Higher Education: Sustainable Funding

Oral Answers to Questions — Employment and Learning – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:15 pm on 12th October 2015.

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Photo of Jo-Anne Dobson Jo-Anne Dobson UUP 2:15 pm, 12th October 2015

10. Mrs Dobson asked the Minister for Employment and Learning how he plans to secure a sustainable model of funding for local higher education. (AQO 8831/11-16)

Photo of Stephen Farry Stephen Farry Alliance

With your permission, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker, I wish to group questions 4 and 10, and I request an additional minute for the answer.

Northern Ireland currently supports higher education through a roughly equal balance between public and private investment. In 2013-14, the higher education institutions’ two most significant sources of income came from annual grants paid through Departments amounting to 37% of their income and tuition fees paid by students, representing 30%. This year, in the context of severely constrained public resources, grant funding for higher education in Northern Ireland is reducing by over £16 million. Meanwhile, tuition fees have remained frozen, subject only to inflationary increases, since 2006. This stifling of investment has led to significant reductions in student places and staff posts. We are now the only region in the UK that is actively disinvesting in higher education. The model we currently use to support higher education is no longer sustainable.

That is why I have launched an innovative and experimental approach to engage with the people of Northern Ireland about this extremely important issue entitled the Higher Education Big Conversation. The first stage of the Big Conversation closed on Friday 2 October. It was designed to inform or remind people about why higher education is so important and how it is delivered and funded. It also explored the challenges that our higher education system is facing and drew on the ways in which higher education is delivered and funded elsewhere. Parents, organisations, employers, employees, former higher education students and current students tested their knowledge during the first stage of the process.

Stage 2, entitled "Have your say", closes on Friday 23 October and provides the people of Northern Ireland with the opportunity to help shape the future of higher education here. I will use the evidence gathered from this exercise to formulate an options paper, which I will present to my Executive colleagues, outlining the ways in which higher education could be sustained in future.

Photo of Pat Sheehan Pat Sheehan Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as ucht a fhreagra. When does the Minister expect to have conversations with representatives of political parties as part of these discussions?

Photo of Stephen Farry Stephen Farry Alliance

That stage will come formally through engagement with the Committee for Employment and Learning, on which all the parties in the Assembly are represented, and with members of the Executive. Ultimately, the Executive will be the key decision-maker in that regard. If any party wishes to have a separate meeting with me or my officials regarding these issues, we are more than happy to facilitate that directly in advance of those more formal discussions.

Photo of Jo-Anne Dobson Jo-Anne Dobson UUP

The Minister will be aware that the funding gap between universities in Northern Ireland and universities in Great Britain is growing. Will he assure the House that the Big Conversation about higher education is not a device to put off making a decision while the funding gap continues to grow?

Photo of Stephen Farry Stephen Farry Alliance

It is certainly not designed to put anything off. It is designed to bring things to a head because the current situation is not sustainable and a decision has to be taken on the way forward. I am very keen to hear the views of the Ulster Unionist Party on what it believes is the way forward. Ultimately, this is a decision that will have to be taken by the Executive; it has to be a collective decision that all of us are able to stand over and which can be embedded for several generations. We cannot have a situation where our universities are facing unstable environment where they are living from pillar to post, from one year to another or from one spending round to another. This issue needs to be settled so that the universities can plan ahead for the future and so that future students have certainty in the decisions that they make about how they are going to approach their studies.

Photo of Claire Hanna Claire Hanna Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Minister for his answers. You have suggested that the current model is unsustainable. Has the Department identified the tipping point after which it thinks the model will be financially unworkable? At this stage, do you envisage a change in the number of Colleges NI campuses?

Photo of Stephen Farry Stephen Farry Alliance

At this stage, the situation is, clearly, already unsustainable. We are losing places and staff and going in the opposite direction from what is happening elsewhere on these islands. Until this point, we had been making progress — a gradual, incremental change — on the number of places in our universities. Over the lifetime of this Assembly, we have managed an increase of almost 1,300 or 1,400, which is a significant rate of progress, but we are now moving backwards.

On the Member's second point about Colleges NI and the number of FE colleges in Northern Ireland, the intention is that we will continue to have six. It is not on the agenda. Obviously, as we work through the capital programme for colleges, there may be decisions on the rationalisation of particular buildings, but we are committed to having six colleges in our FE network.