A strategy void adds to troubles

May 9, 1997

Northern Ireland can't keep its students. The THES looks at the troubled province in its latest regional spotlight

Whatever the outcome of the Dearing inquiry, Northern Ireland arguably has the most to win or lose by any change or lack of it, given its anomalous position within the United Kingdom.

While the English, Scots and Welsh have their own higher education funding councils and autonomy for their further education colleges, Northern Ireland's funding council has a purely advisory function and its 17 FE colleges remain under the control of the education and library boards.

Educational strategy is conspicuous by its absence. The Queen's University of Belfast and the University of Ulster are tagged to the end of policies from the Higher Education Funding Council for England, with their funds coming through the Department of Education for Northern Ireland. There is no full-time education minister, since the ministerial portfolio also includes political development, and negotiations with political parties dominate the workload.

Ulster University believes a buffer body is needed, distancing higher education from DENI. It proposes a joint further and higher education funding council. This would allow "regionally sensitive interpretations of national policy", it says.

Student unions in Ireland support a tertiary education funding and planning council, but Sir Gordon Beveridge, vice chancellor of Queen's University, is more wary.

A funding council for higher education alone would be a waste of local money, he believes, but there would also be risks in a tertiary council. "It would be a mistake to link the funding because I suspect money would leak out of the higher education system more than it does at the moment. If there is a further education need for funds, which there is, that should be satisfied directly and not by links between further and higher education."

There are undoubted tensions between Queen's, a traditional broad-based university, and Ulster, formed by the country's first transbinary merger, with staff treading an uneasy path between competition and collaboration. But they have joined together to combat two major sources of grievance, the imposition of HEFCE's cap on student numbers and the clawback of Government research funds.

The universities see the maximum aggregate student number cap as inappropriate in the province, since it has a dramatic undersupply of places compared with elsewhere in the UK. The unwritten Conservative policy of studying close to home is an impossibility for many applicants.

After the resumption of violence in the province, the Tory government axed research funding to help underwrite its increased security bill. Hitting local public spending can be seen as pressurising the various factions to support the peace process, but the universities are dismayed by the cut, which they warn will lead to job losses.

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