The Executive needs to get its priorities straight

Craig Harrison writes for us about Executive and its priorities…

With the dust settled around Parliament buildings after the Assembly voted to pass the Executive Budget 2016/17, now is a good time to reflect on the financial deal Northern Ireland is committed to for the next year.

While there is much to be commended in the spending plan – particularly the additional monies allocated to the new Health Department – the Executive won’t be getting a pat on the back from anyone interested in the future of Northern Ireland’s skilled workforce, after higher education took yet another hit.

As SDLP Leader Colum Eastwood stated in his contribution during the Assembly debate, the Budget cuts a further £24m from higher education and skills – delivering more bad news to a sector that is already suffering.

Indeed, DEL’s budget for higher education had already been reduced by over 8% in 2015, resulting in funding cuts to local universities of more than £16m in 2015/16. The impact on student places has been acute, with QUB scrapping over 1,000 places over the next three years, and Ulster University reducing its numbers by 1,200 during the same period.

None of this does anything to help a local economy well renowned for significant skills shortages. While the IT and construction sectors suffer particularly, the problem is by no means exclusive to these industries, and a recent report from the Londonderry Chamber of Commerce stated that there were around 3,100 skill shortage vacancies across Northern Ireland.

It is with all of this in mind that we can question the Executive’s current priorities, particularly its determination to reduce the local rate of Corporation Tax.

Addressing a recent event hosted by the NI Chamber of Commerce & Industry, First Minister Arlene Foster argued: “When others would have walked away from corporation tax because it was too big or too complex we stayed the course because the prize is too great”. This is reflective of the wider attitude shared by the DUP and Sinn Féin, who hold that reducing Corporation Tax can only be a good thing because of the investment it will bring to the local economy.

Setting aside the fact that striking a local rate of Corp Tax will result in a cut to Stormont’s Block Grant that it can ill afford, one glaring question arises: what good is attracting FDI to Northern Ireland if we don’t have a skills base deep enough to satisfy investors’ needs?

The current attitude toward Corporation Tax seems to put the cart before the horse; trying to secure more jobs in Northern Ireland without first making sure we have a workforce skilled enough to do them. And while the latest Budget does allocate some funding for the ‘skills agenda’, £5m isn’t likely to do much to address the problem.

So the Executive seems to have its priorities a little skewed. While further fiscal devolution is a good thing for our local institutions, it shouldn’t be pursued as an end in itself. Economic growth and more jobs for Northern Ireland should be the ultimate aims of cutting Corporation Tax, but if the Executive continues to leave higher education and skills behind, it’s difficult to see how these goals will ever come to fruition.

This is a guest slot to give a platform for new writers either as a one off, or a prelude to becoming part of the regular Slugger team.

  • scepticacademic

    Yep. This.

  • Croiteir

    And the elephant in the education room is integrated education. Half a billion ringfenced for the NIO favourite education agenda. Yet today disabled children cannot get statemented due to lack of funds, higher education under pressure for a vociferous minority none of whom are denied access to education.

  • chrisjones2

    “if the Executive continues to leave higher education and skills behind, it’s difficult to see how these goals will ever come to fruition”

    Nonsense/. We have a large surplus of employable graduates. This mix may be wrong however and we need more STEM students and fewer Arts. So will they change the funding mix and cut the waste in duplicated provision – will they buggery

  • notimetoshine

    Problem is you also need to cover all the service related courses in accounting, business, marketing, law, finance etc. So that makes rebalancing even harder. Unless you just get rid of the humanities altogether.

    Very important considering the number of back office operations for major multi nationals we host here. It’s certainly a growth industry with good prospects.

  • murdockp

    You may not be aware that most large companies in particular the large accountants prefer to hire non cognates.

  • murdockp

    And Jordanstown built a new campus they could never of afforded so the lecturers and students could go shopping at lunchtime.
    Why not merge.queens and UUJ and strip out the duplicate layers of administration. That will save a few.milliin.

  • barnshee

    WTF is a non cognate?

    Large accountants prefer :-

    Accounting /economics graduates First ,or 2.1 degees –also are now recruiting students after A levels at 18 and bringing them thru the various accounting technican routes

  • Old Mortality

    The number of skilled graduates could be increased if the universities could be persuaded to abandon the traditional academic year, at least for vocational subjects. Why is it necessary to have a three-month break during the summer? The probable response would be so that academics have time to pursue research. I’m inclined to be sceptical about how much worthwhile research is actually being done but in any case, it is a luxury that we cannot afford. Is there any reason why the UU in particular cannot churn out serviceable IT graduates in two years rather than three. Just think of the reduced student debt as well.

  • Kev Hughes

    Why not just have one giant, mega university that’s the size of say Belgium (I believe it is now a unit of measure as opposed to a country) and send every single human being their to be educated, that’ll save so much money which could go to:

    i) Nurses;
    ii) Doctors;
    iii) Policemen;
    iv) Puppies.


  • Old Mortality

    Perhaps that’s what they prefer locally but at the highest level, the Big 4?5?6? firms realise that the sort of people who go to university to learn a trade aren’t necessarily the brightest so they are happy to take graduates from academic disciplines who are intellectually superior. You will notice that the best universities tend to be a bit sniffy about undergraduate trade degrees.

  • Kev Hughes

    100% correct OM, increasingly, this isn’t the criteria at all.

    Examples I know straight off the top of my head are:

    i) My own GF. Majored in German and English Lit at Leipzig Uni and made her way to fund accounting thanks to her language skills;
    ii) My sister, a law graduate and now an auditor.

    The notion (not that Barnshee is espousing this in his comment above) that at 18 yo one is to figure out what they want to do with the rest of their lives is foolish to say the least.

  • Old Mortality

    A lot of the stuff they teach at Jordanstown could most likely be imparted through remote earning online with peripatetic tutors visiting their students at regular intervals in local FE colleges, for example. There’s certainly no need to have them cluttering up Belfast.

  • chrisjones2

    Why not abolish the lot and use the OU and Distance Learning.

    Think of the saving on drink, drugs, digs and launderettes…..and their Mammies can keep an eye on them at weekends to stop them drinking themselves to death, fighting and vomiting in gardens / pissing against windows in the HolyLands. Now a few offies and sandwich bars on the Ormeau Road would feel the pain but the economic benefits would be spread privicnewide

  • barnshee

    “Perhaps that’s what they prefer locally but at the highest level, the Big 4?5?6” ?

    Thats what the big shots do locally

    Non accounting graduates are a nighmare and require remedial courses in basic accounting. The best accountants are those who qualify via the professsions internal Professional exam systems. 5 parts
    The graduate has to proceed via Degree Msc and Final exam to get to the same level. The “five parter” also has 5 years work experience under his/her belt

  • Kev Hughes

    Sounds very much like ‘central planning’ there Comrade Chris, are you saying variety and choice are bad and a central outlet is desirable?

    As for drink and drugs, of course those who don’t make it to uni are all pretty clean living folks who cause no trouble at all. Hmmmmmm…

    Economic benefits would be spread province wide. I’ll take your word on that comrade…

  • notimetoshine

    I am aware of that just one of the examples amongst many of the service professions

  • murdockp

    Non cognate just means any degree discipline but accounting.

  • Kev Hughes

    You’re kind of right but I think you’re lacking nuance there. This is on an iPhone so apologies in advance.

    ‘Non accounting graduates are a nighmare and require remedial courses in basic accounting’

    They require accounting courses, not remedial accounting, much like the accounting grads did. I think you mean they (non accounting grads) do a crash course.

    ‘The best accountants are those who qualify via the professsions internal Professional exam systems. 5 parts’

    I agree, but this is what non accounting grads also do to a large extent, as my sister and gf would testify to.

  • aquifer

    Yes the student teachers should clearly be educated together, and probably at post graduate level only. Students are arriving at University lacking basic English skills, and too many children are being left behind with weak skills. I have seen teachers with very low expectations for the children in their care. Not pretty, and not the children’s fault. I want teachers who loved and learned at least one subject well before being let loose on impressionable children.

    The Catholic Church should declare an interest. It needs money and new people. But people need better paid skilled jobs.

  • Croiteir

    Were do you get this idea that people are arriving at university lacking skills?

  • barnshee

    The OU is tough open entry -=-but high standards in examinations etc- Materials superb -(unlike some of the cack at the local unis)

  • chrisjones2

    No…but variety can be achieved without bricks and mortar and on a much larger scale – for example many us universities now offer distance learning. Why should more not go to Harvard online?

  • barnshee

    so thats 3/4 years for a degree and another 4/5 for the professional exams 8-10 years to qualify?

  • barnshee
  • Kev Hughes

    It can be, though not always. You can get dispensations from certain subjects in the ACA depending on what you did before. So a law gras with company law experience may not have to sit that.

    For my sister, she pretty much had to pass all her levels in 2/3 years or the big 4 firm she worked for would have cut her loose. It’s a pretty brutal experience but then big audit usually is.

  • Kev Hughes

    You’re happy with variety, just not in the north. To point out the obvious, those online courses eminate from bricks and mortar and the money paid for an online course would just leave the province and go there instead, losing the province money, ignoring the money we get from international students like all those Malaysians you might see walking down Wellsley Avenue, for instance.

  • Croiteir

    That is arriving at work – not university