Last week it was reported that Northern Ireland’s two universities will be required to reduce their intake by 1100 students, due to tight budget constraints which are expected to be enforced by the Stormont Executive in 2015/16. Both Queen’s University Belfast and Ulster University are expected to face 10.8% of cuts, following the release of a draft budget, detailing a funding cut of £82 million for the Department for Employment and Learning in the forthcoming year.

Professors Patrick Johnston (Vice Chancellor at Queen’s University Belfast) and Richard Barnett (Vice Chancellor of Ulster University), have warned of the dangers a 10.8% cut will directly have within Northern Ireland, not only upon the lives of young people, but also to the wider economy.

Speaking to BBC NI Good Morning Ulster, Professor Barnett said that this is an issue which is “fundamentally about the future of our young people”, and a reduction in the number of university places, “will be a loss to Northern Ireland” as students will “go elsewhere”. 

Professor Patrick Johnston echoed Professor Barnett’s concerns, stating that “35% of 18 year old have to go elsewhere, as we don’t have the university places (in Northern Ireland). That’s going to rise above 40% if these cuts are implemented…which is very damaging”.

Both Vice-Chancellors expressed their concerns about “social inclusion”, as reducing the amount of university places will remove the opportunity for “all sections of our society can get high incomes jobs”.

Due to the reduced financial support which will be available to both universities next year, Professor Johnston said, “the bottom line here, is that we now have to have a discussion about what the make up (of the funding gap) is, because we are not funding higher education enough to make it sustainable for the future.”

There has been much speculation as to the type of measures that should be implemented to the reduce the funding gap for higher education, the most controversial of which is an increase of tuition fees. Today Finance Minister Simon Hamilton told the Assembly that he had “listened with interest to the contribution by the two vice chancellors last week”, and that “an argument could be made for a small increase in student fees, that would go to support the higher education sector through some of the difficulties it is going to have in the next financial year.”

A rise in tuition fees is something which many students have shown great opposition towards, particularly at QUB. During Thursday nights first student council session, an emergency motion was passed, “to oppose all increases in tuition fees for NI students, GB students and international students for the next 5 years and to advocate for additional funding to be sought from the public sector.” 

Last night The Scoop was joined by NUS-USI Vice President, Fergal McFerran, and we asked him if he was surprised that some QUB Student Councillors voted in favour of the cuts proposed by the Stormont Executive. Fergal stated, “there is always going to be a contrast in opinion on some of these issues…I think it’s understandable when people are elected to be student councillors that they are political individuals, and I completely understand that some people voted in the way they did regardless of whether or not I agreed or disagreed with that.” 

In relation to an increase in tuition fees Fergal said, “whilst for some they seem like an easy solution, and might win the cause in the media of fixing the problem, that does not necessarily make them a sustainable or socially justifiable one, and we (NUS-USI) will oppose any rise in fees.” 

Fergal went on to say that “Northern Ireland has a unique context…education has a role beyond the norm here…in the british isles, else where and in other parts of the world, tuition fees may not discourage less well off people from going to university, but in Northern Ireland there’s a role for education in transforming our society more holistically. We’re still in a post conflict situation. There’s very clearly still issues in society, and education has a fundamental role in overcoming that.”

Fergal told The Scoop, that students who oppose the cuts facing the Department of Education and Learning, “shouldn’t wait for anyone to tell them what to do, they should organise themselves, speak to their own students union, speak to their elected officers within their student’s unions, and get in touch with NUS-USI.” 

On Monday 17th November 2014 at 5pm, NUS-USI are hosting a meeting for anyone who wants to be part of the national campaign against the cuts, led by the overarching higher education organisation. The meeting will take place in the NUS-USI Headquarters. All students are welcome.

Tori Watson

Tori Watson

Tori our resident stop-at-nothing reporter, editing and writing the majority of all current news content QR has online, whilst presenting QR's dedicated news show, The Scoop. Follow The Scoop and Tori on twitter and keep up-to-date with Queen's and Belfast in general.
Tori Watson