The performance and reputation of Northern Ireland’s higher education system are at risk of being “destroyed” by public funding cuts, university leaders have warned.
Patrick Johnston, vice-chancellor of Russell Group institution Queen’s University Belfast, told Times Higher Education that the Stormont executive needed to consider increasing tuition fees or boosting public funding after his institution announced plans to cut 236 jobs and reduce student numbers by 1,010, in response to a cut in support from the Department of Employment and Learning that is expected to amount to about £8 million in 2015-16.
“Queen’s is a world-class university and my fear is that we will destroy that very quickly if we are not careful,” Professor Johnston said.
The staffing changes will be carried out by December, with compulsory redundancies a possibility if voluntary reductions cannot be made, while the student intake reduction will take place over three years, starting with a reduction of 290 this autumn.
Professor Johnston will lead a strategic review tasked with deciding which academic programmes should continue and which should be closed.
The underfunding of Northern Irish institutions compared with their counterparts in the rest of the UK meant that Queen’s would be forced to focus on courses that are particularly high quality, reflect strategic priorities or attract large numbers of lucrative postgraduate and international students, he said.
Professor Johnston warned that a shrinking of the graduate workforce would seriously damage Northern Ireland’s economy.
He said “options that have to be explored” include “higher tuition fees and…increased public funding; we cannot continue in a setting where these things don’t become part of the discussion about how we are going to properly fund Queen’s and the University of Ulster”.
Deirdre Heenan, pro vice-chancellor (communications) at Ulster, agreed that the choice had to be between increased investment and higher fees.
But she said that questions had “to be asked about the competence of [the] devolved government” and its ability to lead that debate, highlighting how the funding problems facing Stormont had been exacerbated by the power-sharing executive’s inability to reach a decision on implementing welfare reforms.
Austerity had been displaced on to sectors such as higher education as a result, she argued.
“These cuts can only be mitigated in one of two ways, and this is about a devolved government making choices, setting priorities and agreeing that, with power, comes responsibility,” Professor Heenan said. “Simply to say ‘we are not going to make a decision’ and ignoring the knock-on impact…is a derogation of their responsibilities.”
Stephen Farry, the minister for employment and learning and a member of the nonsectarian Alliance Party, said that he shared many of the criticisms that had been directed at the power-sharing executive.
He said that he would be starting a conversation “very shortly” about how the province’s higher education sector could be funded in the future.