The University Challenge

Universities are at the heart of the modern economy, with graduate skills an essential element in growing productivity and generating wealth. Yet the two Irish jurisdictions have surprisingly different approaches to the higher education sector. While the Republic has continued to increase undergraduate numbers during the recession, Northern Ireland is cutting an already small university sector as part of its austerity cut-backs.

Northern Ireland’s two universities issued a rare joint statement in response to a real and growing crisis in higher education funding. “The economic impact studies of Queen’s University Belfast and Ulster University, published by Universities UK, found that in 2012-13 they contributed £1.5 billion to the Northern Ireland economy, with over 18,000 jobs created or supported by these two institutions alone,” they said as part of a plea to raise government funding levels.

The university sector in Northern Ireland was already the smallest of any part of the UK, whether measured in absolute terms or per capita. While the Northern Ireland Executive spends 1.9% of its budget on higher education, in the UK as a whole the figure is 2.5% and in Scotland it is 3.0%. But as a result of UK government cut-backs to Northern Ireland’s budget, higher and further education expenditure is falling, rather than catching up with the rest of the UK.

The impact of this is a significant reduction in the number of lecturers, support staff, courses and student numbers. Queen’s is cutting 290 student places per year, which will result in a reduction in 870 places over the next three years. In addition, the university is losing 236 jobs. Queen’s declined to say what the impact of this is will be on its accountancy courses. A spokeswoman said: “Unfortunately I am unable to disclose any more information regarding these statistics.” At present, Queen’s offers three accountancy courses: BSc Honours Accounting, plus another with French and one with Spanish.

Ulster University had not, at the time of going to press, disclosed the scale of its cut-backs. One employee, speaking anonymously, said that staff had been told there will be 1,200 fewer students in three years’ time than there are today. A spokeswoman for the University responded: “Ulster University is currently working through the budget cuts planning process.” She added that at present it offers more than 20 accountancy courses, including MSc and diploma accounting, accounting with finance and accounting with law courses.

It is strange that Northern Ireland is reducing in size its already small university sector and the approach is at odds with the Northern Ireland Executive’s own Economic Strategy, published in 2012, which states that one of its priorities is to “improve the skills and employability of the entire workforce so that people can progress up the skills ladder, thereby delivering higher productivity and increased social inclusion”. Moreover, the strategy recognised that one of its key challenges facing NI is to raise the level of skills, explaining that “many of the countries identified in our review of global best practice have skills profiles that are much stronger than in NI”.

The cuts to the North’s higher education budget are part of a wider financial crisis, caused by the combination of the reduction in grant from Westminster and the impasse over welfare reform (which is leading to further grant losses). That situation is exacerbated in higher education by tuition fee policy. While Northern Ireland undergraduates who go to university in Great Britain are charged £9,000 a year tuition fees, those fees at Ulster and Queen’s (for students from NI and the Republic) have been capped by the Northern Ireland Executive at £3,805.

Yet the North’s minister with responsibility for universities, Dr Stephen Farry, recognises the need to expand higher education provision in order to improve economic performance and create jobs. The centrepiece of the attempt to rebalance the NI economy away from public sector dependence is to reduce corporation tax down from the existing UK rate of 20% to match the 12.5% of the Republic. According to the Department for Employment and Learning, an extra 38,000 jobs could be created in the North by 2033 if it began to match the Republic’s tax rate in 2017.

But Minister Farry said that to achieve this the graduate skills base needs to expand. He told the Northern Ireland Assembly “if we seek to fund a lower level of corporation tax by continuing along the current path of cuts to economic drivers, including our colleges and universities, the lower level of corporation tax will be counterproductive and not produce the results that we are expecting”. But his desire to expand, or even maintain, undergraduate numbers has been over-ruled by his Executive colleagues, who have insisted on cuts.

Certainly, the experience of the Republic is that graduate skills are central to economic performance, the growth of indigenous businesses and the attraction of foreign direct investment. Academic and government studies have concluded that attracting FDI was the result not just of low tax rates, but also the English language – important for US investors – grant assistance to investors, a flexible labour market and, above all, a strong education and skills base.

The expansion in university provision in the Republic over recent decades has been staggering. In 1965, just over 18,000 third level students were enrolled. By 1985, this had multiplied to nearly 53,500. In 2003, this had risen further to almost 134,000 and has continued since, even during the recession, and by last year it had reached just short of 147,500.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Education and Skills explains: “A key element of the Government’s strategy for economic and social development is to ensure that Ireland has the right skills to attract, retain and grow job opportunities, investment and economic growth. Improving our levels of educational attainment makes Ireland a more attractive location for foreign direct investment as well as being a driver for innovation and productivity and increasing levels of entrepreneurship.”

A 2007 government report reflected that “this increase in supply of skilled graduates had a very significant effect in influencing inward investment by multi-nationals both in terms of expectation of an increased supply of skilled graduates and a perception that the Irish government were responsive to the needs of the ICT industry and were prepared to develop rapid policy and practical responses to those expressed needs”.

The Republic’s higher education sector is seeking continued expansion, not just by appealing to the domestic population, but also by attracting international students – plus many more from Northern Ireland. In order to take more students from the North, universities in the Republic have changed admission criteria, accepting three A levels instead of requiring 4 As. Trinity College Dublin hopes now to triple the intake of students from NI. With about 20,000 Northern Ireland young adults studying in higher education institutions in England, Wales and Scotland at any one time, there is an obvious opportunity for universities in the Republic to expand further.

Whether Northern Ireland will eventually increase the size of its university sector is difficult to predict. The budgetary crisis afflicting the Northern Ireland Assembly is showing no signs –as AB went to press – of being resolved. Without the funds to pay for more students, Northern Ireland will continue to export one in three of its undergraduates. The Northern ‘brain drain’ is unlikely to end soon.



The accountancy dimension

University graduates are a major source of talent for the Big Four firms. Orla Graham, head of HR at Deloitte Ireland, explains: “Attracting top graduate talent is a strategic imperative and core to our successful growth. At Deloitte we recruit up to 200 graduates each year, across all departments. Applications are encouraged from students of all academic disciplines, including accounting, business, law, science, technology, engineering, and maths, amongst others. And for that reason, we engage with universities and colleges across Ireland on a regular basis.”

PwC works closely with several third level institutions, in particular Trinity College Dublin; University College Dublin; Dublin City University; the University of Limerick; the National University of Ireland, Galway; University College Cork; the National University of Ireland, Maynooth; and Waterford Institute of Technology.

Evelyn Kelly, a senior HR manager at PwC in Dublin, explains: “We seek to attract well rounded students with a strong academic record and ideally some exposure to a professional work environment, often gained through a college placement or summer internship is a strong advantage. We look for students that demonstrate strong technical ability, commercial awareness, investment in relationships and global acumen. Students must show evidence of their ability to apply their skills in order to predict future success within a client centric professional services environment. “We attract students from non-relevant backgrounds, including STEM and humanities, so we are not just looking at business and accounting degree students. Our on-campus graduate campaign ensures that each new intake of over 270 graduates is diverse. Every graduate hired must successfully demonstrate the desired skills and behaviours contained within the global PwC professional framework. PwC use this leadership framework globally to recruit, develop and access people at all grades and in all areas of the business.

“We work closely with academics and career services in the universities to continuously promote our summer internship, placement and graduate training opportunities throughout the year. We recruit students across all degree and masters disciplines. We would like students to bring with them their team work, time management, innovation, networking, communication, adaptability, analytical and problem solving skills, to add value to clients of the business.”

In the North, the employment and learning minister Dr Stephen Farry is encouraging unemployed graduates to apply to join PwC’s Data Analytics Academy. The Academy is now in its second year, supporting learning in data analytics, and was developed jointly by his department with PwC and the Belfast Metropolitan College. It is aimed at graduates in any discipline and is an intensive eight week training programme. All students accepted on the first Academy programme completed the coruse and were offered employment with PwC.

Paul Terrington, regional chairman of PwC in Northern Ireland, says: “As one of the region’s largest graduate employers we are constantly looking to recruit talent, particularly in data analytics where our clients worldwide are increasingly looking to PwC in Northern Ireland for advice and expertise.”



Higher Education in Ireland

Ireland is ranked number one in World Competitiveness Ranking for Skilled Labour.

Ireland is ranked number one for third level qualifications among 30 to 34 year olds.

Ireland is ranked number one in OECD for rate of return on investment.

Employment rate: with junior certificate, 51%

with leaving certificate, 66%

with higher education qualification, 83%.

Irish Exchequer funding to higher education institutions: €1.393bn in 2008; €939m in 2014.

Source: Irish Universities Association

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