Education a priority for NI executive

July 21, 2000

Sean Farren, Northern Ireland's minister for higher and further education, training and employment, has flagged up further education as his priority in the resurrected power sharing executive.

He said that further education had suffered from underdevelopment and needed considerable investment in "run down" buildings and equipment.

"We are following the Private Finance Initiative route to try to expedite the provision of better buildings and facilities for colleges and we want to help them develop in ways that will give them a greater sense of mission in the whole tertiary sector," he said.

Dr Farren said devolution was giving tertiary education "the sense of self-respect and the pride that comes from the fact that we are doing things for ourselves".

The new executive had an understanding of local issues when setting its priorities, which had been difficult under direct rule, particularly as previous ministers' portfolios had spanned a range of departments.

"I see people in the further and higher education sector regularly, some might say too regularly. The access that people have is, I think, appreciated," said Dr Farren.

The Department of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment will shortly produce its review of student support, initiated by Dr Farren. The National Union of Students-Union of Students in Ireland has bemoaned the lack of public debate and urged further consultation on the DHFETE recommendations.

But Dr Farren has rejected this, arguing that it would delay decisions that need to be made shortly if there are to be changes from 2001 onwards.

The consultation document had been widely disseminated and the responses covered all the main interest groups, he said.

"It's difficult to make a clear-cut judgment, as some people are, that 50 to 60 responses is poor."

Dr Farren met Henry McLeish, Scotland's minister for enterprise and lifelong learning, to get a first-hand account of the Scottish Executive's reaction to the Cubie inquiry into student finance, but refuses to say whether he wants Northern Ireland to mirror Scotland on tuition fees and bursaries.

Despite the ongoing disquiet about the thousands of students leaving Northern Ireland, he highlighted the creation of 2,600 places since 1999 and pledged more places once the new further and higher education campus at Springvale opened in 2002.

"With two universities, we are never going to cover all the disciplines," he said. "We have a high participation rate in third-level education. There's a high demand for further and higher education. We are committed to try to meet as much of that as we can, but it's unlikely that we will cover all disciplines to match the demand, particularly in competitive areas."

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