Out of the shadows in Ulster

June 19, 1998

WEIGHTY matters on the higher education agenda will be affected by the outcome of elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly next Thursday for which the politicians are busy preparing.

On the assumption that the elections produce a majority of members prepared to make the assembly work, there is still a shadow period of six to eight months before the transfer of powers in designated areas takes place next year.

The shadow period is designed to allow for the preparatory work on north-south collaborative bodies to be put in place. If this does not happen because of the obstructive behaviour of those who are opposed to the Good Friday agreement, the assembly and the agreement fall.

During the shadow period, the assembly ministers-designate will work alongside the existing Northern Ireland Office ministers before taking departmental responsibilities when the powers are transferred. This period will be awkward for both existing ministers and their shadows. There is a debate already over whether difficult issues should be cleared over the next six months to give the incoming minister and the assembly time to settle in or, if democratic accountability means anything, should such decisions be left to the newly elected forum for Northern Ireland?

While these matters are most stark in relation to the rationalisation of acute health services, there are a number of further and higher education matters to be resolved.

For example, it is clear from research that many of the 40 per cent of Northern Irish students who leave the province to go to institutions in Scotland and Northern England would prefer to stay to study. This is partly based on the need to reduce costs in the light of the new arrangements for maintenance and fees.

But the positive mood engendered by the referendum result (which owed much to the support from young people) is leading prospective students to reappraise their desire to leave.

At the moment, however, the two universities in Northern Ireland are capped in terms of full-time numbers - realistically there is little scope for accommodating the extra students who would prefer to stay. True, the announcement of the go-ahead for the new University of Ulster/ Belfast Institute of Further and Higher Education campus in West Belfast does offer some full-time equivalent extra places in higher and further education. But this is a long way short of the 5,000 additional places recommended in the Dearing report to meet the under-supply in Northern Ireland.

If the government wants to provide a new future for young people in Northern Ireland and to capitalise on the new optimism, will it give them more of a chance to make a contribution by staying? Or will it bow to the current Treasury-driven orthodoxy that it does not matter about the 40 per cent exodus because the demand is being met "in a United Kingdom context"?

There is also the relationship the higher education sector will have with the new assembly. Up to now the arrangement has been that the Department of Education for Northern Ireland funds the two universities with advice from the Northern Ireland Higher Education Council. The Higher Education Funding Council for England provides the basis for core funding for research and teaching etc, through a service contract.

However, it is clearly not in the interests of higher education to have such a funding relationship with a minister drawn from the assembly and subject to the populist demands that are likely to develop. There is a clear need for a classic intermediate organisation to mediate between the universities and the new political institutions.

This means that the Northern Ireland Higher Education Council would need to become a funding body and, given the small size of Northern Ireland, to extend its role to further education. The Welsh model might provide a template. Putting the council on this new basis would also provide a much better foundation for entering into the new cross-border higher and further education collaboration that will undoubtedly develop.

The next few months will determine whether Northern Ireland is launched into a peaceful and stable future under a local administration.

Tony Worthington, the Northern Ireland minister responsible for education, has a chance to make his contribution to this prospect. Let us hope he can take it.

Bob Osborne is professor of applied policy studies at the University of Ulster.

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