‘The only way universities in Northern Ireland can respond is cutting places’

Queen’s University Belfast vice-chancellor and pro-vice-chancellor for research and enterprise warn current HE budgets in Northern Ireland will constrain the supply of high-skilled graduates for the country’s burgeoning innovation sector.

Belfast is rightfully proud of its industrial heritage and a long-standing reputation for innovation, with a world-leading legacy for heavy industry, manufacturing, engineering and science.

Currently, the city and the region are overcoming historical challenges, alongside the recovery from the global pandemic, and as a result, are at the cusp of further economic and social revival.

Queen’s University Belfast is at the heart of this, alongside our counterparts at Ulster University. This small region – with a population of 1.8 million people and a reputation for innovation and resilience is looking to the future with real optimism and ambition.

The two institutions play a key role in our society, with a combined student population of 53,000 students, and a wide range of research and innovation strengths.

Despite the intervention of Covid-19, our optimism is unbowed due largely to the Belfast Region City Deal (BRCD). In total, the BRCD represents £1bn of investment with a mission to support “inclusive economic growth that delivers more and better jobs, a positive impact on the most deprived communities and a balanced spread of benefits across the region”.

This region’s greatest natural resource is our people but our optimism is tempered by the challenges we face due to the way higher education is funded in Northern Ireland

Queen’s leads three Innovation projects within the BRCD which draw on the strong enterprise opportunities within Northern Ireland, supported by £230m of UK Government infrastructure investment that rises to £350 million when digital is included.

The Advanced Manufacturing Innovation Centre (AMIC) will operate at the interface of academia and industry, by creating new opportunities for cutting-edge manufacturing interventions in the Belfast City Region.

The Institute of Research Excellence for Advanced Clinical Health Care (iREACH) is led by Queen’s, in partnership with the NHS, and is committed to establishing research excellence in Advanced Clinical Healthcare in Northern Ireland. It will increase access to treatments for patients and demonstrate an expansion of healthcare capability in Northern Ireland.

The Global Innovation Institute (GII) will be a nexus for co-innovation between researchers and industry in data security, connectivity and analytics. Bringing together local and global companies, alongside multi-disciplinary teams of academics, it will address current and future challenges across agritech, health, cybersecurity, as well as fintech. It will create future-proof solutions to local, national and international challenges.

We have also worked with industry to successfully draw down funding for two UKRI Strength in Places Awards. In a case of back-to-the-future, to our maritime heritage, we are working with Artemis Technologies Inc in a £33m research programme to see Belfast become a global leader in zero-emissions maritime travel.

Queen’s also has an integral role in ‘Smart Nano NI’, a £60m consortium which is focused on developing innovations for medical devices, communication, and data storage in partnership with international firm Seagate Technology. The consortium shares a niche capability around nanomanufacturing and world-leading knowledge in photonics.

A strong pipeline of skilled young people will be essential to fully realise the potential of the City Deal projects and we are encouraged that we consistently produce the best school exam results on these islands.

This region’s greatest natural resource is our people but our optimism is tempered by the challenges we face due to the way higher education is funded in Northern Ireland.

To limit costs to the public purse, both universities have a cap on numbers placed upon them by the NI Executive. This means that we cannot meet the demands of our school-age population. Each year we lose over 30% of our 18-year-olds to educational migration to the rest of the UK and beyond. The problem is compounded by only 12% of these talented young people returning once they have completed their studies.

This shortfall also affects our ability to effectively deliver against our widening participation agenda. The challenge to reach young people who are most able, but not best placed to seek and ultimately benefit from a university education, is made more difficult.

This situation will be significantly exacerbated by the region’s emerging demographic growth, with the population of 18-year-olds expected to grow by 19% by 2030. It means Northern Ireland’s universities will need to offer 5,000 more places just to maintain provision at the current levels. That will require increased funding – but we face cuts of between 5% and 15% if the planned budget presented prior to the NI Assembly elections in May 2022 is accepted.

The only way universities in Northern Ireland can respond is by cutting places. Every 5% cut from the HE budget represents around 500 fewer places: our fear is that our society will deny this generation of young people the opportunity to benefit from and contribute to the next stage in the development of a dynamic, inclusive economy.

Universities make a huge contribution by helping our young people reach their full potential and touching lives through groundbreaking research that enhances the health and economic well-being of all our citizens, sustainability of our environment and the successful growth of our economy.

We urge our governments and major stakeholders to commit to investing in the future of our young people by financially supporting universities in a sustainable way. Today’s action is tomorrow’s legacy.

Prof Ian Greer is president and vice-chancellor at Queen’s Belfast University, and Prof Emma Flynn is pro-vice-chancellor, research and enterprise.

Read more: Tuition fee hike and student number cap considered in Northern Ireland

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