Ulster University: Cuts

Oral Answers to Questions — Employment and Learning – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:45 pm on 15th September 2015.

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Photo of Robin Swann Robin Swann UUP 2:45 pm, 15th September 2015

3. Mr Swann asked the Minister for Employment and Learning what consultation he had with the Ulster University prior to the announcement it was reducing course, staff and student provision. (AQO 8647/11-16)

Photo of John Dallat John Dallat Social Democratic and Labour Party

13. Mr Dallat asked the Minister for Employment and Learning to outline the business case for the recent Ulster University redundancies at the Coleraine and Magee campuses. (AQO 8657/11-16)

Photo of Stephen Farry Stephen Farry Alliance

Mr Principal Deputy Speaker, with your permission, I wish to group questions 3 and 13 and would like to request an additional minute for the answer.

Following publication of the Executive's draft budget in November 2014, my Department published a consultation outlining the possible impact on a wide range of functions and services across the Department as well as the potential impact on the universities and colleges, including a likely reduction in student places and staff numbers. Following that consultation, efforts were made to mitigate the cuts to the higher education sector. The cuts to the universities were the last resort to balance the overall budget.

I have had ongoing discussions with Ulster University on the possible implications of those substantial budget reductions. While my Department provides funding and sets the strategic direction for the higher education sector, universities are autonomous bodies and are responsible for their own course provision and staffing levels. During the discussions, I highlighted the need to reflect the ambitions of the Executive and the objectives of the Department, including the protection of narrow STEM subjects. To provide the university with some flexibility and to help mitigate the impact of the budget reduction, I have reduced the minimum requirement for direct expenditure on widening participation to 10% of the additional student fee income. That reinvestment of student fee income is undertaken to promote widening participation through outreach activities and support to less advantaged students.

I understand that the university will rationalise its offerings across its campuses, with Coleraine specialising in biosciences and Magee in computing, engineering and Irish history. The university has already indicated the scale of the job losses and the loss of places in the current academic year and over future years. The size of the cuts is a clear indication of the severity of the budget reductions faced by my Department, the university and the higher education sector.

Before making decisions on course provision and staffing levels, the universities take a number of factors into account, including my Department's priorities, the needs of the economy and student demand. Reviewing course provision is part of the normal annual cycle and is good business practice. It is a reflection of the current budget position that this has led Ulster University to close some courses and to consolidate others. In relation to the business case for staff redundancies, my Department does not have a role in approving business cases for redundancies at Coleraine, Magee or indeed any other Ulster University campus.

Photo of Robin Swann Robin Swann UUP

I thank the Minister for his very detailed answer. The question that I asked was actually about what consultation you had with the Ulster University prior to the announcement. You are fully aware of and you detailed the cuts that were coming, and, at some stage, there surely should have been input from the Minister or the Department with both universities to make sure that there was still provision for the likes of languages in Northern Ireland. That has now been completely lost to our graduates.

Photo of Stephen Farry Stephen Farry Alliance

First of all, let me stress that there have been ongoing discussions between me and senior officials in both universities and at official level on how we plan for the cuts. The decision has not been taken in a vacuum. In particular, there were a number of aspects of those discussions. We have focused on the desire to protect narrow STEM subjects, which are the science, technology, engineering and mathematics subjects. We have also had discussions about how we can give the universities some ability to free up how they use their resources with a view to maximising the number of student places that are retained. It was in that context that we reduced the minimum requirement of spend of additional fee income on widening participation from 25% to 10%. That action alone has probably managed to save a couple of hundred places in each of Queen's University and Ulster University.

Ultimately, the decisions to be made are for the university to make based on a number of factors. I am certainly conscious that they have approached this in a strategic manner. Obviously, a number of course closures will spark a reaction. Indeed, all course closures should spark a reaction, but it is important that what lies beneath those decisions is analysed in greater depth, such as the factors around things like enrolment levels and where students are coming from.

Photo of John Dallat John Dallat Social Democratic and Labour Party

I listened very carefully to the Minister. I am absolutely delighted that he is here today despite his party's best efforts to collapse the Assembly through its support for adjournment. Now that he is here, can he tell us this: is the Ulster University now at variance with our economic strategy, which aims to educate young people to a standard where they are capable of attracting new inward investment — that is, of course, a main argument for dealing with corporation tax — or, as I suspect, is the Minister sitting on his hands?

Photo of Stephen Farry Stephen Farry Alliance

First, I would have thought that a very experienced Deputy Speaker would know the rules about supplementary questions being relevant to the original question. However, given that he has mentioned the wider political scene, let me address that. The actions taken by my party were about creating stability to allow the context for talks to occur, and the fact that we are currently having talks about talks vindicates that in some respects. The situation that we face is one of huge uncertainty. That said, I continue in my role as Minister, and I am fully committed to delivering on my responsibilities in all my functions on skills and employability. I am certainly not sitting on my hands today or, indeed, any other day.

Let me be very clear: we are in difficulties with how we ensure that we live up to the ambitions of the agreed economic strategy of the Executive. We know that skills are the key driver behind the transformation of the economy that we want to see, and, very sadly, we are de-investing in our skills offer across a range of fronts. Any loss of university places means that we are offering fewer locally provided higher-level skills, and that is detrimental to our economy.

We will act strategically to try to protect the areas that are most relevant to the needs of our economy, and it is in that context that we made the request to the universities to protect the narrow STEM subjects, given that those have been particularly cited by local companies and investors. There is a particular issue with modern languages, and we need to see what other provision can be made, particularly how we can use the academy model that we devised under our Assured Skills programme to see whether we can address some of the very particular business requirements for languages that companies have identified.

Photo of Phil Flanagan Phil Flanagan Sinn Féin 3:00 pm, 15th September 2015

Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as ucht a fhreagra. I declare an interest as a current student of the Ulster University.

Given the launch of his Big Conversation this morning, will the Minister indicate what help his Department can provide to the Ulster University to help it to increase the private investment that it gets from students and companies without looking directly at increasing tuition fees?

Photo of Stephen Farry Stephen Farry Alliance

First, I welcome Sinn Féin's conversion to the free market. The best way that the universities can prosper is not through state funding; they need to go out and find money from the private sector. Of course, there has to be a balance between a range of funding sources, including the state, and greater access to private funding. We see that happening in areas such as knowledge transfer through programmes such as Connected and the Higher Education Innovation Fund (HEIF). It is also worth noting that the business community interaction of our local universities is, proportionally, well in excess of our population share in the United Kingdom. That is an area in which our universities have been very proactive.

There is scope for improvement in our ability to access research funding from the UK research councils. We are also looking to see what we can do to draw more money down from Horizon 2020. The Member will know that we have a contact point in place in conjunction with the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment. We have dedicated people to assist with applications to the European Union and are seeing some very positive developments in that regard. Those are some of the things that are happening across the universities. Ultimately, if people think that simply passing it on to the private sector to fill the void will somehow allow us to duck the fundamental challenge of resolving how the state interacts with the universities, they are deluding themselves. That is the core issue and where the key aspect needs to be addressed.

Photo of Basil McCrea Basil McCrea NI21

On the financial stability of the university sector, given what you know, do you anticipate further redundancies in following financial years unless action is taken?

Photo of Stephen Farry Stephen Farry Alliance

At this stage, the announcements that have been made are in the context of the cuts that have made. As those cuts are in the baseline of the Department, the universities will project that ahead. As we meet today, it is worth noting that we are literally only a matter of weeks away from decisions having to be made by the Executive on a draft Budget for the 2016-17 financial year, although that is presupposing that we get through the issues about managing the existing 2015-16 Budget, which, as Members will know, is considerably out of balance. Within that, it remains to be seen what direction we will take for funding for higher education. In the context that decisions deteriorate ever further and have an impact on funding, there may be a further impact on student places and the ability to retain staff.

Photo of Steven Agnew Steven Agnew Green

The Minister spoke about the independence of the university. What strategic role does he have in those decisions; for example, the decision to close the school of modern languages, leaving us in Northern Ireland without third-level education in German? That seems to be counter-strategic, given his aims. What influence can he bring to bear?

Photo of Stephen Farry Stephen Farry Alliance

Universities are autonomous bodies; they are not NDPBs. There is the false assumption that they operate under a similar governance structure to a range of other public bodies. However, the state provides them with considerable funding. We interact with them through a number of areas. With regard to their funding each year, a funding letter sets out a number of expectations, and within that we have focused on the protection of STEM, how they can interact with the apprenticeship strategy and our expectations on widening participation. We also have in place Graduating to Success, a higher education strategy that was published in April 2012. That remains a live document, and it was devised in cooperation with all our higher education institutions. That is being implemented, and, notwithstanding the current challenges with budget, we are still working through those projects. Indeed, a number of those projects have now been concluded.

Photo of Claire Sugden Claire Sugden Independent

I asked this question as a priority, but the Minister is late in answering it, so I am happy for him to answer me now. Has he received an HR 1 about the loss of the school and the subsequent redundancies from the Ulster University?

Photo of Stephen Farry Stephen Farry Alliance

No, not at this stage. We would not necessarily expect to see one, because this will be in effect from the 2016-17 academic year. There are discussions ongoing in the university about exactly how it handles this.