Fra McCann MLA asked Employment and Learning Minister, Stephen Farry, what initiatives he has planned to support people classified as long-term unemployed during today’s Question Time. Mr Farry was disappointed to say that current budgetary concerns mean that he has no new initiatives planned. However there is already a range of provision in place to support the long-term unemployed such as assistance from staff in front-line offices and the Steps 2 Success programme. The Minister defended criticism of the programme saying that they have been set very challenging targets and bring their experience from other jurisdictions to bear in Northern Ireland’s situation. Mr Farry is committed to helping the long-term unemployed but remains hamstrung by budgetary restrictions – “Once again, we are seeing money being, very sadly, stripped out of schemes and projects that can help people gain a foothold in employment because of a very single-minded approach to handling these issues.”
Mr Farry then discussed budget cuts and the reduction of courses, staff and student provision at the Ulster University. The cuts came in response to the Executive’s draft budget in November 2014. As a result the Department for Employment and Learning published a consultation document outlining the resultant impact on functions and services including universities and colleges. These included a reduction in student places and staff numbers. Despite efforts to mitigate the cuts, they proved necessary and were “the last resort to balance the overall budget.” While the Department sets the budget for universities they remain autonomous and responsible for the way in which they function and service the students. The Minister also added that “before making decisions on course provision and staffing levels, the universities take a number of factors into account, including my Department's priorities, the needs of the economy and student demand. Reviewing course provision is part of the normal annual cycle and is good business practice. It is a reflection of the current budget position that this has led Ulster University to close some courses and to consolidate others. ”
Throughout Question Time Mr Farry also answered questions on the European social fund, cross-border mobility for students, Horizon 2020, the number of students in Higher Education and the Success Through Skills programme.