Post-school education has an intrinsic social value and represents an excellent return on public investment, so allocating appropriate resource to the knowledge economy should be a core commitment for any future government. Northern Irish institutions are underfunded in comparison with their counterparts in the rest of the UK, and recently announced cuts to the block grant have put severe pressure on public funding available for further and higher education in Northern Ireland.
Additional funding resource is required to close Northern Ireland’s public investment gap with both other home nations and international competitors. UK-wide, UCU believes that any future government should commit to increased public spending on the knowledge economy. The UK currently spends just 0.7% of GDP on public funding for tertiary education, less than many global competitors; spending on research is also below average for the European Union.
Furthermore, UCU supports policies which aim to reduce the cost of education to the individual and help everyone reach their full potential, regardless of background. In its manifesto, UCU proposes that the next government should consider radical alternatives to tuition fees, including full public funding for education, greater taxation of business to pay for education, and personalised funding streams which allow individuals more flexibility in accessing the learning that is right for them.
What is each party proposing?
Alliance Party of Northern Ireland
- Invest in a wide range of programmes, supporting colleges and universities to assist young people in gaining appropriate skills and working with specific industries where appropriate
- Advocate for increased investment in science and research through the UK Research Councils, and support Northern Ireland’s universities in drawing down greater levels of science and research funding from both the Research Councils and the European Union
Democratic Unionist Party
- Aim to agree a budget settlement which will allow real terms increase in education spending over the next 5 years
- Prioritise spending on health, education and growing the economy
Social Democratic and Labour Party
- Redirect money spent on UK’s nuclear weapons into health, education and welfare
- Reverse the cuts in the agri-food industry that would result in a significant reduction of research and development staff
- Secure a workable budget, including the reinstatement of £1.5bn to the budget
- Oppose austerity and protect core public services such as health, education and welfare
- Rebuild, realign and repair the island economy in order to create growth in employment, improve skills and nurture innovation and research
Ulster Unionist Party
- Continue to invest in research, development and innovation
The DUP and Sinn Fein both recognise that, as a devolved policy, investment in education relies on securing an appropriate level of block grant from Westminster; this is the key aim which they set out for funding overall. Within that, both parties pledge to prioritise education as a broad public service; this would include post-school provision.
The proposals from Alliance are more focussed on specific direct investment in colleges and universities, as well as support for increased investment in UK Research Councils and capacity-building within Northern Irish universities to help win competitive funding. The UUP simply pledges to continue with investment in research, science and innovation, while the SDLP proposes to redirect defence spending towards education and reverse cuts to agri-food research capacity.
Overall, it is clear that each party wishes to support investment in education and research, but there is little detail about the scale of investment they would like to see