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Universities: International Students

Oral Answers to Questions — Economy – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:45 pm on 25th October 2016.

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Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP 2:45 pm, 25th October 2016

2. Mr Stalford asked the Minister for the Economy to outline the support being given to universities to increase the number of international students enrolled. (AQO 555/16-21)

Photo of Simon Hamilton Simon Hamilton DUP

Higher education institutions in Northern Ireland are autonomous and responsible for increasing their international activity. Within that overall context, my Department's higher education strategy, Graduating to Success, committed to ensuring that the institutions reviewed their international strategies and set challenging targets to enhance their international standing. Each institution now has an international strategy in place to increase collaboration and the inward and outward mobility of students and staff. My Department, together with counterparts in other devolved Administrations, provides funding to Universities UK International, which supports universities in their international efforts.

As for attracting international students, universities can participate in international visits coordinated by Universities UK International and access relevant networks and research. Education, including higher education, has significant export potential. Invest NI now has a manager working with the education sector as a whole to increase international activity. Invest NI is working with local universities to explore ways in which it can assist them to increase the number of international students enrolled. Universities have participated in trade missions, utilising the in-market teams and consultants to research and set up meeting programmes with potential partner universities or student recruitment agents. In addition to trade missions, universities have access to Invest NI support, and funding is available to assist with flights and accommodation to visit potential new markets. In their international outreach efforts, the universities can also avail themselves of the support that is offered by the Northern Ireland bureaux in Washington and Beijing.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

I am grateful to the Minister for his reply. What potential does he feel that education has as an export industry for Northern Ireland? On the borders of my constituency, we have already seen developments such as John Bell House, which are designed to attract international students. Would the Minister care to comment on initiatives such as that and what potential targets he feels should be set?

Photo of Simon Hamilton Simon Hamilton DUP

I thank the Member for his question. Our broad education sector, of which universities are a key part, has huge potential as an exporting sector. We do not automatically think of education as an export sector compared with health and life sciences, agri-foods or other parts of the manufacturing sector, but I believe that it is in several ways, not least because of the quality and high standard of the education system in Northern Ireland. As for attracting students, as I mentioned in my initial response, and attracting academic talent, we have a university system in which over 70% of university research activity is rated as internationally excellent or world-leading. That helps to attract students and academics here. The fact that 71% of graduates in Northern Ireland achieve a first-class degree or a 2:1 sends a good signal to potential students. We also have high-quality education and training in Northern Ireland, which can be sold — for want of a better word — outside Northern Ireland.

When I was in the Middle East recently, I had an opportunity to visit Dubai Healthcare City, which has a partnership between Queen's University and the Dubai Government. It is a fantastic opportunity for us to take our expertise there and work in partnership with the Government in the United Arab Emirates. There is huge potential for universities. I know that Ulster University is also engaged in similar aspects.

I think that there is also potential with boarding schools. There are some very high-quality boarding schools in Northern Ireland that are competitively positioned against their competition in, say, Great Britain.

There are several ways, including those that I mentioned, in which education can, with a bit of nurturing, help and support, become a really important export industry for Northern Ireland.

Photo of Claire Hanna Claire Hanna Social Democratic and Labour Party 3:00 pm, 25th October 2016

I thank the Minister for his answers. Will he outline what mitigation plans his Department has in place to address the potential shortfall in funding if we lose the Horizon 2020 fund? We may be a less attractive destination to students, who, potentially, would not be able to get visas because of the uncertainty around Brexit. Might that shortfall and burden be placed on students?

Photo of Simon Hamilton Simon Hamilton DUP

It is an aspect of the ongoing negotiations that will see the UK exit the European Union. The Department will have an interest in and feed into the overall negotiations to help to ensure that Northern Ireland gets the best possible outcome. Interestingly, the number of non-EU international students now slightly outweighs the number of EU students. That would not have been the case a number of years ago. The universities are, rightly, looking to not just their own neighbourhood but to Europe and the wider world.

The funding position has been assisted by the Chancellor's recent announcements on securing Horizon 2020 funding right up to and beyond leaving the European Union. It is another issue that will be sorted out in the negotiations. I point out to the Member, as I have to the House before, that Horizon 2020 is available to many states — I think that there are about 12 — outside the European Union. The state that benefited most per capita from FP7, which was the predecessor to Horizon 2020, was, I think, Israel. There are clear opportunities for states not in the EU to benefit from such funding arrangements, as well as from whatever Her Majesty's Government may put in place to replace, or perhaps as an additionality to, Horizon 2020.

Photo of Caoimhe Archibald Caoimhe Archibald Sinn Féin

I thank the Minister for his responses so far. Earlier this afternoon, I met a delegation from NUS-USI, and part of our discussion was about fees. When will the Minister bring forward his proposals for the future funding of further and higher education?

Photo of Simon Hamilton Simon Hamilton DUP

The long-term sustainability of the university sector in Northern Ireland is incredibly important to get right. I have had discussions with Queen's University and Ulster University, and both put forward their own proposals for making the sector financially sustainable in the longer term. It is absolutely right that they contribute to the debate in that way because, after all, they want to remain world-class, world-leading universities. Of course, an important element of that is ensuring that they are financially sustainable. I have had conversations with them, and I will have conversations with Executive colleagues as well. The Member will appreciate that it is an issue that will require wider support, no matter what my views or my party's views are. We need to consider it carefully and take a decision in the not too distant future.