With DEL cuts of 10.8% NI Executive will be encouraging local talent to leave Northern Ireland

Professor Deirdre Heenan is Pro Vice Chancellor for Communications and Provost of Coleraine and Magee in the Ulster Univerity. She writes here on the long term depressive effect of proposed cuts to the funding of the two major universities in Northern Ireland.

Relevant, accessible skills, innovation, new technology and productivity; these are factors that underpin long term economic growth and where higher education is uniquely placed to influence and act as a true economic driver.

Screen Shot 2014-11-23 at 22.55.50For decades, local universities have nurtured skills and innovation. Producing talented graduates who are past, current and future business leaders, the level of quality skills and knowledge infrastructure has been, and will remain, integral to this region’s investment proposition.

Local university based research across business, health, social policy, built environment, engineering, the arts, to name just a few, has garnered international recognition and respect.

Many of this region’s fastest growing, successful companies in the ICT, healthcare, biomedical, creative industries and engineering sectors have links to local universities; either as spin outs or through collaboration.

At a critical time for Northern Ireland as it steps out of the economic crisis, the role of higher education has never been more important, yet the sector now faces its starkest future in recent history as repeated budget cuts threaten the quality and sustainability of local universities.

Budget cuts are a reality for all sectors in challenging economic times, and the NI Executive has to make difficult choices; but we cannot, should not, accept the systematic devaluation of higher education through underfunding.

Northern Ireland still has, relative to its population, the smallest higher education sector in the UK.

Under the most recently proposed budget cuts, it is increasingly likely that the number of people in higher education will fall if we are to maintain a high quality educational experience. Ultimately, the cuts will have a devastating impact on investment in opportunities for our talented young people.

Over the past four years both Universities have had to absorb major cuts as budgets have been reduced by 18%. This latest tranche of proposed cuts means that it cannot be ‘business as usual’ and the nature and shape of higher education will be fundamentally changed.

The Department for Employment and Learning is facing one of the biggest cuts of 10.8%. If that is confirmed following the consultation, the effects will be immediate: next September Ulster University and QUB will each accept 500 fewer students.

If they still want to pursue a university education then they will be forced to leave for England or Scotland where they will face tuition fees of £9000, a potential financial barrier that could make university an inaccessible dream for some students.

The irony is that if students travel to England or Scotland, the Northern Ireland Executive will still have to cover a significant part of the cost of educating these students.

Currently £60m is paid annually in student support for students educated elsewhere. In effect, the Executive will be encouraging local talent to leave Northern Ireland whilst subsidising universities in England and Scotland.

Past experience suggests that the majority of our young people who leave will never return. Consequently indigenous firms and inward investors will have an increasingly limited skills base from which to access the best and brightest talent.

Over the past twelve months Invest NI has attracted 11,000 new jobs from both indigenous globally focused companies and from international investors. These companies have stated repeatedly that they have been impressed and attracted by the world-class talent and knowledge for which local universities are renowned.

Our decision makers must learn from other countries, including the US, which for a time in the 1980’s believed higher education was not a funding priority. Businesses there have subsequently struggled to find the quality graduates they need to thrive and levels of research and innovation have fallen well behind those of emerging economies.

Across the world countries such as Germany, US, France, China and India are currently investing in the skills, research and innovation incubated in higher education institutions. Northern Ireland now stands at a crossroads. Without adequate investment in our universities, we risk jeopardising our competitive advantage.

Retrenchment will have serious consequences for the long term future of Northern Ireland, economically, culturally and socially.

In his 2011 State of the Union address, President Obama stated “Cutting the deficit by gutting our investments in innovation and education is like lightening an overloaded airplane by removing its engine. It may make you feel like you’re flying high at first, but it won’t take long before you’ll feel the impact.”

The wider strategic importance of higher education cannot and should not be underestimated. Now is the time to lay strong foundations to support economic recovery; now is the time to invest in higher education.


  • So not 10.8% cut with DEL. How much does that amount to and where should the cuts fall instead?

  • Plenty of people ready to speak out for Queen’s and UU, is nobody concerned about similar cuts to further education? There is not the option of going to England or Wales (or the Republic of Ireland, strange omission?) for further education and a reduction in places means the end of the line for increased numbers of young people without the basic skills required to get any form of employment. FE cuts will have a direct impact on unemployment and is likely to hit poorer areas hardest.

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    Just to point out, the secondary and primary school sectors have duplicated and sometimes triplicated services.

    Sorry, but surely it’s worth examining the necessity of such set up?

    Could trimming the schools (in a sensible fashion so as not to negatively affect the quality of education) free up some cash that could be (perhaps) transferred to further and higher education?

  • Bryan Magee

    Tuition fees: this is a progressive measure as implemented (as only the richest pay) and it helps save and promote the Universities.

  • NMS

    The Irish universities via the CAO system adjusted the points credited for A Levels to ensure that very few UKNI students get places. There is a shortage of places here too as against the demand. Secondary school numbers will continue to grow in Ireland for a further 8-10 years until a birth bulge works its way through the system.

    There are exceptions such as pharmacy in Trinity where there are a fixed number of places allocated to UKNI students. But you rarely hear Northern accents now in Trinity now.

  • Old Mortality

    ‘If they still want to pursue a university education then they will be forced to leave for England or Scotland where they will face tuition fees of £9000, a potential financial barrier that could make university an inaccessible dream for some students.”

    It’s only a barrier for those who are so immature and witless that they aren’t really suitable for a university education. In other words, the kind of student that typically attends Ms Heenan’s vocational training establishment.

  • Some of the local FE colleges have been told by DEL to prepare for cuts of as much as 15% and produce draft budgets / proposed cuts accordingly. Completely agree that this will have a direct impact on unemployment and is likely to hit poorer areas hardest.

  • barnshee

    A modest reduction of the salaries of the (frankly over paid second rate) “academics” who infest the place would solve the problem

  • Tuition fees aren’t the issue. It’s the cost of living. Many students can live at home and travel to QUB or UU but could not afford to move to the UK and pay accommodation, flights etc.

  • Old Mortality

    From what I can see, most local students pay for accommodation in Belfast and drive home every weekend in the car that their parents bought and insure for them. So much for not being able to afford fees. Parental pressure is often the main reason why students choose not to venture outside NI and the introduction of fees has made the argument for staying at home easier.
    My own daughter who graduated from one of the better English universities a couple of years ago is now earning between four and five times more than her friends who stayed at home and now find themselves in menial employment. She’s certainly not four times brighter than them, just a little more adventurous and without clinging parents.

  • barnshee

    The don`t even stay in Belfast there are carloads daily travelling home -with -what 75% -of students within travelling distance of a university- it sure is cheaper -the food is better and the magic fairies produce clean clothes overnight. The shagging opportunity is of course reduced.
    From experience the wage differential is a bit of a two edged sword English cities are horrendously expensive places to live

  • chrisjones2

    This is a market.Why aren’t they attracting foreign students in? Product quality?

  • chrisjones2

    So what fees do UU and QUB charge?

  • chrisjones2


  • Stan McGlone

    These cuts really worry me. I am currently half way through my degree and would like to go on to gain a masters in my field. Most of us do have the majority of our degree paid for but these cut backs will put even further financial pressure on us. Not to mention the average loan cost required for a masters is £10,000. I recently just spent £300 on books. Cutting financial aid and student places will just drive students to Great Britian or abroad. You try to better yourself and near every week we read stories about Stormont ministers throwing money around on lunches,travel,second homes and wasting millions on enquiries for simple sectarian point scoring. I plan to leave NI once I graduate.

  • chrisjones2

    Agreed……and has a hugely greater range of opportunities not limited wby what foot she digs with or what school she wnet to

  • chrisjones2

    Michelle O’Neill has announced a £30m cut in DARD funded mainly by chopping 300 posts

    Now forgive me Michelle but do the sums. Thats a saving of £100k / job but you have to save £30m next year and there will be severance costs so this doesn’t add up. Where are all thee 300 people paid £100K each coming from.

    Time to ask your Perm Sec some hard questions. These look like the same back of a fag packet calculations used in assessing the sale of the plant station at Crossnacreevy that suddenly went from a value of £45m to £1m

  • HarryO

    It seems strange that our political classes are intent on letting our most valuable resource leave and fund English and Scottish universities.

  • Sure there are students with wealthy parents but it is undeniable that there are students who don’t have that luxury. There are a range of scenarios that leave students in financial difficulty and some would not take the risk of going across the water or even be able to entertain the thought.

  • Croiteir

    Just face the fact that the region is not economically sustainable, so much so that it cannot afford to educate its children or even to keep police stations open at night, the current division is costing the people of the north.

  • Kevin Breslin

    We’ve already seen higher educational cuts, the electronic engineering fabrication lab at QUB is gone, not sure if it might have gone anyway through market conditions, but that is worrying if you are expecting local people, locally educated to join electronic engineering companies like Seagate. A sign of things to come.

  • Kevin Breslin

    Compared to most industries and most public sector professions, the universities punch above their weight in attracting people from outside Britian and Ireland.

  • Kevin Breslin

    The cuts will fall on student places, capital investment, administration and various revenue reductions. Fees are near the Laffer Curve peak for someone who wants to study in Northern Ireland to work in Northern Ireland, you raise fees you’ll probably deter students.