashes, both contributors to the economy in their own ways, add to the GDP number but taking time away from work to look after children does not, she said, adding society has to “reframe the discussion”.

Mr Murphy also suggested the development of a new economic strategy by bringing together different stake holders, including trade unions and business, with an emphasis on decarbonisation and a green economy.

In the shorter term, he described the announced review of the work of economic development agency Invest NI as “long overdue”, believing the organisation placed too much emphasis on foreign direct investment (FDI) in a region where 90% of people are employed by small and medium sized businesses.

Mr Nesbitt believes politicians have “not spent enough speaking to wealth generators”. He added there remains a “dependency culture” that includes going to London “with a virtual begging bowl”.

"That ended with RHI, the Treasury has had enough of that,” he said.


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