2015 The oversight of HE within the proposed Northern Ireland Department for the Economy.


 The oversight of HE within the proposed Northern Ireland Department for the Economy.

-         “Universities and higher education are worthwhile in their own right. They transform the lives of individuals and shape our society for the better. 

-         Universities are also powerhouses for economic growth. They are a vital part of the government’s long term economic plan to build a more resilient economy and create jobs”.

David Willetts, Minister for Universities and Science, April 2014

Universities have long been recognised as providing major benefits to society through teaching, scholarship and research and by promoting professional, cultural and social development including tolerance, citizenship and general societal wellbeing.

In more recent times the pivotal role of higher education (HE) in supporting economic progress within a globalised and technologically driven context has become a major plank of economic planning. This is exemplified by inter alia large increases in participation rates and enhanced commitment to research and associated knowledge transfer from universities. It has resulted inevitably in greater scrutiny by governments of HE performance and accountability. The governmental location of responsibility for HE and Further Education (FE) differs from country to country within these islands. It falls under the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills in England; the Departments for Education and Skills in Wales and the Republic of Ireland; and centrally and non-departmentally in Scotland.

In Northern Ireland responsibility for HE and FE has, since devolution, fallen under the remit of the Department for Employment and Learning (DEL), previously known as the Department for Further and Higher Education, Training and Employment (DFHETE). There was a commitment in the current Programme for Government to agree changes to the structures of Government which would operate in the next Assembly mandate. The Stormont House Agreement of December 2014 included a commitment that the number of departments should be reduced from 12 to 9 in time for the 2016 Assembly election. It was announced in March 2015 that following inter-party discussions and agreement by the NI Executive, most of the functions of DEL, including responsibility for HE and FE, would be transferred into a new Department for the Economy.

The inclusion of responsibility for HE and FE within the new Department for the Economy reflects the priorities of the NI Executive and the perceived importance of these sectors for economic regeneration.  While this is understandable, little thought appears to have been given to ensuring that the broader objects of higher education will be nurtured, in particular the benefits of the humanities and social sciences to the values and cultural and social fabric of society. There is also the danger that a department focussed on the economy may not value sufficiently the long term benefits of ‘pure’ as opposed to ‘applied’ research.

It is noteworthy that irrespective of the departmental ‘home’ of HE within the other neighbouring governments/executives, all have accepted the necessity to put in place a buffer between the relevant government locus of responsibility and the HE sector in order to regulate, monitor and distribute funding. The relevant ‘buffers’ are, respectively, the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), the Higher Education Council for Wales (HEFCW), The Scottish Funding Council (combining HE and FE) and the Higher Education Authority (HEA) in the Republic of Ireland. Such bodies include expertise from within the HE sector including from other jurisdictions, and representative HE users and stakeholders.

Their terms of reference vary somewhat but all broadly encompass the mission to:

  • ensure accountability and challenge for funding and performance and be a proportionate regulator
  • act in the public interest  including the provision of reliable, independent and understandable information to government, parliamentary committees, public representatives and the interested public that is open, fair, impartial and objective, and
  •  be effective brokers between Government and the sector and in doing so, ensure that government policy is informed by opportunities and stresses within and without the sector and is being implemented effectively.


When the funding councils for England, Wales and Scotland were being established following the Further and Higher Education Act (1992) it was felt that because of the relative smallness of its higher education sector, Northern Ireland did not warrant a HE funding council. Instead in 1993 a higher education advisory body, the Northern Ireland Higher Education Council (NIHEC), was established. NIHEC provided confidential advice on issues referred to it by the relevant department (DFHETE, later DEL) but had limited oversight of university funding. Its restricted powers and the confidentiality of its deliberations limited the influence of NIHEC. Nonetheless it was an important advocate for the sector and provided an informed and constructive challenge to the universities. NIHEC was formally disbanded in 2009. Since then there has been a lack of systematic and informed oversight of higher education in Northern Ireland. The universities have received little meaningful scrutiny. In turn, they have had no independent champions to enunciate the academic, as well as the long term economic, social, and cultural consequences of government action or inaction in higher education matters.


It would seem appropriate that as responsibility for higher education is transferred into the large and multi-faceted Department for the Economy, a similar oversight body to that operating in the other neighbouring jurisdictions should be put in place. This would help to ensure a more meaningful and informed interaction between the NI Executive, the Assembly, students and employers, and the HE institutions, to the advantage of all stakeholders involved. Whether such a body should be a full-blown funding council and, if so, whether it should also assume responsibility for FE, is a matter worthy of debate. What is surely less debatable is the view that Northern Ireland, in common with all other jurisdictions within these islands, should have an independent higher education oversight body.



Professor Gerry McKenna MRIA

June 2015

(Paper presented to Stormont and Science All Party Group, June 2015) 


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