Official Report: Minutes of Evidence
Committee for Employment and Learning, meeting on Wednesday, 21 October 2015
Members present for all or part of the proceedings:Mr Robin Swann (Chairperson)
Mr S Anderson
Mr Alex Easton
Mr P Flanagan
Mr David Hilditch
Ms A Lo
Mr Fra McCann
Ms B McGahan
Mr P Ramsey
Ms Claire Sugden
Witnesses:Mr Peter Hope, Ulster University
Professor Richard Millar, Ulster University
Professor Paddy Nixon, Ulster University
Budget Cuts: Ulster University
The Chairperson (Mr Swann): Good morning. From Ulster University (UU), I welcome Professor Paddy Nixon, the vice chancellor and president; Professor Richard Millar, pro-vice-chancellor for academic planning, partnerships and international affairs; and Mr Peter Hope, the chief finance and information officer. Paddy, over to you.
Professor Paddy Nixon (Ulster University): Good morning, and thank you for the opportunity to join you. I would prefer to be making my first visit to the Employment and Learning Committee on a slightly different note, but I hope that you will have me back at some point to talk about the future plans for the institution and the development of higher education in Northern Ireland. Today's conversation is about the impact of the reduction in funding from DEL to the university. We provided a written briefing prior to the meeting. I will walk steadily through that briefing and add a bit of nuance to the commentary. I will then be very comfortable taking questions from members.
I will start in the context of the reduction in funding for higher education and, in particular, Ulster University over the last number of years. In the briefing, you will see that, since 2011, there have been year-on-year cuts to the university's budget. In 2010, our core budget from the Department for Employment and Learning was £89·7 million; it has been reduced to £70·3 million in 2015-16. There are two significant components to that. The most recent cut is £8·7 million — roughly £9 million a year. Those are per annum cuts. The cumulative cut to the institution's budget since 2010 is £58·6 million, and it will continue at the rate of about £20 million per annum. We were notified of those cuts in March 2015. If you were to pick a start to a role, this would not be the start that I would have envisaged. Those cuts came pretty shortly after I was announced as the new vice chancellor. The university undertook a specific process to work out and understand how we would continue to manage and operate in the context of those cuts while retaining the undoubted quality of the institution.
I want to point out some things about the institution. It is a little bit of a sales pitch, but it puts it in the context of higher education in Northern Ireland. Both our universities in Northern Ireland sit in the top 4% of universities worldwide. That is an exceptional statistic in anyone's book. Our university had a number of significant achievements in recent times. We have had nine Turner Prize finalists and two winners. We are the top university to study pharmacy in the whole of the United Kingdom. We have 2,000 student work placements a year, and nine out of 10 students are in work after six months. We are in the top 25% of research universities in the whole of the United Kingdom, and we are fourth overall in law. I could continue, but that will give you a sense of the quality of the institution. That quality has been maintained and enhanced despite the continued cuts to the institution's budget.
Nonetheless, at this point, that level of cumulative cuts cannot be sustained through what we might call the salami slicing of the institution's budget. To maintain that quality and our competitiveness in a global higher education sector but specifically in respect of maintaining our competitiveness with our colleagues in England, Scotland, Wales and the Republic of Ireland, we had to make decisions about sustaining the elements of focus and quality that we had and reducing the overall capacity of the institution. As you will be aware, in June 2014, we announced that the impact of those cuts would be a reduction of 1,250 students, which is to be achieved over four years. We have to and always will manage the reduction in student numbers through ensuring the quality of our education provision.
I will point out another significant component. Although the cuts come through this year and we have to bear them year on year into the future, we still have to maintain the provision for those students, and it takes us four years to work through any impact on the institution. We incur costs, if you will, that we are not able to recoup elsewhere.
Although I was not in post at the time, I was part of each of the subsequent meetings that took place by video conference. In fact, I flew over in April, and I will stand over the decisions that staff made. In identifying and reacting to the reduction in funding, we decided to do two things. As I said, there was a focus on strengthening and sustaining research and teaching excellence. We also took a very specific decision to focus on retaining and strengthening our regional mission. Ulster University is the only university in Northern Ireland that has a provision outside Belfast. Our provision in Coleraine and Derry particularly speaks to areas of Northern Ireland that no other university is able to do. We are determined to maintain and enhance that capacity, despite this position. In making our overall decisions, we took into account all the publicly available metrics, such as the national student survey, research performance, course viability, demand, tariff points and all the things that define the quality of the institution. We also took into account the financial sustainability and provisioning of each of the courses, faculties and schools across the university.
On the back of that, we came to the faculties themselves. Faculties are the units in the university that house the schools and the academic provision. We came forward with proposals about how they would maintain their activities and reduce their overall cost base. Collectively, we looked at all those proposals and came to a view that ensured what you might call those competing priorities: research excellence, teaching excellence and our regional mission. In that context, there is no single correct answer. We have to balance a number of provision offerings and focus for Northern Ireland and yet not disproportionately impact any other part of the university. As you will be aware, that resulted in the proposition that went out to staff, and I have a series of information pieces to answer questions on that process. Overall, in June, we announced the scale of the cuts to the institution. That was prior to my arrival. It was, broadly, 1,250 student places, roughly 210 academic positions and more general positions across the institution. We subsequently worked through the specific details of each proposal and were able to refine that and go out to staff on 31 August to identify the areas for reduction or closure or new provisions in the university.
In that process, we explicitly attempted not only to minimise the impacts of staff cuts but to maintain the overall provision on each campus. I have been acutely aware of some of the press commentary. To give you some nuance on the issue, some of the things that we have done include the consolidation of a series of schools on a particular campus, which allows us to do things. It means that we have only one series of resources applied to those, such as laboratories, administrative support staff and so on. That allows us to maintain a provision while reducing costs. It also allows us to do a number of things about ensuring that our campuses had a particular identity. There has been commentary about the removal of psychology and the consolidation of that on the Coleraine site. That is a consequence of the Coleraine campus becoming more focused on life sciences. As you can imagine, life sciences have expensive laboratories, and you do not want to replicate those because that is additional cost. You want a concentration of staff and students in that area in order to have a centre of excellence. The balancing fact, however, is that the movement of computing, engineering and business studies to consolidate on the Magee campus and the overall movement of students is pretty much equal in that space. In the context of the regional campuses, Magee becomes our focal point for computing, engineering, business studies and associated areas.
Overall, in doing that sort of consolidation, you are able to minimise staff costs. You will have noted that, initially, staff cuts were 210, and we are down to about 185. Those are indicative numbers, and, until we go through the voluntary redundancy process, we will not be able to identify exactly what has happened because it will be about the individuals and their relative positions in the institution. It is worth noting that, during that process, we have attempted to engage fully with the unions and the appropriate industrial relations processes. I do not have an industrial relations expert with me today, but we have taken significant briefings prior to this, and I am very confident that the processes that we have undertaken are respectful to staff and consistent with all our obligations, both moral and legal.
There has been some press commentary — I have seen it — about reserves that the institution might have and its ability to use them to offset cuts. That does not accurately reflect the institutional accounts. I will do this in two parts. It is important to say that reserves can be overall reserves or cash reserves. Our overall reserves at this time are primarily made up of approximately £171 million related to our fixed assets. If somebody were able to buy those assets from us and give them back to us free so that we could use them, we would have those funds available to spend, but, as it is, they just represent our fixed assets in the institution. The remainder of that reserve is related to pension deficits, which we have a legal obligation to fulfil.
The cash reserves — I am not an accountant, so I have the chief financial officer beside me — are at a point in time when you take a look at the bank account. Many of the assets in the cash reserves are pre-allocated against particular aspects of the institution, whether it is infrastructure development or something else, and we are obliged to retain a cash reserve. Typically, for the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), the standard is 80 days of cash reserves; that is 80 days of staff salaries. We are at 45 days, so we are not at the level that we should be. That is not a challenging issue, but it points to the fact that we are managing our funds very carefully and trying to minimise any of those expenditures.
I want to point to a broader debate. You will be aware that the Big Conversation is happening at the moment; I would have liked to join that, and some of my colleagues are there. There is a debate to be had in Northern Ireland about the funding of higher education. I have no and the institution has no particular view on that at the moment; we will go through our own processes. I have presented that there are, to my mind, three stark options that present themselves: public funding, private funding or a reduction or consolidation of the size of higher education. I do not think that anyone has landed on the mechanisms by which you would achieve that. That is not a debate for today, but I am open to questions.
We are not proposing anything. We would like to engage in particular with the Committee, DEL and the broader community about how we improve the funding position of the higher education sector. I will position that quite starkly: in the context of the UK, we are fourth-class citizens in Northern Ireland in the funding that we provide to our undergraduate students. On average, our students get £1,700 less than English, Scottish and Welsh students to support their higher education, yet in no way do we provide a lower-quality education. Our research and teaching performance point to that. From my perspective, however, that is not sustainable into the future, which is why we as an institution have taken the view that we have to reduce student numbers and overall provision. We must have an honest and open debate about that and its consequences.
I have presented in the paper a number of clarifications; I do not intend to go through those. In my view, there was certainly a misrepresentation or misunderstanding of some of the decisions that were made and presented to staff. We have tried to correct those in your notes, and I am happy to take questions on any of those specific points.
In conclusion, it is certainly worth pointing out that we face significant challenges. There are obvious impacts from taking £58·6 million out of a budget. They are unavoidable, and we cannot continue the same level of student numbers or staffing in that context. Ulster University also bears some costs, quite willingly, from maintaining more than one campus. For us, £14·7 million a year is spent on maintaining and supporting the regional campuses — three rather than one. Our colleagues do not have to bear such a cost. We do not get additional funding to support that. There are consequences from our decision to support the whole of Northern Ireland that need to be taken into account, and we cannot reduce that in any way, shape or form.
The Chairperson (Mr Swann): You speak of misunderstanding and misrepresentation by staff and in the media. In that case, has the university failed to communicate what it is doing?
Professor Nixon: I have looked at what we have done, and we have been very careful, considered and structured about our communication. I do not believe that there has been a failure. There is always the opportunity to do better. I will give you a very simple example. I personally have gone around every school in the university one by one. I think that there are only three left to visit, and that is just because of scheduling issues. I have approached and spoken to staff in all the schools, even those that are closing, to explain the situation, and I have taken their questions. I do not think that, as an exemplar of communication overall, we have failed to communicate in any way, shape or form. I am not implying that anyone has been mischievous in this process. If one item comes out in the press, it sort of clouds the issue and other bits of the conversation do not happen. It is very difficult, when you have regional campuses and a complex organisation of 27,000 students and 3,000 staff with a certain level of activity, to explain everything that is going on in one hit.
The Chairperson (Mr Swann): The unions have commented on the consultation and the redundancies: how do you respond to their questions on how you handled this?
Professor Nixon: We have certainly attempted to engage and have gone through the appropriate processes to engage with the unions. I refute that proposition quite strongly. We fulfilled all the statutory requirements to meet them before we went to staff and to offer meetings et cetera. There is perhaps a bit of a stalemate in one particular context that is frustrating the issue, but other unions have engaged, moved on and are working constructively — not comfortably or happily because this is not an easy place to be — with us.
As of this week, there are three dates out there for the unions to come and meet. We have not yet had those meetings confirmed. We will engage. We are there to talk to people and to minimise the impacts of the process.
Professor Nixon: Not at this point.
Professor Nixon: The only way to resolve any issue like this is to sit down in a room and discuss it. We have particular people who are involved in that — our HR department and industrial relations — and will work through that. I would just like to make it clear that there was a joint union meeting, which Unite chose to attend and the University and College Union (UCU) chose not to attend. We brought our academic deans along to that as well so there could be a conversation not only with the formal HR part of the university but with the academic side to try to explain the rationale and work these things out. I also want to be clear that it is an ongoing process, not a point in time. As people ask questions, you provide information and resolve issues. You cannot undertake these processes by email or correspondence.
The Chairperson (Mr Swann): We are jumping about a bit because you covered quite a lot in your presentation.
The course closure that hit the headlines was modern languages. Mathematics was also affected and a number of other ancillary ones. You said that you were involved in those meetings, whether that was by video conferencing or whatever: how did you come to your decisions, especially on languages and mathematics?
Professor Nixon: As I said, we had to look at a series of metrics across the institution, including research performance and teaching quality. You are aware that national student surveys assess how happy students are with the offerings. We can assess the interest in a course through things like tariff points and the A-level grades of people coming into the institution. All of this is publicly available data. We use all those to look at the institution, plus we use the financial position of particular areas so that we very clearly understand their contribution.
Modern languages hit the headlines the most and has clearly hit a chord with people. It is perhaps the only one that we are closing in its entirety, bar a couple of smaller offerings. Let us be clear on the impact and why we are doing that. We have to provide a series of provisions across the institution, and there is a financial window in which we have to operate. That school and course have been running at an average deficit year on year of about £250,000 and are projected to continue doing so. This year, we had 36 students entering on 21 named programmes, so the breadth and specificity of the programmes is not sustainable. If we did not stop operating in that area, we would not only have to find those savings elsewhere but have to make up the losses that it is making. These are really difficult decisions, but, ultimately, we made decisions that are about ensuring the strength and focus of the institution and minimising the overall impact of the cuts on it.
The Chairperson (Mr Swann): I do not want to labour the point on languages, but it has been the most topical. As regards graduates who leave the university having become fluent in a modern language and the part that they play in Northern Ireland's attractiveness, especially for foreign direct investment, what interaction had you with the Department before you cut that course?
Professor Nixon: Obviously, we are an autonomous organisation and make decisions on the overall provision of our course in respect of the focus of the institution. Notwithstanding that, we understand the concern. We had a look at the FE provision. My personal view is that the FE provision in languages — particularly the spoken language as opposed to what a university should be doing, which is altogether different — is quite extensive. It goes all the way up to diploma level and level 4. It is pretty much pervasive across all the FE colleges, so the system in Northern Ireland is able to support language provision at the level that we need it for business and industry, rather than what would be considered an academic subject that includes the history, literature and all those nuanced elements that are really important to know and understand in an academic context but are not needed for the business context of Northern Ireland.
Professor Nixon: Our colleges already do that to a large extent. They already have language provision and all diploma courses from levels 1 to 4. I think that that was the data that I saw, but I can go away and clarify that.
The Chairperson (Mr Swann): However, you had no correspondence with them about whether they had capacity to pick up students whom you were not going to take.
Professor Nixon: The simple answer is no, we had no correspondence with them. The funding base is reducing, so capacity across the whole of the higher and further education sector is decreasing. There is capacity in —
The Chairperson (Mr Swann): You are saying to us that the colleges can provide places for your language students, but colleges are also cutting their student numbers.
Professor Nixon: Yes, but they continue to provide that space, as I understand it, so Northern Ireland will retain the ability to train language students. However, it will no longer be provided through Ulster University.
Mr Ramsey: Good morning, Paddy. Like you, I wish that you were coming here to outline a different set of circumstances. The advancement that the university was going to make, particularly at Magee, may come later. The Committee has always been strong and vocal about the importance of third-level education to the economy of Northern Ireland. The Committee has always championed it. The challenge for you and Queen's, going forward, is to ensure that, leading up to the Programme for Government, you champion your cause and walk the corridors of the House, lobbying everyone and anyone to make sure that you get that message across. I will park that issue there.
I want to reflect the pain, distress, anger and frustration felt by people whom I know — in my city, for example, they are Magee staff — because of the announcements and how they took place. To be quite honest, the situation is grave for many of them. The UCU gave a presentation to the Committee last week, and its case was that the university has failed in every regard to have any form of consultation with it. The union said that it challenged you directly, as the head of Ulster University, but you refused to meet it. It also said that no evidence base or business case had been provided to outline the reason and justification for the job losses and the closure of schools. Would you like to comment on that?
Professor Nixon: First, it is completely wrong. We provided outline business cases to both unions and have correspondence sent on a particular date to support that. It was received by Unite, accepted and viewed to be sufficient for the engagements required. UCU has asked further questions and, at this point, refuses to engage in any conversations until all of its demands are met. We can articulate the demands, but that simply does not enable us to have a conversation. It is slightly disingenuous to say that I am refusing to meet UCU; that is not true. For example, the day before the Committee heard from UCU, I received an email from one of its representatives. Typically, it takes me 24 hours to respond to such things through my office. The UCU has had a response offering to meet but in a staged way. The first part of this has to be about the industrial relations process. The UCU has been invited at frequent points to each of the engagements. Of course, I will be happy to meet, but not on the back of their saying, "If you don't meet us, we are not going to engage". That is not a helpful approach to take. I am a very collaborative individual and look for the university to work closely with anyone who will engage with it, but there has to be a shared approach.
Mr Ramsey: I appreciate that. Any questions that I ask reflect the union position and that of the staff and students whom I have met. We encourage you, as I do personally, to have that conversation — it is a big conversation — to see whether there are any circumstances to mitigate some of the job and school losses.
There is a dilemma for us. I sit on the Assembly Commission as well, and the Assembly has had to endure the same cuts and take the same pain. It has had to introduce voluntary redundancies. The difference here, from a union perspective, is that the UU redundancies are not voluntary. There is not an open call to all departments for people of a certain age to take advantage of. These are targeted at specific areas, so they are not voluntary redundancies, and staff are a wee bit angered and upset by that. Is there any other methodology? You said that you wished to find circumstances to mitigate the effect and would look again at an open call.
Professor Nixon: I do not think that that would serve the strategic purpose of the university or result in our being a stronger university that is able to face other potential challenges at this time. As you will be aware, we have no certainty on the future funding base of the institution. It is an interesting challenge. I will take up your challenge of lobbying in the corridors, quite strongly, because it has to be a collaborative endeavour.
The targeting of the voluntary redundancy scheme in particular areas is, for me, one of the ways of mitigating the overall scale of cuts that we might be looking at. Let us be specific and take a core example. Modern languages has reducing numbers of applications, is making an annual deficit, which makes it a very challenging space for us, and produces less than 0·6% of the overall research income of the institution. If we do not target that area, we not only have to find those savings elsewhere but have to find savings to cover its deficit. That is not an approach that I would like to take, and I could not stand in front of staff and say that.
We have to be specific about the strategic intent and be clear that we are going to move the university forward and there are things that will have to be done. I have heard the commentary, which I, at least philosophically, can understand, that these are not voluntary redundancies — but they are. This is one of the mechanisms available in an industrial relations context to minimise the impact on staff. Although we are closing a specific area, we are offering the opportunity to leave with an enhanced package. That is in the best interests of the staff, despite the challenge, of course, that this is not something that we want to do in the broader context.
Mr Ramsey: If you take it a stage further, the dilemma for staff is that, if they do not accept voluntary redundancy and the package that you are offering them, they will be made redundant with a much reduced package. That does not look right or fair, and it does not seem appropriate in the circumstances.
There is another context. We are being made aware that, in some areas of closure, staff are being encouraged to take redundancy, but there is a sense of, "By the way, we might bring you in on a part-time basis" or "We might bring you in under some contractual arrangements" as a sop to them. I cannot understand that, and I see a number of members shaking their head, but that is what we have been told. Where is that information or misinformation coming from?
Professor Nixon: That is probably a misunderstanding. Obviously, we will go through a process, and let us take modern languages as an example. We will close that school, yet we have an obligation to see the students already on the course through and to provide not only a passing education but an education that is of the same quality as they would expect anywhere else in the university. We will approach some staff to continue supporting the teaching element of that, so there will be some part-time contracts as part of what is called a "teach-out process". It is not a particularly pleasant-sounding phrase, but it is about ensuring the overall quality to the students. We have set aside funds to do that because we are committed to the student experience. It is not a sop to staff; it is a commitment to our students.
Mr Ramsey: Others would interpret it in a different way. In one way, you are making redundancies. I think that it was someone from the language school who gave a presentation last week, and it is the case that, two years ago, there was an agreement on consolidation. The language school was moved from Magee to Coleraine to consolidate and ensure its sustainability. That is where the concerns are.
I know that I am going on a wee bit, but I want to focus on an area that is getting a lot attention — psychology — and I have spoken to you about it. It receives high respect and is held in high regard. The number of students is high, and it returned £500,000 to the university last year. I am told how successful it is and about its international research work. They work daily with the Foyle healthcare trust and mental health groups, given the high relevance in the city of Derry of work on mental health and suicide. This has come as a big bang to them, considering all the work that they have done, their passion and commitment and the years that they have worked to create that capacity in psychology. As I said last week, 50% of the psychology students are from Derry, Tyrone and Donegal.
Many of them, as I told you, are mature students who will not travel anywhere else because of family and welfare issues. They want to stay in the area where they live. How can you move forward and ensure any semblance of widening participation, when I predict to you now that you will have a major drop in the number of psychology students because of the consolidation that you are talking about?
Professor Nixon: I fundamentally disagree with that. We have consolidated where a whole range of activity was going on: part-time provision, widening access and so on. We saw, for example, no drop whatever in student participation in any cohort after moving nursing from Coleraine and consolidating it in Magee.
The broad conversation about psychology is that, as I said and as the notes say, Magee, broadly, has not been significantly impacted by this. There has been a balancing act with the overall numbers. The campus has not been disproportionately affected, but no part of the university has not been touched by the cuts. Psychology, in consolidating, is losing a small number of staff, and there will be a small reduction in the number of students, but, overall, we will maintain a strong provision. If we had not consolidated from two campuses to one, we would have to take a larger cut, and I believe that that would have been more detrimental. Ultimately, with that provision, we will maintain that £500,000 profit, which comes back to the university for investment elsewhere because it is a unitary organisation. The school will still exist and operate and will do so, hopefully, even more effectively into the future. Our provision in support of research and outreach activities in each of the communities in Derry, Coleraine or Belfast will be maintained and continued. Ulster University is deeply committed to widening access: 47% of students come from what might be the lowest socio-economic groups; and, of the five bands of socio-economic groups, we have a largely equal distribution of students. For me, that is one of the commitments that we as an organisation have to make. I do not believe that the consolidations and moves will have an impact in that area.
Mr Ramsey: The Chair is being very patient. I appeal to you personally and politically to rethink psychology. It makes a major, immense contribution to the Magee campus. You said that you are open to mitigating circumstances, so I ask you to consider that.
Mr Flanagan: Before I start, I declare an interest as a student at the university. Paddy, congratulations on your recent appointment. We wish you well. You do not have an enviable task.
Collectively as a Committee, we have demonstrated that we fully support investment in FE and HE, and we all want that. I suppose that the glaring omission here is the sustainability of the Executive's Budget and the need for us to agree a workable Budget, with proper funding coming from the British Government. That is where this crisis emanated from.
I agree with you: I would like to have been at the Big Conversation today, but, for some reason, the Department seemed to think that organising it for a time that clashes with the Committee meeting was a good idea. Hopefully, we will get to engage with that at some stage.
Will you again talk me through the process of how the decision was made to close courses in schools and how those were selected? I am looking at courses such as the Irish language one in Belfast, which was, to my knowledge, oversubscribed every year. Despite all the developments in the promotion and growth of the Irish language in Belfast, we now have a situation in which Ulster University will not deliver any Irish language classes in Belfast and the centre for that will now be in Derry.
Professor Nixon: First, that is incorrect: we will continue to deliver the Irish language in Belfast but on a part-time and diploma basis. Only the full-time course has been affected, and it has only 16 students a year. The university has a long-term commitment to the Irish language and is, perhaps, the custodian of Irish language and culture for Northern Ireland. You can imagine the challenge that we faced when consolidating the Irish language. There had to be cuts across the board, and we had to prioritise certain things in light of our commitments to the community or to our research endeavour. Irish language and culture and heritage was one of those. To achieve that in the current context, we had to look at consolidation. It has to be said that I was stuck between a rock and a hard place, having to choose between consolidating to Belfast or consolidating to Derry. We took the view that because, historically, a strong part of the research component sat in the Derry campus, that is where the consolidation should happen. Malachy O'Neill, some of his colleagues in the Irish language school and I spent a long time engaging with the Belfast community in particular about the short-term issue that we face and the long-term opportunity.
I am a computer scientist, and you could not construct a very rigorous, straightforward, yes-no algorithm that would come up with the solutions. You are balancing a range of provisions in multiple campuses to different communities and trying to ensure that, in doing that, you maintain the overall quality of the student provision, research and community engagement.
There is something that might not be obvious to colleagues here. I mentioned research on a couple of occasions. The brand value of Ulster University outside Northern Ireland and what draws investment from Citibank, the CME Group etc is the perceived quality of our degrees. The students are an exemplar of that, but, when people from outside look in, it is the research rankings that they look at, and those are the flag that people use to demonstrate that we are a high-quality institution. We have to balance all of those. If we were to retrench from that and become simply a teaching organisation, we would, effectively, become an FE college, and that is not what Northern Ireland needs. It needs a balance of further and higher education, and higher education has a balance of research and teaching.
Mr Flanagan: May I bring you on to the wider issue of redundancies? We have been continually advised that these are voluntary redundancies, but we are told by staff that, discreetly, they are getting the message, "Take this voluntary package. Otherwise, your school or course will close, and you will be made compulsorily redundant on less favourable terms". Is that what is really happening here?
Professor Nixon: I am not aware of any "discreet" conversations, as you put it, and have no evidence to support that. We have identified areas for closure. As part of that process and as part of our obligation to staff, we have to offer voluntary redundancies, and it is quite right to do so in order to ensure that staff have the best opportunity into the future. Nonetheless, we have to focus on closing those areas because they do not support the sustainability of the institution, and there are consequences of that. I cannot really comment in detail about individual cases, but I know that —
Professor Nixon: May I just say this?
Professor Nixon: About 407 staff are in the affected areas. At this point, over 75% of them have had formal meetings with their academic leads, the deans and so on to investigate the opportunities. Another 100 or so staff have yet to have a meeting. Some of them are off on long-term sick leave or maternity leave, sabbaticals or whatever, and some have said that they are being encouraged by the unions not to attend. At this time, we are having those conversations, and they present the stark options in front of us — absolutely. However, that in no way is to suggest that the conversations are anything other than a conveying of the facts before us.
Mr Flanagan: If staff employed in a school that will ultimately close would get less favourable terms later, that is hardly a voluntary redundancy. You have told us and reassured students that anyone who is currently a student at Ulster University will be able to complete their course, even if that course or school is closing. What if all the staff leave? Who will provide the teaching assistance to those students? What reassurance can you give to students who have lecturers or professors helping them with their dissertation? Are we to believe that, if those academic staff are not there full-time, students will have the same access to staff in carrying out such research projects?
Professor Nixon: We make a commitment to ensuring that that is the case. As a university, we continuously review our courses, as does every university in every part of the world. Universities close certain courses at certain times and open others. We have always been able to provide a continued level of staff experience to students
Is it required to have a full-time staff member present? No, because full-time staff members do a series of things, and teaching is one component. However, we will have to ensure that there is adequate provisioning of that teaching component at the right level. It would be a deeply unfortunate situation if we were faced with having nobody around locally and had to source it elsewhere, but we would do exactly that. We would find the provision and commit to that for the students.
Mr Flanagan: So you can give existing students a cast-iron guarantee that their studies will not be adversely affected by the redundancies.
Professor Nixon: We will do absolutely everything in our power to ensure that.
Professor Nixon: Sorry, you want me to say that there is a cast-iron guarantee. That is what we have to do as an institution.
Mr Flanagan: My final questions are on tuition fees. You said that the university has no stated position on that. Since you have taken up your position, have you advocated, suggested or proposed that setting tuition fees at £6,000 might be a way forward?
Professor Nixon: No, I have not used any number whatever. I think that we need to visit that, not as a fee debate — today is not the time — but there is a differential between England, Scotland and Wales and Northern Ireland, and there is an impact. We have to find a model that works, and there is a range of them out there.
Mr Flanagan: It is not necessarily about an increase in tuition fees, and I do not think, politically, that an increase in tuition fees will happen here.
Professor Nixon: I am quite intrigued. I have just come from the Australian system, which has a graduate tax that is based on the ability to pay at some point in the future. That is one alternative model. We can work through the models; it is getting a commitment to that long-term sustained funding that is absolutely central. The point was made earlier that "A commitment was given two years ago, and they appear to have reneged on it". Commitments are fine if the budget situation remains consistent and you have the ability to plan for the future. If you take the funding out, those commitments go out the window.
Mr Flanagan: From a university point of view, you might feel aggrieved that a commitment was made to protect students by not increasing tuition fees but there was no reciprocal commitment to protect the income of universities. I suppose that is a fair enough point and, in hindsight, it is something that we should have looked at.
Professor Nixon: Well, we are where we are, and we all have to work together to solve it.
Mr Easton: Thank you for your presentation. The amount of money that you were getting in 2010-11 was £89·7 million.
Professor Nixon: Yes, £89·7 million.
Mr Easton: At that time, was that comparable with England?
Professor Nixon: I will defer to my colleague.
Mr Peter Hope (Ulster University): Yes. At that time, it was in line with English modelling.
Mr Hope: At that stage, it was in line, and it has been reducing ever since.
Professor Nixon: It has been reduced ever since without the provision for us to be able to raise the funds elsewhere. That is the big challenge.
Mr Easton: With regard to the 210 redundancies, are they all lecturers?
Professor Nixon: No, it is a mix of academic and professional staff. In fact, 210 was the indicative number. At the moment, it is more like 185 but, as you can imagine, it depends on who comes forward and their relative grades and positions in the institution.
Mr Easton: That clears that up. I see that the reduction in the percentage of student numbers in your different campuses is 3·8% for Magee, 13·4% for Coleraine and 10·4% for Jordanstown. Is that to do with all the courses that you are cutting back on?
Professor Nixon: Yes. Of the 1,250 places, that is the impact of the hits on each of those campus areas. We have clumped Jordanstown and Belfast together because, obviously, we are moving into Belfast and it is better to see it as a single entity.
Mr Easton: You talked about reserves. You have £171 million of fixed assets: are those fixed assets things that you would like to get rid of, if you could?
Mr Easton: There is nothing in that that you could —
Professor Nixon: No. Trust me, if there were ways in which we could have capitalised, we would. The challenge there, as you will be aware, is that that is one-off money; it is not sustained funding. So, you can solve a problem for a month or a year through doing that, but you cannot solve it into the future.
Professor Nixon: He did declare it. I heard it.
Ms Sugden: Thank you and welcome. It was at my request that this invitation was made, so I am delighted that you are able to join us. I also declare an interest as a student of the University of Ulster, although I am on leave of absence at the minute.
I know that you feel confident in the communication that you have had with the stakeholders involved. I disagree, as others have, particularly in relation to students, and that draws on some of the points that Phil made. A number of students have contacted me to say, "We don't know what's going on. If contracts are terminated on 30 April next year, where does that leave us in terms of our assessment of examinations?". Phil made the point about final-year students; it is all very well and good securing that resource, but students will feel comfortable with the lecturers that they had over the previous three years. There is a lot of anger — that is probably a very light way to put it — among the students about they have been treated.
Equally, staff feel a bit short-changed, and that brings me to my next point, which is that I am not altogether convinced that all of this is down to budget cuts. I think that this a long-term way of creating your centres of excellence and trying to consolidate courses in individual campuses. I am keen to know when the decisions were taken. A lot of these cuts seem to have happened over the summer. You have given us a date of March, I think, or around April when we were starting to think about this process. There are quite big and dramatic changes in the management and the structure of the university, further to budget cuts in themselves.
Do not get me wrong: I do not necessarily disagree with that and am not in a position to say that that is a right or a wrong thing to do, but I would quite like to know when the decisions were starting to take place. In my opinion, when you start to put this in place, the first thing that you do is risk management, and that is looking at staff and students, and the people who will be affected. You say that you have had communications with unions this week, but we are now into October, and these decisions were put out on 31 August. I would like to know whether, on the issue of your communication, this could have been done sooner or whether a bit of what is happening now with the fear around redundancies and all of those things could have been mitigated.
Professor Nixon: There is a lot in what you have just asked. I will start by saying that you can never communicate enough. There will always be, in any context, either one person or a group of people who feel that they have not got the answers that they want. All that we can do is put in place a very compelling communications plan, which we did, and, as challenges and concerns arise, go and speak to those people. I have dates here, and we can talk about those in a moment. A particular example is that, only two days ago, on Monday, based on a series of emails particularly from modern languages final-year students, we have corresponded back to them on arranging meetings etc. As concerns arise, we will deal with them. You are never quite sure what particular slant people will take on things, and the other thing is that I do think that it is a very uncertain time because not only do we have these cuts, which have been year on year, but, at the moment, we do not have that forward view of sustainability. One of the obligations on me as the chief executive of the organisation is now to look at alternative funding models and where we can make a little bit of our own destiny out of that. However, we are where we are at this moment in time, and I do think that there is an understandable anger, not specifically at the academic staff but across the institution, because these cuts are having a direct impact on students and on staff. We will do absolutely everything to mitigate that as much as we can but, inevitably, at the end of this, there are decisions to be made.
On your specific question about whether this is like a stalking horse for an alternative model —
Ms Sugden: My question was whether this is more of a long-term aim.
Professor Nixon: There are two parts to this. The process that we undertook happened following the cuts announcements, and I have all of the dates here. They were announced on 31 March this year, and the first meeting of the budget review group happened on 21 April. There was a series of meetings and engagements through that time. Really, they were about addressing the funding shortfall. I think that it is probably fair to say that, in taking the consolidation approach, we are minimising that impact and, hopefully, strengthening the university to see out any other challenges that it might face. Was that conceived of prior to that? Probably not, because I was not in place in the institution. Next week, we are starting the strategic planning process for the institution that will be launching, and I will be asking the questions about what is the campus identity. One of the challenges that we face as an institution is that, to pick computing as a good example, once you decide to do computing at Ulster University, you have to decide at which campus. I do not think that that serves students; it does not serve us in the operation of the organisation; and it does not allow us to concentrate and have critical mass around key areas, which will improve students' experience rather than diminish it. Overall, we have to have that broad conversation with the staff. I think that was an approach that allowed us to minimise the impact in this particular case, and the two, hopefully, will align over a period of time.
Ms Sugden: Do we have meat on the bones of the outline business case about where this decision has come from if it is only happening from March? You have talked about rationale, and I am not quite sure that it goes into the depths that I would understand. For example, we have Ulster Business School going to Magee in the wake of an enterprise zone coming to Coleraine, which will bring a data centre. I know that you are familiar with that. All the computing courses now going elsewhere does not make sense to me from the perspective of someone who represents that area. I am slightly worried about whether we are undermining the whole value of the enterprise zone and what it could be. I will come back to the school of languages as well. There is one point that I do not quite understand. We have talked about how many numbers the courses attract. Is the school of languages full, year-on-year, never mind the numbers it attracts? What does "deficit" mean? Is the deficit about bad management or does it mean that we are not attracting enough numbers to pay for the courses that we are providing?
Professor Nixon: What was the first question that you asked? I got the one about the deficit.
Ms Sugden: Does the school of languages attract full numbers to the courses each year? Has it been attracting full numbers? You have a number of places in the school: are they completely full? It does not matter how many it attracts if the course is full every year. I also want to understand the deficit. Does that mean that the school is operating at a loss because of bad management, or is it operating at a loss because it cannot fill places?
Professor Nixon: I will take those two questions. The first was about the rationale component and the meat on the bones, as you put it, of the business plan. Obviously, extensive work has gone into this, and there are competing tensions across the board. There is no simple answer to this. We have to view Ulster University as a unitary organisation. Ulster University will provide business and computing expertise to each of the communities, and the fact that it will be based in Derry, in this context, will not limit its ability to support the local community in Coleraine. In fact, I met Derry Chamber of Commerce only this week, specifically to discuss some of those issues. The enterprise zone is a broader conversation. If we get a data centre there — I hope that we do — that would be huge coup, but it employs about 12 people. It will not make the enterprise zone operational. We have to have a range of things. I actually think that life sciences and biosciences is a bigger opportunity for that enterprise zone. The other point to make is that business students do not start businesses. Typically, it is done by people in other areas, and business students are part of making it work, as are the business professionals. That will not be lost to Coleraine. I think that the rationale is very strong, and it takes cognisance of the fact that we still have to maintain deep relationships with communities in each of the areas. It is the same argument that Pat has proffered in respect of psychology and its impact in that community, but we will still be able to manage those relationships.
There are two things to say on modern languages. First, I do not believe that the deficit is down to bad management whatsoever. We have strong management structures in place for the delivery of courses. It is a demand and resourcing issue in my mind. It is a slightly loaded question to ask whether the courses are full because we largely fill them out of clearing and, as a consequence of that, the tariff point and the entry requirement drops in the institution. Of the 21 programmes that we have on offer, all bar one have either zero or one first-preference request in UCAS. That basically points to a low level of interest in that space. We will always be able to fill almost any course from clearing if we lower the entry standard sufficiently. I am not prepared to lower the entry standard of the organisation, because that is about the quality of the students we accept and the overall quality of the degrees that are perceived to come out of the institution. I do not believe that it is bad management; I believe that it is a diminishing space in the higher education sector. It is probably an increasing space in the further education sector. There is a joined-up thinking component to this. The removal of it being obligatory at GSCE will have a downstream impact, so there is a larger debate to be had about the modern languages space in Northern Ireland.
Ms Sugden: Can you explain "deficit"? What do you mean by that?
Professor Nixon: A loss; it is spending more money than it gets.
The Chairperson (Mr Swann): Members, could you be aware of your phones? There are complaints that the recording is picking up interference from mobiles.
Ms Lo: First, I welcome you as the new vice chancellor. I appreciate that you have a very difficult job at the moment with the financial constraints on your university, but, as others have said, we have met a number of lecturers and students who are very angry. They are saying that you refuse to meet them, there is no transparency in the decision-making process, there is no consultation, and you refuse flatly to meet them. You have dealt with some of that, but I want to pick up a number of other perhaps supplementary issues. You said that you used a range of metrics in deciding which courses to close, languages being one. However, there are two other courses, which are the BSc in housing management and interior design. Housing management has 100% student employability, which is proven. It is the only housing management degree in the whole of Ireland. You said that FE colleges could pick up languages in Northern Ireland. You also said that you want to have a regional mission here. The interior design course is also the only course of its kind in Northern Ireland, and you are cutting both. Have you ever talked to the building industry? Have you talked to other Departments to see whether that may be detrimental to our building industry?
Professor Nixon: I do take real issue with the first comment. I have not refused to speak to anybody, full stop. I would really like that to be on record. I have put certain constraints on some of the conversations, and, in fact, I have gone in and faced up to and spoken to every member of staff in every area of the university, whether they are affected or not by this particular process. I think that is really important. I have spoken to the students' union extensively. So, I take real issue with that. Nonetheless, I will just speak specifically about the overall rationale again, and then those specific elements. You can pick any particular area where the impacts are very significant and you can ask, "Why are we not keeping this, in preference to something else?" The scale of the cuts is sufficient that we are not in a position, as you would be in a broadly healthy financial higher education sector, to do cross-subsidy across the organisation. As a consequence of that, if we do not cut areas where there are deficits or where there is no demand, there are larger cuts to be found elsewhere. That is the context that we have to consider this in.
I am also aware that you can pick and choose your particular statistics and representation, but there is a set of statistics, numbers and metrics that you will use, not just one. Provision for interior design will be embedded in one of the courses that already exists. We are not losing it in its entirety; we are losing the single degree course. We are not losing that provision in the institution; there simply will not be a defined degree in that particular space.
I have pretty much all the data in my head, but I cannot quite remember the one around the housing management course. I know that we debated that quite extensively, and it is in the same broad space of demand versus provision and cost base. Nonetheless, there will still be, within the institution, some expertise in planning, architecture and the built environment broadly, and in the social policy space. All the backdrops to that will still be available in the institution. The challenge for us is, quite rightly, you see a headline of a particular course closing, and you immediately assume, in the broad sense, that the institution loses that expertise. In very few cases is that true.
Ms Lo: Some students might want to do that degree because they know that it will make them very employable.
Professor Nixon: That might be the case, but we are no longer funded to provide degrees that people might like.
Ms Lo: OK. Can you explain that?
Professor Nixon: We have taken £58·6 million out of the provision of the university. We cannot provide a full suite of every degree that might be desirable across Northern Ireland. We have to very much focus on areas of strength and on balance and consolidation. We have to focus on maintaining excellence, and we are simply in a space where we are not funded any more to be that completely broad and encompassing organisation.
Ms Lo: The number of students applying to that course proves that there is a demand, and 100% of students got employment.
Professor Nixon: I will have to go away and note the specific numbers, but I will hazard an informed guess, if you will, that the number of students who have been brought on to that course and produced from that course does not sustain the overall teaching provision that is required.
Ms Lo: With that being the only degree in the whole of Ireland, North and South, surely there is a unique selling point.
Professor Nixon: You can view that slightly differently. If no other university is providing it, there is probably not a realistic demand for it.
Ms Lo: You mentioned that you had obligations to students and that they would not be left without teaching staff but may get contracted staff. I received emails from students and relayed that explanation to them. They all say that it is not acceptable to them. They do not want part-time staff who will be in and out for a few hours a week. They cannot contact them. What do you say to that?
Professor Nixon: That will not be the case. There certainly will be part-time staff or a limited number of full-time staff over a period, but we have managed in that context as any other university has worldwide. We do that as part and parcel of the evolution of an institution, and we continually ensure the quality of our education to the students. So, I do not accept that. It is not a desirable way to do it, but we certainly will provide the best education to our students.
Ms Lo: You mentioned the voluntary exit scheme: why can you not open that up across the university for all staff rather than targeting staff in, for example, the school of modern languages?
Professor Nixon: Primarily because we need to make strategic decisions about the direction of the institution. If we do not make those decisions, the impact of the cuts will be more significant, broader and affect more staff. As a consequence, it is right, to my mind, to have a targeted scheme that looks at managing the overall focus of the institution.
Ms McGahan: Thank you for your presentation. It is important to reiterate that the North of Ireland block grant has remained static. In fact, it has been cut year on year, and that trend will continue. I want to commend you for your provision outside of Belfast. I am a master's graduate of Magee College in Derry, which is an excellent institution, although I always think that it was a mistake to close the crèche, which I used.
Your strategy for managing the budget cuts is very difficult, and I do not envy your task. A key plank in your strategy is consolidation, which is all about reducing provision but not cutting courses entirely. I would like to know what other planks are in the strategy to manage your budget cuts. Are you planning to cut courses entirely if they are not amalgamated with other provision? Also, what consideration will you give to the skills barometer that, hopefully, will be published this November? I am thinking in particular of the full-time Irish degree, which you will consolidate at Magee College in Derry, while reducing provision in Belfast. I suspect that would show a skills gap in Belfast. How will you manage that?
Professor Nixon: There were a couple of questions embedded in that. I will start with the other planks in the strategy. Just to be clear, you will have heard across the media about the things that are closing or being consolidated. If you have not heard anything, the rest is progressing as it was. We are reducing student numbers in a range of places. There will be less computing and engineering soon. There will be fewer life sciences students. It is across the board. However, it is only where we have said we are closing or amalgamating something that programmes will be affected; elsewhere, things are remaining constant.
On the strategy, there are effectively — if I oversimplify, I apologise — two options, namely cost-cutting and revenue generation. Part of what we are doing is trying to find the savings, because it has come at such short notice that we have to do that. We are doing it in a way that we think will strengthen the university as far as is reasonably possible in that process. The other side of it — I hope that I have been very articulate to my colleagues and to the university broadly — is that we need to look at other ways of raising money so that we can insulate ourselves against some of these particular problems into the future. That will take time, but I will point to the fact that — as my colleague at Queen's University has done — Northern Ireland universities broadly have not competed in the international student market strongly enough. We will be doing that; this afternoon, I am going to the Confucius Institute conference and I will be attending specifically about building those relationships. Who knows? I might even be within 100 metres of the president of China. That, for me, is a huge opportunity.
At the moment, we are in a similar position, without knowing the detail of the numbers, to Queen's. We are going to have to increase our numbers by about threefold. There are three important things to say about that. First, if we bring in international students, it does not displace local students because they are funded in a different way. In fact, the opposite is the case; it cross-subsidises local students because you can maintain courses that might not be financially viable as a consequence of local funding through the provision of international students. That is a really important thing to do. Secondly, for me, it enhances the cultural diversity of the university and the communities in which we live. That is a really good and important thing to do. Thirdly, international students pay full international fees. I speak from the experience of my previous institution, which went from a relatively low base and, last year, brought in 48 million Australian dollars in international student fees. That would, ultimately, have offset many of the cuts that we have had. We should not be looking to cross-subsidise the entirety of the higher education sector in Northern Ireland through international students, but we can find a healthy balance in our institution and I will be pushing that as a revenue generator, if you will.
I want to talk more broadly about the skills barometer. That is not out yet, but I have had a few peeks at it because one of our colleagues is involved in it. I have not seen the detail of it. We will respond in due course to each of the statements in that. That has to be an engaged conversation between us, the FE and the higher education sector more broadly and the Department, because we cannot individually address the skills issues in Northern Ireland. I would also point very clearly to the fact that a university is not simply a skills generator; it has a broader obligation. We will react to immediate skills such as narrow STEM etc, but we have a long-term commitment to the cultural diversity, the socio-economic component and the intellectual development of Northern Ireland; that will be in the arts and in other associated social sciences and humanities. We have to maintain that component in our institution as well.
Ms McGahan: Paddy, you made a comment about budget savings coming at such short notice. We had already agreed our Programme for Government when we were presented with these cuts, so we are in a very difficult position as well.
Professor Nixon: I am merely making the statement; I am not making an accusation. I have to say this once, because it gives you a sense of the challenge that we face. We were going to allocate our PhD scholarships for this year to students last Friday but, on the Thursday, we got notification of a 56% cut in our PhD fund. That is a consequence of a whole range of things —
Professor Nixon: — but you can see how it is difficult to plan in that particular scenario.
Mr Hilditch: Thanks for your presentation. I do not envy the task that you and your colleagues face. The problems with the cuts stem from this place. People are very good at pointing the finger at other places but the problems that you face lie here because people do not make the difficult decisions. A lot of this stuff has been covered, but an issue was raised with us last week about timings and the fact that fairly short notice had been given for various aspects of the voluntary redundancy scheme. I think that 31 October was mentioned as a very close deadline where people had to make quick decisions. Do you have any comment on that?
Professor Nixon: I have all the dates in front of me. We had the first conversation with the unions on 31 August and with the affected staff over the following two days. The voluntary redundancy scheme was opened with a closing date for expressions of interest of 31 October. The two things to point out about expressions of interest are that a staff member can just say that they are interested but be under no obligation to follow through, and, equally, the university is under no obligation to accept the expression of interest. From 31 October, there will be a process until, effectively, the first week of January 2016 of evolving that conversation and trying to work out how we implement the scheme.
The date is not here on my list. It is about the first week in January that we will have those conversations. We will work very closely with all parties during that time to make sure that we get the best outcome in a difficult situation. I refute the suggestion that we have not done that in a timely fashion.
Mr Hilditch: OK; thank you.
You may not be directly involved, but the planning application for the housing development at Jordanstown in relation to other matters has been refused. Will there be potential for an impact there on the financial running of the university?
Professor Nixon: I can ask my colleague to speak more specifically about the financial component, but that is an ongoing process. It is a planning process that we will work through. There are always hiccups in those particular things. It is already planned into our budgets in future, so it does not have any impact. None of the cuts that we are facing are as a consequence of that.
Mr Hope: I agree with that.
Mr Anderson: Thank you, Paddy and your team, for your presentation today. I will be brief. There appears to me to be some sort of a breakdown here, Paddy. You say that you have not refused to meet anyone. We have all had representation to say that no attempt has been made to negotiate with employers or with unions. There has to be a position here. I picked up in your conversation that you said that you have not refused to meet but you have put in constraints. Have some of those constraints hampered progress?
Whatever it is, I think that you need to overcome that and that negotiation needs to take place to get it all resolved for the good of everyone, including the students at the university. You have a difficult job, and the redundancy issue is another one that is coming forward. I hope that everyone, within whatever the criteria are, is given an equal opportunity for voluntary redundancy. Some of them see it as being told that, if they do not apply or take the voluntary redundancy, it could be something else. They would maybe lose their job, or they could be asked to more or less go out the door. That is very concerning to people. It makes them very uncertain and unsure of themselves.
You say that you have meetings planned, and you have three dates or something pencilled in. I do not know whether that is three meetings or just three possible dates for a meeting. Can you see that some of those issues will be resolved? You obviously know what we are hearing, and I am sure you are hearing the same. You have obviously taken the position that you can say that you and your management team have done everything possible. Are you telling us today that you have done everything possible to resolve all those issues, or is there scope to say, "Take it or leave it"?
Professor Nixon: That is quite a wide-ranging question. We are engaging, and will engage completely, in a process. We are doing that, and we have stuck to it. There are meetings proffered at the moment. There are certain constraints that are just reasonable to put in, such as that we start through the industrial relations process. I will quite happily meet people subsequent to that and have conversations. The general principle that, if I cannot get the right answer from the person I am talking to, I will go to the top, does not apply in this. You really have to work through the process. We have to sit in the rooms and work that through. Ultimately, there will obviously be times when I have to speak to people. I have done that with the individual staff members across the university. So, yes, we will engage fully. It takes both parties to engage in a meaningful conversation, and that is a challenge to all of us.
The Chairperson (Mr Swann): Paddy, Richard and Peter, thank you very much for your time. Hopefully, next time, we will meet in more pleasant circumstances.
Professor Nixon: Thank you. There were robust questions but certainly not unreasonable questions. Thank you for that. I look forward to coming back to tell you about the strategy of the university moving forward, but I also think that we need to have a really engaged debate about higher education in Northern Ireland. If we do not, all of the other activities that we are doing about economic and social development will simply not be supported by one of the key elements of the sector.
The Chairperson (Mr Swann): That is one thing that you will find the support of the Committee on. We have tabled cross-party motions and Committee motions in regard to the support of HE and FE.
Professor Nixon: Of course, I extend an opening. My office, subject to diary, will always accommodate a conversation with any of the members should they so choose.