Struggling finances and brain drain afflicting Northern Irish HE

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Since the devolved administration elections, significant political changes in Wales and Scotland look like they will have a major impact upon higher education policy reform. Whilst the elections in Northern Ireland produced very little change to the political hue of the Northern Ireland Executive, there is still a great deal of change afoot for higher education policy, even before you consider the impact of Brexit.

Many outside of Northern Ireland are unaware of how its universities are regulated. The country’s two main universities, Queen’s University Belfast and Ulster University (three including the Open University), and two university colleges, St Mary’s and Stranmillis, have (until recently) been directly funded and regulated by the Executive through the Department for Employment and Learning (DELNI). Unlike Wales, Scotland and England, there is no quasi-independent buffer body separating the government of Northern Ireland and its universities.

As students of Northern Ireland will know, there is a unique power sharing arrangement in Stormont, the seat of the Northern Ireland government. The two leading parties in Northern Ireland – the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Sinn Féin – hold the balance of government influence using a system referred to as the D’Hondt method. Ministerial posts are allocated according to parties’ representation in the Assembly. The party winning the most seats assumes the premiership and some of the more significant departments.

However, the main governing parties may invite the smaller parties in the Assembly to join the Executive. The Alliance Party has held leadership of DELNI for the last five years. Whilst providing a competent and able minister in Dr Stephen Farry, the Alliance Party has not had the same political capital as DUP and Sinn Féin. Although an important department, DELNI’s smaller policy portfolio has been dwarfed by Finance, Health and Education. DELNI’s responsibilities – including higher education – have not been among the top priorities of the Northern Ireland Executive.

The end of DELNI

Before the election it was agreed that DELNI would be dissolved and its responsibilities for higher education transferred to a new, larger and more influential Department for the Economy. The new minister from the DUP, Simon Hamilton, was formerly minister for Finance and Personnel.

Furthermore, the Northern Ireland Assembly now has an opposition. Rather than agree to join the Executive power sharing arrangement, members from the Social Democrat and Labour Party (SDLP) and the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) have chosen to form an opposition. This was previously not possible under the terms of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement but a law passed by the Assembly in early 2016 allowed parties to opt out of forming the government.

What may this mean for higher education in Northern Ireland?

First off, it may signal an end to – or at least a reprieve from – the ongoing funding crisis facing Northern Ireland’s students and higher education providers. Higher education funding has been cut by £55.7 million, or 24%, over the past four years. This included multiple in-year cuts, making sustainable planning nearly impossible. Unlike England, these cuts have not been recouped through increasing student fees.

Ulster University and Queen’s have cut academic staff and student places, and an increasing number of Northern Irish students are leaving Northern Ireland to access higher education. An assembly analysis released in March reported that the cuts will result in 2,300 fewer places for Northern Irish students from 2016/17 to 2018/19.

Given EU arrangements on student fees, the Republic of Ireland is a major competitor for Northern Irish institutions as well as the rest of the UK. Unfortunately for Northern Ireland, many of these students do not return as graduates. This brain drain is exacerbating Northern Ireland’s economic challenges. The new minister, with the political clout of a governing party, may be in a position to help reverse the leaking of Northern Irish talent to Ireland and the rest of the UK. As for the impact of Brexit, it really is impossible to evaluate the impact presently until the UK’s negotiations with the EU are underway.

A new funding settlement?

The Executive may also reconsider how higher education is financed. Options were presented by Stephen Farry in ‘Securing a Sustainable Future for Higher Education in Northern Ireland’, published in February. The paper stopped short of making concrete recommendations, and instead presented a range of possible options, including a fee increase for Northern Irish students. At the moment, Northern Ireland’s universities’ ‘home’ students’ fees are capped at £3,805 per annum, and students from elsewhere in the UK may be charged up to £9,000 (Ulster charges £6,000 whilst Queen’s charges £9,000 for most programs). This fee gap creates a perverse incentive to pursue students from Scotland, England and Wales, rather than Northern Irish students, to make up the income lost through grant cuts.

A modest increase in the fee cap would strengthen Northern Ireland’s universities finances and empower them to develop access programs for Northern Ireland communities while reducing the pressure on limited public funding. By enabling institutions to re-expand the number of places available it might keep more Northern Irish students at Northern Irish universities, and increase the chance of graduates staying in Northern Ireland.

The Executive’s draft ‘Programme for Government’ proposes a series of key performance indicators for major policy objects. Higher education is mentioned, but its performance indicator is focused on the employability of graduates and not on improving the sustainability of universities. While it is important for the Department for the Economy to consider graduate employability, it is vital that the outstanding question of how to adequately fund Northern Ireland’s universities is dealt with. The Department’s objectives would be well served by an honest evaluation of how higher education in Northern Ireland is financed. The alternative is to continue losing valuable talent. The possibility of a higher profile for higher education in the new Department for the Economy may provide the opportunity for much needed reform, but it requires the political will to recognise the vital place higher education has in Northern Ireland’s future.

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