The challenges from the Covid-19 pandemic to our local universities are multi-dimensional, but in outlining those it is also important to acknowledge the role that they and our Further Education Colleges can play in helping with the recovery.
mmediate issues relate to the financial needs for students, and the nature of the learning experience going forward. Naturally, that raises questions over the value for money of tuition fees, but I hope that the existing quality provided to date by our institutions can be replicated in a blended learning context.
For universities, the existing pressures for the current unsustainable funding model are going to be exacerbated. The biggest threat comes from a significant drop in the numbers of international students.
More domestic students may seek to defer their higher education until the future landscape is clearer. In the open competition marketplace that is HE in England, there were fears that certain universities could absorb demand at the expense of other institutions, with consequences for their viability. This has been partially addressed by the agreement of 5% increases in enrolment.
For us here it has always been the case that more local students have wanted to study locally than places available. I suspect that demand for places here may become more acute given doubts over travel and other uncertainties.
Northern Ireland's relative good record of widening participation could come under renewed pressure. There is a constant call for the MaSN (Maximum Student Number) cap to be relaxed.
However, the wider implications of this simplistic demand need to be understood. This is essentially a cost control mechanism.
Arising from the lower level of tuition fees here, which is positive and progressive, there is not full cost recovery for the universities for each place, and accordingly Government must co-fund the remaining cost.
Therefore to expand local provision, either tuition fees increase or more government funding should be provided to universities.
There is a further layer to this in that we also need to incentivise and encourage our local institutions to protect the strategically important science and engineering places that are crucial to rebalancing our economy and attracting further investment, but tend to be more expensive than many other subject areas.
Through their research capacity, our universities and colleges can assist in developing a range of responses to the health, economic and social challenges from this crisis.
And there is going to be a need for rapid reskilling across a range of skill levels as the labour needs in our economy change radically - universities and colleges can make a crucial contribution in that regard.
I welcome some of the initiatives that have been announced by the Department for the Economy recently, and more can be done to build to upon those.
Stephen Farry MP, former Minister for Employment and Learning