Employment and learning Minister, Stephen Farry, discussed proposed course closures and job losses at the Coleraine campus of the Ulster University during today’s Question Time. While the Department sets funding and the strategic direction for the Higher Education sector, universities are autonomous and responsible for how their budget is deployed including course provision and staffing levels. The Minister has also redirected a portion of student fee income back in to universities to ease the effects of budget cuts and assist less advantaged students. The University has already released details of job losses, the severity of which shows the significant impact of cuts faced by the Department. A review of course provision is good business practice as student demand, needs of the economy and the strategic aims of the Department are used to determine which areas and courses may be affected. As unpalatable as some decisions may appear, trust has to be given to universities that they are making cuts in the most prudent areas and in the most efficient manner.
In a similar vein, Daithi McKay MLA asked the Minister for an update on the Department’s efforts to address the funding challenge facing further education (FE) colleges and higher education (HE) institutions. The Minister pointed to the extra £20m secured in the June Monitoring round for skills development as a measure of his commitment to HE institutions. Colleges have taken advantage of the Voluntary Exit Scheme in an attempt to alleviate pressures caused by the cuts. The Minister has also taken measures “to protect front line services as far as possible”. Colleges have also increased the fees for recreational courses to mitigate cuts in other areas. Mr Farry also released around £8m in spending power over the coming years by reducing the minimum level of reinvestment in widening participation programmes from 20% to 10% of student fee income. Additionally the Minister has also launched the HE Big Conversation “to involve as many people as possible in shaping our own unique solution to supporting Higher Education going forward.” Once complete, the Minister will take stock of all options and present them to the Executive.
During Question Time the Minister also answered questions on teacher training and the impact of foreign labour on young people not in employment, education or training. This was followed by a period of topical questions in which the Minister continued to answer questions on the Disability Employment Strategy, grant parental leave for childcare, cuts to the tax credit system and the National Disability Authority Conference.