Belfast Telegraph

Stephen Farry: 'Carving up a declining budget just won't work in the future'

The Conversation

Employment and Learning minister Dr Stephen Farry tells Rebecca Black that stark choices need to be made over the funding of Higher Education.

Q. So you will be the last ever Employment and Learning minister?

A. I feel incredibly privileged to have had the opportunity over the last four-and-a-half years to have held this post, and there will still hopefully be a few more months to go in terms of making a difference. I have found it to be a real opportunity in terms of making a difference - notwithstanding the difficulties - particularly over the last couple of years with budget cuts that have been very difficult to manage, particularly in such a key area as skills which are important to the future of the economy.

Overall devolution offers that opportunity - to do things differently for Northern Ireland and it has been a great chance to implement new ideas.

Q. What have you achieved since 2011?

A. The biggest single difference has been our new systems for apprenticeships, and the sister system of youth training. These are about revolutionising how we deliver the whole range of skills for the local economy, so we now have a new system in place which has been developed from first principles over the past number of years.

We have looked at evidence from around the world to find something that is particular to the situation here in Northern Ireland. It is about applying the traditional model of apprenticeships - often associated with low skills - with the whole full spectrum of skill levels and applying it also to any occupation that demands practical training.

We have our first higher apprenticeships in place, they are still in pilot form, but we have 500 of those opportunities from this autumn on and we hope to build on that over the coming years.

Q. Is there anything you had wanted to achieve but haven't?

A. There are still a few things we are working on, for example how we access part-time and post-grad student support but in the main, most of our strategies are in place.

My frustration at the moment is not based around our ability to put in place policy changes, it lies with budget cuts and my ability to scale up what we are doing and ensure we are investing in all of the skilled interventions that are required to transform our economy.

Q. Your department was hit hardest in the budget cuts and also by being amalgamated out of existence. Do you think that is the disadvantage of being one of the smaller parties in the Executive? Might DEL have had an easier time under a DUP or Sinn Fein minister?

A. In terms of the merging of the departments, I am very comfortable with what is happening. It makes sense for service delivery in Northern Ireland to have a single department of the economy which takes both the interventions currently offered under DETI with the skills interventions offered under my department.

Q. And the cuts?

A. There hasn't been a sufficiently bold enough approach (to the budget) such as tackling things like the cost of a divided society or even consideration of fair and progressive forms of revenue raising. Instead we have tried to divvy up a declining budget, and ended up trying to manage decline of public services rather than properly investing in the future in a strategic way.

What we have had instead is overly political considerations, for example whenever the case was made for protection of the budget for the Department of Health, because that was a DUP department, then we had protection given to the Department of Education because that is a Sinn Fein department, even though there are massive inefficiencies in terms of our education system, through the division of our schools.

I think as we look ahead to future budgets we need to have a better balance between how we invest in the needs of today in terms of public services and also plan effectively for the future.

We are not going to see people's well-being immediately suffer in terms of the cuts passed on to my department, but most people recognise that what is happening with the cuts to our colleges and universities is very self-destructive.

Q. So you don't support the campaign to save Bangor Hospital in your own constituency?

A. I am cautious around some of these campaigns, I think the issue around Bangor Hospital was more around the closure of minor injuries and GP beds, and actually ran contrary to the underlying strategy around reform of the health service which is about investing more in the community and trying to move away from more expensive acute hospital type outcomes.

Sometimes these decisions health managers are asked to make on a short-term basis are actually counterproductive in terms of wider cost savings in the health system. What was proposed for Bangor Hospital would actually hand more demand on to acute hospitals which is counterproductive.

Q. Did you advise universities to cut their number of student places?

A. We didn't directly advise them to do that. We asked them to protect the front line as much as possible. But all along I understood and accepted that the inevitable outworking from the cuts we were passing on to universities would lead to a reduction in the number of student places - it couldn't be avoided.

In one sense there might have been a temptation among some quarters to stretch the budgets even further to protect the numbers of students, but that would have been a completely false economy because already the amount of money invested per student in Northern Ireland is £2,000 less than the norm elsewhere in the UK, and if those figures deteriorate any further there would have been serious question marks over the quality of graduates being produced.

Q. Do you support the expansion of the Ulster University's Magee campus?

A. There is pressure around the expansion of the Ulster University at Magee, it is the sort of thing I am open to seeing happen. I understand the importance of that to the north west and also the hurt around what happened in the past, but we have to make sure we fix the current situation, we can't build further on an unstable foundation. We presently have the situation where on top of the £16m cut that has been passed on this year to higher education, we had a pre-existing structural deficit that is close to £40m.

So to fix higher education in Northern Ireland will cost in the region of £56m. If people want to see an expansion at Magee on top of that, you are talking about an annual recurring cost of around £30m. For an expanded higher education sector in Northern Ireland that other political parties would like to see, we are talking about a commitment of £85m from the Executive per year. That would be for higher education alone.

Q. You spent a considerable amount of time at university yourself and even achieved a Phd. Did you have to pay any fees?

A. I was part of a different generation, just before fees were being contemplated. Obviously for all young people the presence of fees does create a certain dilemma for them, and the fear of debt can be a barrier to some people participating in higher education. I fully accept and understand these concerns.

Q. Do you think it is fair that young people now must pay out so much money for tuition fees to get what you and others in your generation got for free?

A. I would prefer young people did not have to pay for higher education, but I have to be realistic and accept that given current expectation around public expenditure and the numbers of young people who are now going through higher education, it is not realistic to have a situation where no fees are charged to Northern Ireland students.

In England they have gone for a system where much more pressure is put on the individual to pay, by contrast in Scotland they have gone for no fees for Scottish students at Scottish universities. At present in our current system our universities are getting hit at both ends, they are not able to charge higher fees and they are also seeing their funding from the Northern Ireland Executive being cut back - one way or another, something has to give.

We need something that is financially tenable over the medium to long term so we don't have this from one Executive to another uncertainty over what is going to be in store for higher education. And if we want to go down the route where we are maintaining fees at the level of inflation then that has to mean that we invest more from our own block grant in higher education, and that means choices having to be made at the expense of other areas or seeing other reforms or seeing other types of revenue raising being explored to balance our books.

There is a very stark choice out there that has to be made.

Q. Your Department has launched the Big Conversation recently about the future of higher education, is that a bit of a cop out to get someone else to make the decision?

A. No, it's about a recognition that we need an innovative approach to how we address this issue.

Q. Surely the Department pays experts a lot of money to find solutions?

AWe can pay experts to come in and give us a solution but what we need is a much more interactive approach where key stakeholders understand the importance of higher education to Northern Ireland and think through the solutions.

Simply having a top down approach will lead to people taking a polarised view on the outcome and probably ending up with the same impasse. We could end up with a very polarised debate around fees, whether people are for or against fees, again that just leads to deadlock on the issue.

We need basically people buying in to this process and working through to find the best possible outcome for Northern Ireland.

In the past we have had top down reports, it is time now to try something new.

There is no guarantee that this will be successful in terms of trying to reach that consensus but there is more chance of this approach achieving that outcome than the more traditional approaches to public policy-making. This has been a very thorny issue across the world.

Q. Are you not tempted to leave it for the new Department of the Economy to deal with?

A. No, I think it is important that we show leadership and try to work through the issues. Obviously we have a budget that is imbalanced and shortly the Executive is going to have to publish a budget for the 2016/17 financial year, then we will be looking ahead for a four-year budget from 2017. These are going to come at us fairly quickly so these decisions are far, far too important to leave on the shelf.

We have to work through them and I certainly understand the real difficulty that we are seeing in terms of higher education. It is probably the biggest challenge the sector has been faced with for a generation. If I walked away from this I would be very irresponsible in terms of my duties as a minister.

Q. Do you think a budget will be agreed after all the difficulties there has been recently?

A. This is the dilemma and I certainly appreciate people's scepticism in that regard. However if a breakthrough is found in the talks you could see a lot of things moving fairly quickly in terms of the decisions that have to be taken.

I would have a bigger concern in the sense that while I recognise decisions need to be taken in terms of how things will operate to get us over short-term humps, unavoidable decisions have to be taken. I remain to be convinced that we will do it in a more strategic way than we have done in the past, that we will see sufficient consideration given to the medium to long-term future of Northern Ireland and see a genuine shift in resources.

I think it is much more likely we will see the continuing of the approach we have had in the past of simply making small adjustments here and there, and bids coming in for inescapables, but those inescapables being very short termist. The real inescapables of actually how we invest in future opportunities for our young people and transform the economy.

Q. Do you have any aspiration to be a minister again?

A. Well Alliance has announced that Andrew Muir, and myself will be running in North Down (for the Assembly elections next year), and we will just have to see what the future will be. I feel enormously lucky to have had the opportunity over the last four-and-a-half years. Not many of my MLA colleagues get that opportunity. It is in the hands of the electorate.

I will always look back on what I was able to do in this department with enormous pride and satisfaction in terms of the gains that have been made, particularly around making a number of major changes to how we are addressing our skills landscape.

I am also conscience while we have a number of months still in office there are challenges, particularly around funding that have to be resolved, so in no way, shape or form am I switching off or coasting for the last few months. There are some major, major battles to be fought in relation to skills and our colleges and universities as key providers.

Q. Special advisors have become topical lately, are you happy that yours is qualified to advise you?

A. Absolutely. I am enormously pleased with the service that I have received from my special advisor. Christine (Robinson) has come from a background of experience in terms of a number of DEL's responsibilities so she was well-placed to provide advice and support.

It is important that special advisors are not simply people who are party hacks, but people who have something to offer, and are able to provide real added value. It is an important role and I am confident that I have got the best person for the job.

Q. Does she have higher education qualifications? Do you think that should be in the criteria for special advisors?

A. It is not a prerequisite for the job, it is based upon the ability to deliver. It is for each minister to make their own judgment about who is the best person to support them in their role. Special advisors can come from a range of backgrounds.

I am not wanting to second- guess the decision of any of my colleagues or any future minister in that regard. It's important that whoever makes these appointments are satisfied that they have the person who can provide them with the best support.

It is someone who has to be able to operate at the highest levels of government and to be creative in policy terms as well as liaising with political parties to ensure that what is happening is properly communicated and understood.

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