2011 The need to develop an affordable higher education system in Northern Ireland

 Professor Gerry McKenna

The decision by the Northern Ireland Executive to keep university fees at current levels has been remarkably uncontentious. Yet the agreed ‘solution’, that the funding shortfall to the local universities should be met by funding transfers from within the Department for Employment and Learning’s budget and from other departments, is unsustainable. It is based on the accepted views that:

  1. Higher education (HE) qualifications bring lifelong advantages and no-one should be denied access to them solely on the basis of affordability.
  2. Northern Ireland’s universities should be funded at a comparable level to their English counterparts in order to maintain quality and standards.
  3. Northern Ireland students should not be exposed to the levels of debt of students in England.

 The first two statements are demonstrably true. Graduates have had previously, on average, significantly higher earnings than non-graduates.  This argument depends upon the subject studied and is weakened as student numbers proliferate.

Universities are also major contributors to society through research and its direct and indirect benefits. However, Northern Ireland’s university research strengths are frequently overstated. Eleven departments/research units are, based on the most recent, 2008, Research Assessment Exercise, in the top quartile (25%) of UK research performers. Contrastingly, there are 15 departments in the bottom quartile! The remainder (the majority) are performing respectably but could not be described credibly as world class.

The third unchallenged tenet, that Northern Ireland students should not have to pay increased fees for study at local universities, raises a number of questions:

a. The actual cost of undergraduate education in England will be nearly £9,000 per year from 2012; approximately £2,000 higher than currently. Why, therefore, is it assumed that maintaining only current university funding levels, will allow the Northern Ireland universities to continue to compete on equal funding, and quality, terms with English universities?


b. Is the Northern Ireland system providing HE in the most cost-effective way?  Have the local universities undertaken zero-based reviews of their spending plans in the light of current economic circumstances? Have they eliminated all unnecessary and grandiose capital, administrative and other spending that will not enhance their teaching, research and knowledge transfer outputs?


 Already a small but significant proportion of higher education in Northern Ireland is provided satisfactorily and at lower costs via the further education (FE) sector, mostly through foundation degrees. This could be expanded greatly, particularly in subjects where the local universities have limited research strengths? There is considerably greater scope for HE students to undertake the first two years, and in some cases all, of their 3-year degree programmes at local FE colleges, thus confining the costs of university-based teaching and ‘away from home’ subsistence costs to one year or less?

The current policy position on future HE funding agreed by the NI Executive is unsustainable. It cannot, simultaneously, maintain low university tuition fees, high university participation rates and a high quality university system, comparable in standards with English universities, based on the current model of HE delivery. Northern Ireland may, however, be able to afford a relatively low fee regime through much greater involvement by the FE sector. Under such circumstances a modest increase in HE places could possibly be contemplated with FE taking on the extra burden at an affordable cost. The politicians, and the universities, should not delude themselves that the higher education challenge facing Northern Ireland can be resolved without radical and courageous thinking and analysis.

Original version of article published in the News Letter, September 2011 



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