MLA Robin Swann, the Ulster Unionist Party’s Westminster candidate for North Antrim, has called on the entire community to “play a major role in saving the institution of the ‘local Tech’ by enrolling in part-time or full-time courses at their nearest campus”.
Assemblyman Swann, who is UUP Chief Whip and Chairman of the Stormont Employment and Learning Committee, was proposing a motion in the Chamber aimed at combating the major cuts from hitting the further and higher education sector.
Mr Swann later warned there was “the very real danger that further education colleges, affectionately still known to many people as ‘the local Tech’ could be in serious jeopardy if the Alliance DEL minister implemented the drastic cuts”.
Mr Swann added: “It would be an educational disaster if, as a result of the ministerial cuts to the further and higher education budget, that courses and even campuses disappeared from the learning landscape.
“I urge the community to play their part in saving the great institution of the ‘local Tech’ by enrolling in courses. For generations, both people and the economy have benefited from the service provided by our ‘local Techs’. Now it is our turn as constituents to play our role in saving these much-valued Techs.”
Mr Swann said the Assembly motion “acknowledges the key role our further education and higher education institutions play in growing the local economy and delivering on the Programme for Government’s cross-cutting priorities; and calls on the Executive to affirm their commitment to support and invest in the local higher education and further education sectors”.
He added: “The Committee for Employment and Learning unanimously agreed the wording of the motion to ask the Assembly to reaffirm its commitment to investing in our future by acknowledging that our universities and colleges create a framework for prosperity and contribute significantly to securing growth and providing opportunity to Northern Ireland.
“In recent months, the Committee for Employment and Learning has received evidence from the higher education and further education sectors, stressing the impact of the proposed cuts to their budgets.
“No witnesses were more vocal than the students, who articulated their concerns about the threats to numbers and to further student supports.
“Given our current financial situation, savings must be found in all areas, and higher and further education can be no exception. However, in doing so, we must ensure, first, that we send a strong message to our universities and colleges that we value their contribution and, secondly, that, in acknowledging their benefit to Northern Ireland, we do what we can to limit the impact of cuts on their work.
“Every day, our universities and colleges succeed in turning aspiration into reality. They support and bolster Northern Ireland’s ambition and purpose. They provide innovative education that expands the horizons of our young people and equips them to take their place in the wider community.
“Central to the Programme for Government is the regeneration of the Northern Ireland economy, specifically the creation of a strong, vibrant, knowledge-based economy. Further and higher education are key to this.
“In the knowledge economy index, Northern Ireland is the region with the second fastest growing knowledge economy in the UK.
“The quality of our universities and graduates is Invest NI’s number one selling point in attracting foreign investment and jobs to Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland universities have formed 550 knowledge transfer partnerships with local companies, helping them to generate over £132 million in profit and £73 million of investment in equipment.
“Nearly 700 jobs for graduates and over 1,000 other jobs have been created, and training has been provided for over 8,200 staff. Higher education has created over 110 spin-out companies, generating several thousand high-value jobs, and Queen’s University and Ulster University are planning to invest £750 million in capital development over the next 10 years, creating 14,000 construction jobs.
“Ulster University has a national and international reputation for excellence in higher education and innovation and for its engagement with business and industry. It is currently home to over 26,000 students and over 3,000 staff.
“Despite the economic challenges of recent years, one of the success stories has been the continued growth of the creative industries in Northern Ireland, and Ulster University provides the vast majority of creative graduates for the visual and applied arts and design professions, which are the backbone of that industry.
“The Open University specialises in providing flexible and accessible part-time higher education, with almost 4,000 undergraduate students in Northern Ireland.
“It offers a route into higher education for anyone with a desire to learn, thus creating a more highly skilled society and workforce, regardless of social background. This part-time study is vital in supporting our economic recovery.
“The Open University offers opportunities to upskill and reskill the current workforce in Northern Ireland by offering work-based learning programmes in health, management, education, IT, science and other economically relevant subjects.
“The Open University caters for students whose education needs are not met elsewhere: 15% of Northern Ireland students have a disability; 73% are in employment; and 23% of students live in 25% of the most deprived areas.
“Our universities engage in research of global significance, and they are the stimulus for growth for Northern Ireland.
“Our colleges support our school leavers by providing the skills, drive and enthusiasm needed to engage at the highest levels in the global job market,” said Assemblyman Swann.