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.
For 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.