Failure to reform Northern Ireland’s “unsustainable” higher education funding model will lead to a brain drain that will undermine the province’s long-term economic future, a new study says.
The current period of “unprecedented underfunding” is also likely to damage the quality and reputation of its two universities – Queen’s University Belfast and Ulster University – which generated £1.5 billion and £845 million respectively for the region in 2013, according to the report by the Royal Irish Academy, Ireland’s leading body of experts in the sciences, humanities and social sciences.
The academy’s advice paper calls on Northern Ireland’s politicians to make higher education reform a “high priority” once local elections have taken place on 5 May.
Assembly politicians and the Northern Ireland executive must invest at least £55 million more a year from 2017-18 to make up the funding gap, allow the annual tuition fees charged to Northern Irish students, now £3,805, to rise to £9,000 a year, or find a middle way between the two remedies, says the Dublin-based organisation.
“There is no magic formula that will allow Northern Ireland to simultaneously offer a relatively low-fee, high-quality university system with low government support,” it says.
The lower fees, allied with grant cuts, mean Northern Ireland’s universities received £1,000 to £2,500 less per student than universities in England in 2014-15, says the paper.
“It is inconceivable that Northern Ireland’s universities will be able to maintain quality standards and reputation comparable to their counterparts and competitors in Britain and elsewhere while being funded at substantially lower levels per student,” it explains.
Efforts to boost the economy in Northern Ireland by cutting taxes, which experts believe could create 90,000 jobs and economic growth worth £300 million a year, are likely to be undermined by the loss of prestige and capacity of the two landmark universities, the paper adds.
It may also lead to a skills shortage, with the province already reporting an undersupply of 1,600 individuals a year with expertise in science, engineering and technology skills, it adds.
Recent cuts of £16 million – leading to the loss of 350 staff posts and 500 student places in 2016 – indicate the perils of the current funding regime, the paper adds.
The failure to address the situation will “lead inevitably to a decline in the quality and reputation of Northern Ireland’s universities and their graduates, shortages of skills to support a rebalancing economy, further loss of local higher education student places and an associated increased ‘brain drain’”, it adds.
Stephen Farry, the minister for employment and learning and a member of the non-sectarian Alliance Party, launched the “Big Conversation” consultation in September 2015 on the issue, stating that the current funding situation is “unsustainable”.
While roughly trebling tuition fees would be “politically challenging” for the region’s power-sharing executive, the paper states that an “appropriate and sustainable HE funding model is an essential condition for a prosperous and inclusive Northern Ireland”.