There was a horrible irony about the timing of Stephen Farry’s call yesterday to support our universities. “Higher education drives our knowledge economy by equipping our people with skills companies need to grow,” he said.
Yet this was the same day that Queen’s University revealed it must lose 236 staff to balance the books. Ulster University is also in a dire financial state, cutting staff and closing courses.
The cause of the crisis is a cut of more than £16m to universities. In means 500 student places will be lost between the two universities in the new academic year, rising to more than 1,900 places over the next few years. These cuts are another symptom of our dysfunctional Executive, with some being made almost randomly.
One option that Mr Farry wants considered is to raise tuition fees. These are limited to £3,805 In Northern Ireland, compared to £9,000 in England. The idea of students paying more is very unpopular and would hurt young adults and their families. But the current system is penalising the very people it is supposed to assist.
Typically, children from well-off families get the best exam grades. With fewer places on offer at our universities, we have grade inflation, meaning only students with the best exam results get into Queen’s or UU. The effect is children of poorer families are more likely to be faced with the choice of paying higher fees in Britain or missing out on an education. This is not the intention behind the policy of holding down fees.
Northern Ireland’s politicians need to make difficult decisions. The current deadlock has led to an unmanaged decline of our public finances, with irrational cuts to higher education funding, as well as the many other services that are in decline yet are essential to a healthy society.
It is time for Executive ministers not just to take their places again, but also to make coherent, collective decisions and show leadership to grow our economy and strengthen our society.