Northern Ireland's education minister has defended his "hands-on" relationship with the region's two universities after setting them a detailed list of targets for improvement, including altering course provision to meet the economy's needs.
Last week, the devolved administration's Department for Employment and Learning set out a higher education strategy listing detailed aims in 16 areas, ranging from the amount of money to be raised from intellectual property to improving dropout rates every year until 2020.
Graduating to Success asks Queen's University Belfast and the University of Ulster to draw up plans by next year to "rebalance" course portfolios to serve the economy's needs.
Richard Barnett, Ulster vice-chancellor, said that while he was happy to change courses to aid growth, it was "almost impossible" to anticipate what skills would be needed, especially in a "small economy" like Northern Ireland. "No organisation can predict what industry will need in four years' time," he said.
The document calls for 700 extra science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) places by 2014-15.
It also seeks an increase in the proportion of graduates and postgraduates in "economically relevant subjects", such as physical and biological sciences, mathematical and computer science, engineering and technology, to 22 per cent by 2020. In 2008, the figure was 18 per cent.
Professor Barnett said he favoured a shift towards STEM courses, but added that the "North American system is much better", with students there taking "broad-based undergraduate degrees and then you do the specific [postgraduate] training".
Stephen Farry, the employment and learning minister, said the term "economically relevant" did not refer only to STEM subjects, but could also encompass areas like the arts and modern languages. He said he envisioned a "shift on the margins...not a massive overhaul in courses".
Dr Farry denied that the strategy encroached on university autonomy, and said he was "not envisioning any form of stick" should either institution fail to meet the targets.
"It reflects the different nature of politics and government in Northern Ireland. We are much more hands-on in our relationship with the universities," he said.
Tony Gallagher, pro vice-chancellor at Queen's University Belfast, said the institution was "reasonably happy" with the strategy, but added: "I don't think we would be saying: 'Let's cut our arts programmes by half' [to support a shift to STEM]."
The strategy also says that by 2020 recruitment of international students "should be catching up with the rest of the UK".
By 2020, according to the plan, the two universities must have undertaken 1,140 business engagements. They must also have secured £6.94 million in consultancy fees and £863,000 in income from intellectual property by July 2013.
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