Northern Ireland gains present of 10,000 places

January 1, 1999

The government has given Northern Ireland's further and higher education sector the Christmas present it wanted - 10,000 more student places.

But the gift came late. The boost, which brings the province closer into line with provision in England and in Scotland, has been demanded for at least the past ten years.

The province's 17 further education colleges will get the bulk of the increase, about 8,000 places over the next three years.

It is not clear how the other 2,000 places will be divided between Queen's University and the four-campus University of Ulster. Education minister John McFall said other decisions, which will include the priority to be given to the universities and colleges, will be a matter for Northern Ireland's Assembly.

He said the Assembly members, who are locked in negotiations over the implementation of the Good Friday agreement, recognise education's central role in developing a more tolerant society. Powers over education are due to be transferred to the Assembly from the present Northern Ireland Office of Education.

Speculation is rife that Sinn Fein could take over the education minister's position, although it appears unlikely.

A total of Pounds 39 million has been earmarked for further education, particularly that geared to promoting the government's lifelong learning aspirations, improving access by adults to flexible courses of education and training, giving more resources for capital and equipment at further education colleges and providing the Northern Ireland element of the proposed University for Industry.

In higher education, the package includes enhanced provision for university equipment and research and the underpinning of the Springvale initiative for a new west Belfast campus.

There was a broad welcome for the announcement, which followed an Adult Literacy Survey showing that more than a quarter of the province's 16 to 65-year-olds attain only the lowest level of literacy. But it also found that a small proportion of those with GCSE grades below A to C or with no qualifications performed at the higher literacy levels.

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