As Student’s and Staff protest course cuts and brutal contract changes, former QUBSU President Ciaran Gallagher offers his take on what has happened and what may happen in the near future.
Every few months, if not weeks we read in the Northern Irish headlines about another drastic change to universities. Usually in the form of a cut, a closure or a downsize of provisions departments or student numbers. None of this should be surprising after the long worn out drama of Stormont in the 18 months. Large public sector cuts that forced unions from many professions to fill the streets in March 2015. Queen’s Students’ Union has passed a policy objecting to Queen’s preferred method of finding the savings. Very recently there was a sit-in protest by Queen’s students objecting to the possible downsizing of the Arts and Humanities Department and the closures of courses. But are we proportionally pointing blame considering how many layers there are to this issue?
Let’s do some history first: Originally the Department for Employment and Learning cut that was proposed in late 2014 was 10.8% then after a great deal of lobbying from the Universities and the Students’ Unions the cut was reduced to 6.4%. A considerable improvement given the difficult financial situation. But after a revised departmental budget that cut the teacher training colleges at Stranmillis and St. Mary’s, there was concentrated uproar and those cuts were relieved. As a result, despite much effort from Queen’s and QUBSU, the University did not save any money from the revised Executive cut but lost it.
So naturally if you have lost money and there are only signs of the situation getting worse rather than better naturally you have to prioritise and decide what has to go. To sum up, Queen’s was asked to save roughly £8m to accommodate for the drop in their public subvention. But why is it then that the university made savings of nearly double that, to which the SU Council passed policy objecting to? There are a few reasons.
Firstly the University has undergone many changes in executive management with a new Vice-Chancellor, three new Pro Vice-Chancellors now totalling six positions and even a new Chancellor, Pro-Chancellor and Honorary Treasurer. The new Vice-Chancellor, Professor Patrick Johnston is set on creating an improved and world class university by 2020 with a strategic plan known as ‘Vision 2020’. With a new exec and strategy one could expect some big changes in the early stages of new leadership but couple this competitive ambition with major financial shortfalls and who could be surprised by the huge structural changes that result.
There is an important distinction to be made here. On the one hand you have the public spending cuts to Northern Ireland, devised by the Conservative Government and implemented by the Northern Ireland Executive (and it is worth remembering that only 2 of the 5 parties that make up the Executive voted in favour of the final cuts – DUP and Sinn Féin). On the other hand you have Universities taking financial hits whilst trying to keep up with and even exceed the standards in a country whose other provinces either fund their tertiary education more amply with the public or private purse. So by all means you should protest the self-prescribed methods of saving and restructuring the University that you think are wrong, unfeasible or unfair; they are after all resulting in job losses and course closures and other undesirable things. But don’t make the mistake of forgetting where the original problem stems from; a strangled public fund for one of the most important endeavours of our society and one of the few things that this country does very well.
The universities are making controversial calls but at the same time seem almost to be getting a disproportional amount of the blame for a situation that’s bad for students, staff and institutions alike. Presumably in one form or another we all want our education system to be high standard, even punching above its weight. So maybe we should see a bit more protest and lobbying aimed at the holders of the purse strings. Ultimately how much money channels into third level education, and where it comes from, is defined by our Assembly and we ought to be concerned about that.
For example the Department for Employment and Learning which houses tertiary education matters is to be dissolved and those matters taken on by the Department for Economy. There is also the big question of what the future holds for our institutions funding plans as even in Stormont, most people realise the situation isn’t really sustainable.
There is only three ways in which this will play out:
- Things stay the same: Neither the fee cap will rise nor will public subvention (though the latter may continue to drop) and the provision for students’ education, development and welfare will continue to stagnate or downsize and worsen in comparison to our neighbours’ education services.
- Fees will rise: A quick and easy solution for tertiary education institutions. A drastic option for students and the real question of whether they will ever be able to pay the very high debts that come with higher fees when well paying graduate jobs are few and far between.
- Public Investment rises: A tough call perhaps for an often shrinking public purse but arguably the best one if Northern Ireland’s incessant Brain Drain is ever to be plugged. External investment will go up at the signal of a reasonably priced tertiary education system with strong student numbers and therefore plenty of talent to spare.
You could also argue that Northern Ireland might look forward to more money from Westminster in the future but it’s almost certainly no use to sit and wait on a highly unlikely scenario. Extra funds rarely if ever come our way without a pre-arranged conditional prescription on how they are used.
The timing is probably as good as it’s going to get to make sure politicians know that this is an issue for Northern Ireland that should not and cannot be put aside. We’re less than a month away from the Local Assembly Elections and the hopeful candidates are going door to door in person in many cases. They won’t say much that will cross or disappoint any potential voters but if they face enough pressure on the doors, they may be as likely to take the problem as seriously as almost any kind of bid for attention on these issues.