Pressure is growing on Stormont to rethink draft budget proposals to slash funding for further and higher education.
The Department of Employment and Learning (DEL) faces cuts of almost 11% in next year's budget.
This will result in a significant dent to the funding of our universities and further education colleges.
The Belfast Telegraph revealed yesterday that Queen's University and Ulster University will accept 1,100 less students next September as a consequence of the cuts.
The pro-vice chancellors of both universities warned that many of our brightest young students would be forced to leave the province - and will not return.
UU chief, Professor Richard Barnett, queried: "Why is it in Scotland, where they have no fees, they can fund universities to a higher level than we can here?"
DEL minister Stephen Farry, business leaders and students, have now come out in support of the universities.
Mr Farry told the Belfast Telegraph that he shares the view of both vice-chancellors.
"The cuts to my department will affect our capacity to provide the high level skills and qualifications necessary to grow the economy," he said.
"Potential investors and companies wishing to locate to Northern Ireland are doing so because we have shown that we can provide the types of graduates that they can employ."
The Alliance minister said the Executive's commitment to grow a sustainable economy is not reflected in the cuts to his department.
"There is no doubt that the savings that I will have to make will impact on the ability of our universities to deliver the skills we need," he said.
"As such, Northern Ireland will be the only part of the UK disinvesting in higher education."
Chair of the Employment and Learning committee, Robin Swann, also questioned the Executive's commitment to put the economy at the heart of the budget.
"If we cut further and higher education, how are we to produce the highly skilled workforce we need if we are to take advantage of foreign direct investment, and the anticipated expansion of the private sector," he said.
"It just does not make sense. It is not joined up government."
Wilfred Mitchell from the Federation of Small Business said the cuts to further and higher education is a "red flag" to investors, both nationally and internationally.
"Alongside increased investment within Northern Ireland there needs to be an increase in our knowledge economy," he said.
"In campaigning for the devolution of Corporation Tax powers to Northern Ireland, the FSB has always contended that reduction of the tax rate alone would be insufficient to attract foreign direct investment, as foreign investors will require a dynamic knowledge economy such as evidenced in the increase of STEM knowledge and skills within the Republic of Ireland."
Nigel Smyth from the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) in Northern Ireland said the current draft budget proposals will cause "significant difficulty in our university and further education sectors which underpin our economic recovery".
"We will await with interest the departmental breakdown of these figures but, even at this stage, it is crucial in our view that the Executive reviews the draft allocations and their impacts," he said.
Meanwhile, NUS-USI President Rebecca Hall has called on the Executive to act to overturn the cuts.
"I am shocked and appalled that this cut has been proposed for the DEL," she said. "The Executive must overturn this proposed cut as it could have a disastrous impact upon students and the economy."
Northern Ireland’s two universities, Queen’s and the Ulster University, have warned of 1,100 fewer student places next year if budget cuts bite.
Pro-Vice Chancellors, Professor Patrick Johnston of Queen’s University Belfast and Professor Richard Barnett of the Ulster University, have jointly appealed to Stormont over cuts which could be up to 11%.
The university chiefs here have warned cuts could lead to a ‘brain drain’ from Northern Ireland. Currently around 35% of university students leave Northern Ireland and they fear that could rise to 40%,
“Reducing the number of graduates will affect the skills base and ultimately have a devastating impact on the region’s investment proposition,” the university duo stated.
Neither university in Northern Ireland is calling for tuition fees to be raised but Ulster University chief Professor Richard Barnett says it may be inevitable.
Professor Barnett said: “Many of the people that we will end up not being able to offer places to will end up going to England where they will have to pay £9,000 in fees, but the ridiculous thing is that the government here will pay for student support. So what we will actually be doing is, the money that is coming from London will end up being sent straight back in the form of student support. It’s madness.”
Professor Johnston said: “Reducing the number of graduates will affect the skills base and ultimately have a devastating effect on this region’s investment proposition.”
Professor Barnett said: “Why is it in Scotland where they have no fees, they can fund universities to a higher level than we can here. Obviously in Scotland they care more about the future of their young people, more than we care about the future of our young people.”