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Investing in the future can see off the perfect storm

  • 6 September 2022
  • By Ian A. Greer

This blog was kindly provided by Professor Ian A. Greer, President and Vice Chancellor of Queen’s University, Belfast.

These are challenging times for us all.

Internationally, we have war in Ukraine; nationally, we have a cost of living crisis; and locally, we have political uncertainty over whether a devolved government will be formed following the recent Northern Ireland election.

While the former two issues impact deeply on us all, it is the latter that impacts directly and specifically on the future success of Queen’s University, Belfast.

And the difficult aspect for us is that even if an Executive Government is formed, our challenges will not dissipate. We are facing the perfect storm, through lack of investment and education migration that must be tackled urgently.

Since 2012, tertiary education funding in Northern Ireland has been cut by 40 per cent – the only region in the UK to have a net loss during that period.

The planned budget for the next three years – that was indicated but not ratified due to a suspension in the political institutions and subsequently the election – is likely to result in us facing a further budget cut of anything between five and 15 per cent.

The only way we can respond to such financial pressure is to cut the number of university places, at a rate of approximately 500 for every five per cent cut.

And this comes at a time when a demographic change in our population will see the number of 18- year-olds increaseby 19 per cent by the year 2030. We need an extra 5,000 places just to stay still and yet cuts seem to be only option on the horizon. 

This will result in a hugely detrimental impact on our society as a thriving economy is the centrepiece of providing solutions to our challenges.

There is wide acceptance that universities play a significant role in economic development. At Queen’s, we contribute almost £2 billion per year to the economy.

Through research we drive innovation to ensure our companies are competitive globally. Through education, we deliver the skills that create our talented, young workforce and that is a major selling point for the region, particularly in terms of attracting Foreign Direct Investment.

Investing in the future of our young people fuels a growing economy which, in turn, is crucial to the future prosperity of Northern Ireland. Investing today – or failing to do so – will be tomorrow’s legacy.

Due to the cap on student places that the NI system imposes, around 30 per cent of students – around 5,000 per year, leave these shores to go to university in Great Britain and only 12 per cent – around 600 – return. This will double as demand for places increases unless we act now.

And among those who consequently lose out are those students from a Widening Participation background and that will lead to a legacy of inequality, of stifled economic growth. 

By way of demonstrating the current inequalities – only five per cent of students with three Grade Cs at A-Level in NI attain university places compared to 50 per cent in England. That is stark.

We believe the solution lies in addressing the inequality of provision, supporting the economy by ensuring we produce the young talented workforce that is required to attract Foreign Direct Investment and well-paid and sustaining jobs and creating a tertiary education system that enhances educational and social mobility.

And this can only be achieved by creating a triple helix of government, industry and third level education institutions working together to create a virtuous spiral of success. 

Queen’s stands ready to play its role and create the society and economy that benefits all. But we need the political will and vision to fulfil our potential.

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