There is a wonderful Churchillian quote: ‘If you don’t take change by the hand it will take you by the throat.’
At no time more than now could this have resonance across our sector.
Nearly all universities face unprecedented challenges, judicious risk taking and brave choices, while taking staff and students on the journey. This could be related to a fall in student numbers, what happens to capped fee levels, national and global competition, Brexit impacts, rising debt servicing and staff costs, e.g. pensions. Even the stronger universities with healthy diversified income streams will have to adopt new approaches to sustain their success over the coming years and be open to some radical rethinking and new paradigms for delivery, many facilitated by exploiting digital technologies.
Here in Northern Ireland (NI) we grapple with all these risks and change, but there are some additional layers of complexity that challenge us further.
The average undergraduate funding for a Band D student (a combination of a tuition fee of £4,150 and a revenue grant) is £7,050 – so little imagination is needed to appreciate the enormous pressures this places on NI’s two universities, Ulster University and Queen’s University Belfast. This underfunding is particularly acute for Ulster University, which has four campuses serving the dispersed population across NI, but receives no additional funding to support this province-wide mission.
Higher Education in Northern Ireland is a devolved power, as it is in Wales and Scotland, and therefore decisions regarding NI’s two universities are made by the Northern Ireland Assembly. Under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, the NI Executive must be a mandatory coalition including nationalist and unionist parties.
For nine years, this sharing of power worked reasonably well and the HE portfolio in the most recent government was held by the Minister of the Economy. In 2016, before the power sharing government collapsed the two majority parties – the DUP and Sinn Fein – were moving close to a decision on how to address the underfunding of teaching in its universities. However, since then policy or funding decisions have entirely stalled in the absence of a devolved government.
Other major funding decisions or policy changes are also being delayed, such as the funding to support desperately needed medical training places. Although some powers were given recently to senior civil servants to make certain decisions under legislation in late 2018, there is little appetite for this due to the high risk of judicial review.
Moving on to Brexit: Ulster University confronts some unique challenges, as it is the only university in the UK within three miles of the EU border. Our Magee Campus in Derry/Londonderry sits virtually on the border with the Republic of Ireland, across which hundreds of students and staff travel daily to work and study.
Despite all of these uncertainties, both universities in NI are pushing ahead with their own ambitious plans. For Ulster this includes our £300M new campus development in Belfast city centre and a Medical School at our Magee Campus. Increasingly, through the strong leadership of the two Vice Chancellors in NI, there is positive and impactful collaboration (such as in City Deals).
At times like these, it is more critical than ever that executive leaders show true metal and vision. But behind them need to stand strong supportive governing bodies with an independent voice, fully equipped to advise and help, but also prepared to ask the difficult questions. The more testing the times, the greater the need for strong advocates and influencers, politically and in civic society generally.
Throughout my experience in different universities I have never failed to be impressed by the generosity of experienced governing body members with respect to universities with which they have a deep bond.
None so much as at Ulster University, where there is determination to show leadership among our Council members in these most testing times. Formidable people who have been through the troubles and know what real division is, who believe profoundly in the future and criticality of our university for NI’s future. People who, like Churchill, are prepared to take on risk in the face of tough choices, and are prepared ‘to take change by the hand’ as the best and only way forward.
Our University Secretary, Eamon Mullan, well known among AHUA members, deserves much credit for the work on governance he has done over many years at Ulster.