The vice-chancellors of Queen’s University Belfast and Ulster University said they expected their spending power for 2015-16 to be cut by “at least 10.8 per cent” after the allocation for the Department for Employment and Learning was reduced by nearly £82 million in the draft Stormont budget.
Confirming, in a joint statement, the proposal to reduce student numbers by a joint total of up to 1,100, Patrick Johnston of Queen’s and Richard Barnett of Ulster said the cuts put the future of Northern Ireland’s economy “at risk”.
The vice-chancellors said most of the students would be forced to leave for England or Scotland, where they would be charged tuition fees of £9,000.
“Past experience suggests that the majority of our young people who are forced to leave will never return,” the statement said. “And the irony is that the Northern Ireland Executive will still have to cover a significant part of the cost of educating these students. In effect, the executive will be encouraging local talent to leave Northern Ireland whilst subsidising universities in England and Scotland.”
The universities have already been ordered to make in-year cuts amounting to approximately 4 per cent of their budget and the statement put the four-year figure at 18 per cent.
If Queen’s and Ulster were located in England, they would have an additional £45 million to spend on students and services every year, the vice-chancellors claimed, warning that “further cuts cannot just be absorbed” and would instead “have a significant and long-term impact”.
The damage will be felt widely, the vice-chancellors said, highlighting the £1.5 billion contribution higher education makes to the province’s economy and the potential impact on research.
The graduates produced by Northern Irish universities are one of the province’s “biggest selling points” for inward investors, the vice-chancellors said.
“Reducing the number of graduates will affect the skills base and ultimately have a devastating impact on this region’s investment proposition,” the statement said.
The Stormont executive is facing a £160 million reduction in its grant from the Treasury, but spending pressures mean departments must find additional savings totalling more than £870 million.
Some of the problems are caused by the executive’s failure to strike a deal on welfare reforms that were passed by the UK government last year.
The grant that Northern Ireland receives from London has been reduced on the assumption that the welfare reforms have been implemented and have achieved savings. But implementation in the province has been blocked by Sinn Fein and the SDLP.