1. Higher education is provided by 2 universities (which, in their distinctive missions, exemplify the diversity of higher education), 2 colleges of education and, to varying degrees, in the regions 17 institutes of further education. Programmes in the latter are predominantly vocational eg HND/HNC and NVQ4, and cover a wide range of subject areas from Business and Related Studies, Health and Social Care to Engineering and Technology. Northern Ireland also constitutes a region of the Open University.
2. Total student enrolments in 1994/95 were as follows:
|3. Some 85 per cent of
students enrolled at the two universities come from
Northern Ireland. Like the rest of the UK, Northern
Ireland operates a policy of consolidation of student
numbers through the setting of control totals.
4. The universities are directly funded by the Department of Education Northern Ireland (DENI) on the recommendations of the Northern Ireland Higher Education Council (NIHEC). Funding is in the main based on the methodologies of the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE). The colleges of education are resourced on the basis of historical funding rather than on a student-based formula. At present the institutes of further education are owned and managed by the five Education and Library Boards (ELBs), which are responsible for funding their full range of functions, including higher education. There are plans for each college to become a free-standing corporate body, funded directly by DENI.
5. The ELBs are responsible for making mandatory and discretionary awards to Northern Ireland students following specified programmes. Levels of grant and entitlement match those in Great Britain.
6. Since provision is an integral part of the UK higher education system and shares many of its characteristics, we believe that the overall thrust of our recommendations is also appropriate for Northern Ireland and is consistent with much of the evidence submitted by higher education institutions and other bodies there. With an Age Participation Rate of some 42 per cent in 1994/95 and with some 35 per cent of entrants from manual backgrounds, Northern Ireland is already well advanced in the direction of fuller participation and greater social inclusion which we recommend. However, whilst there has been a substantial increase in mature and part-time students, participation by these groups still lags behind the GB rate.
7. Our recommendations on teaching, quality and standards chime with the firm view throughout the evidence from Northern Ireland that the expansion of higher education, wherever it may be provided, must not be accompanied by a reduction in quality and that standards should be set and maintained. We envisage the National Framework of Qualifications and the writ of the new Quality Assurance Agency extending fully to Northern Ireland.
Higher educations regional role
8. What we say in Chapter 12 about the regional role of higher education is particularly apt for Northern Ireland. The universities in particular are rightly mindful of the national and international dimension of their work and, increasingly, of the possibilities for fruitful co-operation with the institutions in the Republic of Ireland. They are also very conscious, however, of their responsibility to act as a regional powerhouse, contributing to the advancement of every aspect of human capability within the region.
9. Given the compact scale of Northern Ireland, there is no reason why higher education there should not become a role model in this respect. The two universities are, for example, fully involved in the Northern Ireland Growth Challenge, a recent private sector initiative supported by the social partners. This has led to the creation of networks to promote the conditions for fast growth and development in their sectors of industry as well as to co-operate on wider issues germane to a best investment environment overall. The Growth Challenge and the Governments Industrial Research and Technology Unit joined forces to introduce the approach of the national Foresight Programme to key sectors of the Northern Ireland economy. Emerging from this work is a proposal to establish sectoral Technology Partnerships, whose functions would include:
The Universities would be involved in each Partnership Panel.
10. Northern Ireland has 30,000 companies but only 100 of them employ 200 or more people, and only 200 employ more than 100. Whilst the predominance of small companies, in terms of sheer number, is typical of all parts of the United Kingdom, it is particularly marked in Northern Ireland. Moreover, many of the 200 larger companies are branches of enterprises with headquarters located elsewhere and therefore with limited powers of decision.
11. The structure of the Northern Ireland economy has two implications:
12. None of these considerations is specific to Northern Ireland, but this part of the United Kingdom is the one that for decades has suffered the highest levels of unemployment, and which because of its history of civil strife finds it correspondingly difficult to attract companies from overseas. It is therefore particularly relevant that public policy should recognise the distinctive needs of Northern Ireland and the vital role of higher education.
13. Each of the two universities can point to specific ways in which they have sought to contribute to the solution of these problems.
Higher educations regional role should, of course,
extend beyond a narrow economic development agenda and
mobilise people towards the goal of strengthening the
social fabric and fostering a sense of community. This is
especially relevant in Northern Ireland, where we commend
the interest within higher education in pursuing the
American model of university-community partnership.
American experience suggests that, if properly integrated
into academic programmes, involvement in
community/voluntary sector projects, with their emphasis
on problem-solving, can (as with placements in industry)
equip students with transferable skills.
15. Northern Ireland has a high level of achievement in education up to 18 which is reflected in the proportion of young people who are able to earn places at 18 and 19 in higher education. Including the 4 per cent that go to the Republic of Ireland, some 42 per cent earn university places, over one third above the average for the United Kingdom as a whole.
16. This high level of achievement is not matched by the provision of places in higher education in Northern Ireland. Some 40 per cent of the cohort goes elsewhere. This has certain advantages. Young people are taken into an environment where they can meet people from different backgrounds and can broaden their experience. It enables the very ablest to pursue their higher education in places of their choice which they judge give them the best possible opportunities. For others the range of programmes available, taking the United Kingdom as a whole, is wider than they could expect in Northern Ireland.
17. But there are disadvantages. Many who go elsewhere do not return and this means that Northern Ireland is losing a proportion of its abler young people. It has been calculated that over 11 per cent of the relevant age cohort is lost, representing for the most part the more intellectually able segment. There is also a cost factor in that these students have perforce to live away from home. Moreover, Northern Ireland, which has a GDP some 80 per cent of the UK average, would benefit from the income generated from educating a higher proportion of its young people in its own institutions. The financial consequence of the large net outflow of students is estimated at a loss of some £45 million annually to the Northern Ireland economy.
18. The central issue in any policy towards higher education for Northern Ireland is therefore the extent to which it should have educational capacity equal to the take up of higher education. In both Scotland and Wales, the places available in local institutions could have met the locally generated demand for higher education. Providing for Northern Ireland on the basis of the Scottish ratio of places to population would require an extra 12,000 places. The figure to match the Welsh ratio is some 5,500 places.
Given the shortage of places, entry grade levels to the
two universities are high. The less well qualified (many
from lower income families) do not, unlike their GB
counterparts, have local access to higher education
institutions with lower entry requirements. The number of
unwilling leavers would be even greater if, in
circumstances of peace and stability, applications from
outside Northern Ireland for places in the two
universities were significantly to increase.
20. It is difficult to see why, as part of a long term policy, it would be other than desirable to put Northern Ireland into a position of broad equilibrium between supply and demand without of course denying students, and particularly those of outstanding ability, the opportunity of choosing to go to other parts of the United Kingdom. We support the conclusion of the NIHEC that students preferring to remain in Northern Ireland to pursue a programme of study offered by an institution there should not be obliged to go away because entry standards locally are so high as to exclude them when they could secure a place in Great Britain.
21. There are at least four ways in which this might be achieved.
This would be a less costly option, put by Queens
at one-sixth of new build. To the extent that
Queens extended its postgraduate provision it would
not address the need for more undergraduate places; and
to the extent that it concentrated on abler students, it
could upset the existing balance in terms of ability
levels between Queens and the University of Ulster,
possibly to an extent that would depress the standing of
the University of Ulster both in the province and more
27. There is already widespread acceptance within Northern Ireland that, at all levels and whatever the arrangements for the delivery of programmes, quality and standards must not be compromised. The recommendations in Chapter 10 will strengthen the safeguards against slippage.
28. The scope for developments of the kind considered under this Option without reducing the capacity to provide further education (which would be a retrograde step) has not been determined. This would need to be closely investigated before a judgement could be made about the potential scale and costs of this Option.
However cost-effectively it is managed, the expansion of
provision is likely to entail a considerable increase in
public expenditure in Northern Ireland by way of
additional investment as well as recurrent costs,
although there will be offsetting savings in living away
allowances. An evaluation of the importance of local
expansion in the context of public expenditure
priorities, which takes fully into account all the
benefits (direct and indirect) as well as the costs, is
therefore involved. There should be some public
expenditure savings in Great Britain.
31. It is not possible to predict with any accuracy how much capacity is needed to bring overall demand for, and supply of, local provision into broad balance. On the assumption that, say, some 40 per cent of those who go to Great Britain each year for their higher education do so unwillingly, then about 5,000 extra places would be needed in institutions in Northern Ireland to deal with this particular issue. This is, however, likely to be a minimum figure since it assumes that the number of places occupied by students domiciled outside Northern Ireland does not increase and that there is no additional pressure on places in Northern Ireland arising from demographic change or higher levels of participation. It is not necessary , however, to identify the extra requirement precisely in order to make progress. Careful monitoring of demand for particular programmes of study against the capacity to satisfy it (on which some work has already been done) would reveal where provision might progressively be expanded.
32. A useful first step would be to lift quickly the Maximum Aggregate Student Number cap. This would encourage the institutions to identify their potential for increasing numbers without any or certainly substantial additional investment.
33. As Option 4 above implies, it should not be assumed that, in a mass higher education system, study for a degree is the norm or the best way of meeting labour market needs. Successful experience in Scotland, where over a quarter of higher education is now offered in institutions of further education, demonstrates the value of sub-degree qualifications, particularly when there are well-established routes of progression into degree work.
34. Initial teacher training is one area where there is substantial unsatisfied demand for places. Student numbers in the two colleges of education in Northern Ireland are capped by reference to the local labour market. In the context of an overall expansion of higher education capacity in Northern Ireland, the case for constraining any aspect of provision on this basis is weakened.
35. The availability of a more substantial higher education resource within Northern Ireland should improve its economic prospects and enhance its attractiveness to inward investors. However, it is improbable that, at least in the short term, the increased output would be wholly absorbed within Northern Ireland, although job opportunities would be likely to be significantly better in conditions of peace and political stability. Whatever the strength of the local labour market, some will inevitably decide to pursue their careers outside Northern Ireland or seek experience elsewhere before returning later. More generally, however, if additional investment in higher education is to produce an adequate social as well as personal return, it is a corollary of expanding local provision that the job search should not necessarily be confined to Northern Ireland.
Whilst Northern Ireland has been more successful than the
rest of the UK in expanding access to higher education
for those from manual backgrounds up from 25 per
cent to 35 per cent of entrants between 1973 and 1991
more remains to be done, particularly so far as
young Protestant males are concerned. Survey data
suggests that only 27 per cent of Protestant entrants to
higher education are from manual backgrounds, compared
with 43 per cent of Catholic entrants. Both percentages
remained virtually stable between 1973 and 1991 and the
rise in the overall figure for participation of those
from manual backgrounds is largely due to the increase in
Students contributions to the cost of university education
37. It is often argued that students who come from homes where family incomes are low are likely to be more averse to pursuing university education if it involves an accumulation of debt and the responsibility to repay later. In the Northern Ireland context, with 40 per cent of students needing to find places in higher education outside Northern Ireland and with the additional costs involved in living away from home, it is sometimes argued that the disincentive effect of increasing the student contribution would be particularly great. Similar arguments could be made for other parts of the United Kingdom where there is no university provision within daily travelling distance and there are many students who live in such areas, but the ratio of those obliged to study away from home to entrants domiciled in the region is particularly high in Northern Ireland. To the extent that there was a closer balance between the provision of higher education places (including close-to-home places) and those qualifying for them in Northern Ireland, the disincentive effect of an income contingent contribution by students to the cost of higher education would be reduced. That particular point is relevant to the case for increasing the provision of higher education in Northern Ireland.
38. If the Government should decide to increase the student contribution (and we set out in Chapter 20 certain options) the method chosen could be significant for Northern Ireland, particularly pending expansion of local capacity. Average earnings in Northern Ireland are lower than in Great Britain and higher education attracts more students from poorer families. In 1986/87, almost 45 per cent of Northern Ireland students were on full maintenance grants compared with just over 29 per cent of English and Welsh students. In 1994/95, just over 47 per cent of students funded by the Belfast Education and Library Board were on full grants.
39. The less socially regressive any change to current arrangements for funding higher education is and the more the repayment of the student contribution is contingent on the achievement of a decent threshold level of earnings, the smaller any disincentive effect, whatever the position regarding expansion of local capacity.
Options between 16 19
40. The Dearing Report on qualifications for 1619 year olds argues the case for the provision of an option which would combine depth in study with complementary studies in breadth. The proposal in outline was that a student taking the A level route would cover four domains of knowledge; that in each one of them the student would be required to achieve at least an AS, and that two of the four awards should be at full A level standard. In addition the student would be required to achieve an AS in the three key skills of communication, the application of number and use of information technology, with those competences demonstrated in the context of one or more of the students chosen areas of study.
41. While this option was welcomed by the Government and whilst the universities have long sought greater breadth in provision between 16 and 19, the practice of specialisation is so firmly established in university admissions procedures that schools are not willing to risk offering their students such an option lest their chances of acceptance in the university of their choice should be diminished.
42. One practical approach to the adoption of the proposed diploma combining depth with breadth lies in a small group of universities deciding as a matter of policy that they would welcome such students.
43. In view of the long argued case for greater breadth in education between 1619, it is for consideration whether the universities in Northern Ireland, together with schools and colleges if they saw educational merit in the option could adopt it as one of the recognised and valued bases for gaining university entrance in appropriate areas of study.
44. The research income of the Northern Ireland universities (£47 million) is derived as follows (1993/94 figures), with the corresponding United Kingdom figures in brackets:
A major difference in the pattern of funding is the
relative importance of the block grant. This is partly
due to the inclusion within the grant of NIDevR funding
which was introduced in 1993/94 following the 1992
Research Assessment Exercise (RAE). In the absence of
NIDevR, the block grant would have dropped from £25
million to £17 million. The then Minister at DENI, in a
letter of 21 April 1993 to the Chairman of the NIHEC,
which is responsible for advising on the allocation of
NIDevR funds, defined its purpose as follows:
46. Phase 1 of a detailed study carried out (September 1996) for the NIHEC concluded that the two universities have made good use of the NIDevR funds and have taken effective steps to enhance their research capabilities in selected subject areas; and that the fruit was already evident in terms of academic research outputs and contributions to the local economy.
47. NIDevR was initially introduced for 3 years and later extended to 1996/97, when £9 million was allocated. For 1997/98, it has been cut by £4 million and by £6 million for later years. These cuts entail a reduction of 16 per cent in the current year and of 24 per cent in subsequent years in the universities block grant for research. There has been no corresponding reduction in regional research funding elsewhere in the UK. Indeed, since 1993/94, funding in Great Britain has increased by over 7 per cent in real terms, whilst in Northern Ireland (excluding the reduction in NIDevR) it has declined by over 10 per cent.
48. Block grant is also disproportionately significant in Northern Ireland universities because of the low research income from other sources. The income from the Research Councils and Charities can be expected to improve as the universities, RAE gradings improve. It is not, however, simply a matter of gradings. The external income generated by researchers in Northern Ireland from all sources is in general lower than that generated by Units in the rest of the UK which have obtained similar grades. The structure of the economy, with its small firms, the prevalence of external ownership and the bias towards low-technology operations, reduces the short term opportunities for research sponsored by business.
49. Overall expenditure on civil R&D outside higher education is low in Northern Ireland, amounting to 0.5 per cent of GDP (which is itself low) compared with 1.4 per cent for the UK (1993/94 figures). University research accounts for £47 million (64 per cent) of the total of £74 million spent on civil research in Northern Ireland, compared with 23 per cent for the UK. The significance of the research role of the Northern Ireland universities compared with their GB counterparts has been described in a review of the funding of university research in Northern Ireland by Segal Quince Wicksteed Limited as follows:
50. We believe that research quality in Northern Ireland universities should continue to be assessed by the criteria which apply, through the RAE, to all UK universities. However, the amount of research funding to be disbursed by block grant on foot of these gradings or by some supplementary mechanism of the nature of NIDevR is a matter for DENI. We have no information on the rationale for the recent cut in the block research grant for the Northern Ireland universities but, given the acute concerns expressed not only by the universities but by local industry about the consequences of the cut, there is a strong case for an urgent and fundamental review of the amount of research funding which should be made available to the universities and on what basis, taking into account:
51. Phase 2 of the Study referred to at paragraph 46, which is in preparation, will make recommendations on the criteria which should be taken into account by NIHEC in advising DENI on the future funding of research in Northern Ireland universities and examine possible funding methodologies. We would expect it to serve the purposes of the fundamental review which we regard as necessary. Future policy considerations, whilst taking into account institutional and other differences, should also include the recommendations in Chapter 11 on improvements to the research infrastructure in top quality research departments; the need to bring greater focus to funding for applied research and regional development; and the streamlining of the RAE so as to release funds for scholarship and for personal research or professional activity in support of teaching.
52. The expansion of the higher education sector which is discussed in paragraphs 15 et seq would obviously have the potential not only to increase the academic research base in Northern Ireland but also to confer some of the resultant advantages of scale.
The tertiary approach
53. Until recent years, thinking has been in terms of clearly distinguished institutions of higher and further education. This has many advantages, not least in ensuring that there is no mission drift in the institutions of further education for whom provision of higher education will often be attractive. The containment of higher education within institutions wholly dedicated to it facilitates the maintenance of quality and standards and also the association of teaching with research. It also makes clearer the distinction to be drawn between those studies which are of a nature to merit the award of a degree and other third level vocational and other types of study.
the other hand, in an era of mass participation in
education post-18, and in a society increasingly
recognising the need for a lifelong commitment to
education, there can be clear advantages for at least a
proportion of students in having access to institutions
whose mission incorporates those of further and higher
55. Given the growing co-operation between the further and higher education sectors, the progress being made in devising a credit accumulation and transfer system, and developments in technology, there has in effect been evolving a more open tertiary system, with the different types of institutions within it separated only by what has been described as a permeable membrane. We believe that the time is ripe to give the tertiary concept more formal expression so that post-18 education is seen as a whole and is planned as a whole. This is particularly important when the expansion of higher education provision is being considered.
56. We suggest that whatever machinery is devised should meet a number of criteria:
57. Whilst there is a variety of possible models and the optimum solution will clearly be the outcome of a consultative process in Northern Ireland, the model which we propose is as follows:
58. We envisage the two universities and the two colleges of education being within the remit of the HEFCNI, whilst the institutes of further education, in respect of all their activities other than work which is part of a degree programme, would be the responsibility of the FEFCNI. Whilst we see merit in all higher education provision, in whatever institution it is provided, being within the remit of the HEFCNI, we would prefer to see a boundary adjustment of this kind or even the complete merger of funding arrangements evolve as mutual confidence develops and from the experience gained in the close co-operative working which the new arrangements should encourage.
59. The Tertiary Education Forum would in effect consist of joint meetings of the 2 Councils, with such additional membership (particularly from outside academia) as might be necessary to enable it to form an overview of how the tertiary sector could best discharge its regional role. An important initial task of the Forum would be to consider the implications for Northern Ireland of our Report, including the vitally important issue of the expansion of local provision.
60. In Chapter 16 we considered the circumstances in which the university college title might be used. The difficulties which have led us to recommend that the title be restricted have not arisen in Northern Ireland and it may be that there are special circumstances there which would justify some modification of our recommendation in its application to Northern Ireland. We certainly would not wish to inhibit the evolution of higher education there in ways which are responsive to local need and are fully consistent with our emphasis on the need to safeguard standards.
61. Participation levels demonstrate how much the benefits of higher education are prized in Northern Ireland. Our recommendations both generally and in respect of Northern Ireland should assist an already vibrant and innovative sector to continue to develop strongly, well-regarded nationally and operating within a flexible and accessible framework which enables local opportunities and priorities to be vigorously addressed.
Mohan J (1993) Universities and their Communities, observations from the USA, Notes for CVCP meeting 4 November 1993
Reynolds W A (1995) Transformation and Redemption: The Urban University, Speech at the University of Ulster at Jordanstown 6 February 1995
Northern Ireland Higher Education Council (1995) Report of the Sub-Group on Access, Participation and Student Migration
Armstrong D A (1996) Education and Economic Development: Empirical Evidence and Regional Perspectives
Gallagher A M , Osborne R D , Cormack R J (1996) Attitudes to Higher Education: Report to CCRU and DENI
Segal Quince Wicksteed Limited (1996) Review of the Funding of University Research in Northern Ireland, Phase 1