Northern Ireland ‘faces bleak future if cuts to higher education go ahead'
The next generation faces a “bleak future” if proposed cuts to higher education go ahead, the head of Queen’s University Belfast has warned.
The university’s president and vice-chancellor Professor Ian Greer also said the damage to the Northern Ireland economy caused by the cuts would take years to recover from.
This week, the Department for the Economy said a number of sectors are facing cuts as it deals with a funding deficit of £130 million.
The department also said its officials have been asked to examine the revenue-raising potential of increasing university student fees in Northern Ireland to £7,000.
The budget for Northern Ireland was set by Secretary of State Chris Heaton-Harris in the absence of a Stormont executive.
Prof Greer said cuts at this level would increase the number of young people choosing to study in other parts of the UK and beyond.
He said: “We already lose 34% of our young people (approximately 5,000) every year to universities in Great Britain and less than a third of those ever come back home.
“This not only has a devastating effect on families but brings real and present dangers for our economy.
“The HE (higher education) sector in Northern Ireland has had a 40% cut in funding since 2011 while other regions and jurisdictions have had significant investment.
“This approach is unfair to both students and staff, many of whom are currently taking industrial action for better pay and conditions.”
Just last month Queen’s University hosted politicians from across the world to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, but Prof Greer said current education policy will leave young people with no choice but to seek education elsewhere, causing long-term damage to the region.
He said: “Our highly educated workforce has been at the cornerstone of efforts to attract investors and employers to Northern Ireland, current regional policy is forcing many of our talented young people to seek their education elsewhere because our system does not allow them a choice to remain at home and study in a local university.
“This approach is causing lasting damage that will take years to recover from.
“If implemented, the budget reductions will leave Queen’s with no option (but) to reduce the number of places that we can offer as that is the only way that we can absorb cuts, unless the Government can come up with a sustainable funding approach.”
Prof Greer added: “It is a demographic fact that there will be a surge of 18-year-olds by the end of this decade, and we need to offer approximately 5,000 extra university places across the Northern Ireland HE sector just to stand still, so the impact of these cuts will have a fundamental and dangerous impact on our future.”
He said the next generation faced a bleak future unless educational opportunities were provided for them in Northern Ireland.
“Today’s action is tomorrow’s legacy and unless we invest in our young people’s education and provide them with the opportunities to stay at home to contribute positively to our society and economy then the next generation face a bleak future,” Prof Greer said.
Ann McGregor, chief executive of the Northern Ireland Chamber, has called for an urgent return of the powersharing executive, with a number of Stormont departments facing budget difficulties.
Several Stormont departments have said they are facing significant monetary challenges since the announcement of the budget.
The Department of Health said it is facing a shortfall of £470 million while the Department of Infrastructure said its budget pressures may result in streetlights being turned off and roads not being gritted in winter.
The Department for Communities said it is facing a £111.2 million resource funding gap, 15.5% short of what it needs.
Ms McGregor said the budget allocation given to the Department for the Economy, which is responsible for skills, further education, higher education, tourism and economic development, “lays bare the long-term economic challenges” Northern Ireland faces.
She added: “From driving green growth to showcasing Northern Ireland as a place to work, visit and invest, this budget will impact upon every facet of our economy.
“It also risks exacerbating long-standing structural challenges, such as tackling the skills deficit.
“NI Chamber has consistently highlighted that this is not a one-off challenge.
“We urgently need an executive restored to agree and implement its priorities at pace.
“But we also need a meaningful debate on how Northern Ireland is funded from Westminster to put us on a pathway to transformation.”
The department has said Tourism NI is facing a £9 million cut in funding.
A spokesperson for Tourism NI said this would impact on investment in events, marketing and capital development.
They added: “Northern Ireland is very likely to lose out to other destinations just as our visitor numbers are rebounding.
“We will continue to find ways to make resources go further, working closely with our partners to mitigate the effects of the budget reduction on the sector.”
DUP MP Ian Paisley said if the Stormont Assembly was returned immediately, the budget available to Northern Ireland ministers would be no different.
He accused the Government of “blackmail” through the “underfunding” of local departments.
Mr Paisley said: “By announcing a grim budget and enforcing cuts, the Secretary of State’s hope was that this would coerce unionists back into the Northern Ireland Assembly – but it is flawed and counterproductive.
“His strategy is failing. Northern Ireland voters can see the blackmail. The daily diet of cuts headlines prove that Northern Ireland is underfunded.
“People realise that if the money is not there today it won’t be there for future devolved ministers either.”
The DUP MP added: “No politician would seek to go back into an underfunded governmental arrangement that has the added disadvantage of having to pay back hundreds of millions of pounds to Westminster before it can start allocating new resources.
“The DUP has long been highlighting the underfunding of Northern Ireland.
“Our need is not being addressed and rather than trying to blackmail people, the Government would be better to address Northern Ireland’s budgetary shortfall.”