While my Department provides funding and sets the strategic direction for the higher education sector, universities are autonomous and responsible for their own staffing levels. However, I have had ongoing discussions with the Ulster University in relation to the possible implications of the budget reductions and have been briefed on the redundancy process by the vice chancellor on a regular basis.
The university has already indicated the scale of the job losses over 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.
Ulster University has reported to my officials that the deadline for expressions of interest in the voluntary severance scheme closed on 30 October, and they are now liaising with the deans of the affected faculties before beginning the process of staff engagement.
Does it not break the Minister's heart that he has been responsible for reducing funding to the universities at a time when the whole world is telling us that the only way that we can create jobs for people who are travelling to the four corners of the world to find work, because the work is not at home, and the very thing that would be the driver to create the jobs has been starved of the oxygen of life in Coleraine and Derry in particular?
Let me be very clear: the decisions regarding my departmental budget were taken at Executive level, and I was deeply concerned about a whole range of issues around the budget.
I ask the Member to reflect on his party's approach to how we are addressing our Budget issues, because his party, like others, is very clear that it is not prepared to consider any additional revenue raising for Northern Ireland. Parties are very clear that they are not prepared to consider tackling the cost of a divided society; we could not even begin to address divisions in our teacher training system earlier this year.
We are not adopting a strategic approach to Budget setting. Parties are making more and more demands about what they want to spend money on. We are seeing a situation where money is going to be taken out of our block grant for welfare. We are seeing people making commitments ahead of even a full assessment of all the different needs; that we must protect health at all costs, rather than engaging in any health programme. Then people wonder why we have a situation where we are having cuts to our skills budgets and why we are seeing cuts being passed on to universities.
If people are genuinely concerned about this issue, it is important that they have a fundamental reassessment of how they are resourcing all that we need to do to fund our public services, including our universities, as well as how we fund the transformation of our economy. I encourage the Member and those in all parties to think very seriously about these issues over the coming weeks.