Economy Department cuts will mean fewer overseas jobs and tourists, while university fees may increase

Cuts within the Department for the Economy could mean an increase in university tuition fees
Cuts within the Department for the Economy could mean an increase in university tuition fees Cuts within the Department for the Economy could mean an increase in university tuition fees

FEWER foreign direct investors, vastly reduced numbers of tourists, potentially higher tuition fees and the prospect of many less major television and cinema screen hits . . .

That will be the likely outworking of swingeing cuts at the Department for the Economy (DfE), which has revealed that it needs to identify £55 million of savings in the current budgetary year on top of £75 million in cuts made in 2022/23.

Among the biggest losers will be Tourism NI, which is seeing its budget slashed by a third at a time when its equivalent in the Republic secured additional funding of €15 million in January.

It has also emerged that around 115 jobs across the department's various functions, all previously approved, won't now be filled.

And Secretary of State Chris Heaton-Harris has asked the department to look at changing the structure of university tuition fees, though there is a significant degree of complexity around this.

NI Screen, which promotes the development of a sustainable film, animation and television production industry, is also starting at a 6 per cent cut in its slice of the economy pie (it is also part funded by the Department for Communities).

Ironically the hit to the film sector comes just weeks after the locally-produced "An Irish Goodbye" won an Oscar for best live action short film.

DfE confirmed that has been allocated £772 million resource and £246 million capital funding for 2023/24.

But in effect, that opening budget is £130 million, or 16 per cent, lower than previously expected.

And supposed one-off savings made last year must also be delivered again.

These include a reduction in programme spend for Invest NI, reducing its ability to actively sell the north as an attractive location for overseas investors and which may ultimately impact on job-creation targets.

The cuts will also mean a dilution of programmes for apprentices, which is feared could mean some young people unprepared to go down the academic route in their late teens may have vocational options removed.

FE colleges will have their programmes trimmed back too, while there will be no increase in maintenance grants for higher education students.

One official told a media briefing: "Having to implement these cuts is incredible difficult."

And he added: "With over 70 per cent of our budget supporting skills, further education and higher education, it is inevitable that these sectors will be impacted."

Reductions in the funding provided to the various arm’s-length bodies and agencies - which deliver services and support for areas including economic development, tourism, creative and screen industries, consumer protection, workplace safety and resolving disputes at work - will lump more pressure on the private sector to weigh in.

This will force some agencies to seek alternative means of funding via the Shared Island Fund from the Irish government.

The department said public funding support to deliver some of the actions in the Path to Net Zero Energy Strategy will also be impacted, though it appears strategies around telecoms will be unaffected.

DfE will now work closely with its stakeholders to fully understand the implications of its budget and will then publish a formal budget consultation document in the weeks ahead, setting out the full proposals in detail.

At the end of April Jayne Brady, head of the NI Civil Service, in a letter to Chris Heaton-Harris, voiced her "profound concern" over senior civil servants in the various Stormont departments - in the absence of a sitting Executive - being placed in "harmful decision-making positions" about which services should be cut.