Cut to higher education threatens £1.5 billion contribution to Northern Ireland economy

New reports launched in Westminster on 4 March 2015 highlight the vital economic role of universities in Northern Ireland, but their ability to do this is threatened by budget cuts imposed by the Northern Ireland Executive. The immediate impact of the cuts is that fewer young people will enter Queen’s University Belfast and Ulster University this coming September.

The launch, which is jointly hosted by Universities UK, Queen’s University Belfast, Ulster University and The Open University, included a round-table discussion on ‘The Economic Impact of Northern Ireland’s Universities and Securing a Sustainable Funding Solution’. Also in attendance were Northern Ireland MPs, members of the House of Lords, Minister for Employment and Learning, Dr Stephen Farry and key business leaders.

The economic impact studies of Queen’s University Belfast and Ulster University, published by Universities UK, found that in 2012-13 they contributed £1.5 billion to the Northern Ireland economy, with over 18,000 jobs created or supported by these two institutions alone. The research highlights a number of ways in which universities act as ‘anchors’ in their region by attracting business and investment which help boost the economy, as well as enriching cultural life and society across Northern Ireland.

The reports highlight the following contributions the universities make to Northern Ireland:

  • Opportunities for almost 50,000 students to pursue higher education
  • Almost 6,000 jobs directly created
  • A further 11,000 jobs indirectly supported in Northern Ireland, and more in the rest of the UK
  • Students from outside NI contributing over £100 million in expenditure while studying.

Independent research also indicates that the economic impact associated with the Open University’s activities in Northern Ireland in 2012 -13 stood at £66 million, of which £43.6 million was directly related to the impact of the university’s teaching and learning activities on the lives of students.

The research, and the discussion event with Westminster MPs on the economic impact of universities in Northern Ireland, comes after the Northern Ireland Executive decision to cut higher education spending earlier this year.

Chief Executive of Universities UK, Nicola Dandridge, said ‘It is clear that universities are making an increasingly significant contribution to the UK economy, both in terms of contribution to GDP and creating jobs. Universities are also magnets for attracting significant investment from overseas. Investment in higher education is crucial to the continued success of all nations of the UK – both economically and socially – and these reports are a timely reminder to politicians and policymakers in both Westminster and Stormont of the enormous impact universities have on local communities, jobs and the wider economy.’

John D’Arcy, National Director of the Open University said: “Higher education is crucial to Northern Ireland’s future as a fair, socially just and dynamic society with a sustainable economy which provides real opportunities for its citizens. Higher level skills are at the core of this need to empower people to obtain and retain livelihoods. Given changes in workplaces and the need for higher skills, it’s not just the 18 year old school leaver who needs to benefit from higher education. The Open University provides world leading skills and technology to bring top quality teaching and learning to people in the workplace and in their homes.  Northern Ireland’s three universities bring best practice and harness their own unique specialisms to provide a cohesive system. It is imperative that this resource and potential is properly supported by the Northern Ireland Executive if the many gains of devolution and peace building are to provide the benefits our citizens deserve.”

Professor Sir Richard Barnett, Vice-Chancellor, Ulster University said: “From the talented, skilled graduates who are employed in a variety of high value roles in key industry sectors, to the world-leading research and focus on innovation that gives local companies the edge in global markets, higher education is the very foundation of every strong economy. In the challenging context of budget cuts, we must ensure that Northern Ireland's universities are recognised for the contribution they make and that we are in a position to preserve and maintain our positive impact on skills, the economy and society. The funding debate is an important one but above all, as we work to maintain the high quality of teaching for which Northern Ireland's universities are renowned, we must also ensure we protect the right of every individual to have access to a university level education.”

Professor Patrick Johnston, Vice-Chancellor, Queen’s University Belfast said: “It is a widely held view among Northern Ireland’s politicians and business community that higher education is a critical component in levering economic success. Northern Ireland has the second fastest growing regional Knowledge Economy in the UK and higher education is central to this achievement.

“Today’s Universities UK report provides clear evidence to support this view. Higher education is worth £1.5 billion to the economy; generates over 18,000 jobs; connects Northern Ireland to the wider world; and makes an invaluable contribution to civic society. It is therefore very disappointing that the Northern Ireland Executive has taken the decision to cut significantly the higher education budget.

“This budget cut undermines our ability to provide a world-class educational experience that is focused on the needs of society; will reduce student places in Northern Ireland and increase the brain drain; stem the supply of high-quality graduates and discourage foreign direct investment.

“Higher education is an investment for the future, not an expenditure line.  Northern Ireland is the only UK region that continues to cut investment in higher education: this needs to stop. A 10 per cent cut in our budget will widen the funding gap between ourselves and English universities, creating an £80 million deficit.  This will be a major set-back to the Northern Ireland economy.”

Media inquiries to Universities UK press office on 020 7419 5407 or email


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Queen’s astronomer explains how to find new worlds

Dr Chris Watson from the Astrophysics Research Centre at Queen’s University Belfast will have a starring role on BBC Two's Horizon programme on Tuesday, 3 March, when he describes how astronomers find planets around other stars.

Dr Watson explains how observations of planets orbiting other stars has transformed our views about how our own solar system was born and evolved. These new planets are breaking all the rules, and point to a tale of chaos. Set against the backdrop of the observatories on La Palma in the Canary islands, Dr Watson prepares to observe another new extrasolar planet system, and describes how weird these new worlds really can be.

Our Sun has eight planets and five dwarf planets orbiting it. For many years astronomers dreamt of finding planets around other stars. Yet the immense distance to even the nearest stars makes this task incredibly difficult.

It was only 20 years ago that the first planet was found orbiting the nearby star 51 Peg. Located 50 light-years from Earth, this is a world the size of Jupiter, orbiting so close to its parent star that its atmosphere is 1000 degrees hot.

Since that first world was discovered, over 1,800 other exoplanets have now been found, with over 3,000 waiting to be confirmed. As will be explained in the BBC Horizon programme, this is revealing new insights into the birth and history of our own Earth.

Dr Chris Watson and colleagues at Queen’s University have been at the forefront of exoplanet discovery for many years. First was the SuperWASP instrument in the Canary Islands, which with its sister instrument in South Africa has found over a hundred exoplanets in the past decade.

“SuperWASP has been a tremendous success” said Dr Watson. “Yet it was only sensitive to the largest exoplanets like 51 Peg, and we want to go down in size to find potentially habitable places.”

The answer to this quest is the Next Generation Transit Survey, which started operating last month in Chile. Run by an international consortium including Queen’s astronomers, they will be hunting for smaller Neptune-sized planet and even Super-Earths – rocky exoplanets only slightly larger than our own Earth.

“We’re still at the very start of cataloguing all the Solar systems in our small part of the Milky Way” explained Dr. Watson. “We’ve already found a bewildering variety of planets in all sorts of solar systems. Who knows what we’ll find in the next ten years?”

Dr Chris Watson is featured in Horizon on BBC 2 at 9pm on Tuesday 3 March, 2015.

The trailer for the show can be viewed at

Media inquiries to Andrew Kennedy, Queen’s Communications Office, on or 028 9097 5384.


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