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Learning budget cutbacks cast serious doubt on £30M city college

Plans for three new build campuses for Southern Regional College could have been dealt a potentially fatal body blow.

It comes after Employment and Learning Minister Dr Stephen Farry outlined his own budgetary savings plans today (Thursday).

As another Stormont department once again details how it will cut back services, it was revealed that, among other things, hundreds of jobs could be lost across the sector and as many as a thousand student places from local universities.

Capital budget for building works across the entire Province – after savings are made – would not even come close to the money involved in creating the three new build campuses in Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon.

In October we reported that a design team was to be appointed for the construction of three new multi-million education campuses in the council areas to be drawn together in the new ‘super-council’.

The Department of Finance and Personnel, we said, was seeking to award a contract for the professional services required to build new facilities for the Southern Regional College in each of the three areas.

The new campus in Armagh, which was estimated to cost in the region of £30 million, would be constructed on land in the existing Lonsdale/College Hill area. It would cover a massive 16,250 sq metre site.

The Banbridge development would be the smallest of the three, yet still substantial, stetching to 6,000 sq metres. It would be constructed on the existing Castlewellan Road site. The cost was not given.

The Craigavon campus would be the largest of the three, at 18,500 sq metres, and replace the facilities in Lurgan and Portadown.

A site had still to be identified for the campus, for which £22.5 million had already been secured by the Department of Employment and Learning under the UK Government and NI Executive’s joint economic pact, Building a Prosperous and United Community.

Today it was revealed that the DEL capital element of its budget for 2015/16 was being cut back by 40% – down from £55 million to £33 million.

“The level of cuts being proposed for the Department is unprecedented and this will have far reaching and deep implications across all of the Department’s provision,” Minister Farry said today.

“The potential measures will impact on the universities, colleges and other sectoral training providers and will almost certainly result in a reduction in places offered to train and educate our young people.”

The draft budget for 2015-16 results in a net 10.8% cash reduction from the opening baseline figure of £756m, which equates to £82m.

The funding previously allocated for the Youth Employment Scheme, the Economy & Jobs Initiative and Pathways to Success – totalling £35 – will cease at March 31, next year, as these were ‘time-bound’ initiatives.

This therefore represents a total cash reduction to the Department’s budget of £117m in a single year – that’s 14.8% – comparing 2015-16 with the budget in 2014-15. The Department is also required to absorb the effects of pay and price inflation.

Minister Farry’s budget savings plan – which is now open to public consultation until December 29 and which we link below – states: “The Department was planning to invest capital of £50m in the higher and further education sectors, in line with the allocation in 2014-15.

“The current budget proposals for the department only permit capital investment of £33.2m, which would mean a curtailment of the department’s ability to invest in capital projects at the level of previous years’ investments.

“The Department is examining the scope for using alternative capital funding mechanisms to support its capital investment programme.”

A resource reduction of £82m, the Minister reports, will have a significant impact on the department’s ability to deliver its key strategic services.

It has identified a range of options to begin to address the anticipated departmental pressures in 2015-16 which will amount to approximately £33m.

But this still leaves a “significant balance of £49m of reductions to be identified”.

The budgetary report states: “This will potentially be addressed through reductions in the Block Grant to universities, university colleges and further education colleges, along with further cuts to other departmental divisions which will impact on the services they provide.”

The potential implication of these cuts are as follows:

Higher Education:

“The two universities, Queen’s University and Ulster University have indicated that budget cuts of 10.8% in their funding could mean a reduction in excess of 1,000 in student places and 650 staff, which will impact upon their research infrastructure.

“This would have a major impact on Northern Ireland’s ability to provide the kind of highly skilled and qualified workforce necessary to support the rebuilding and rebalancing our local economy and meeting the demands from inward investment and local investors.

“A reduction of over 1,000 student places next year would continue to have a knock on effect over the next three years, potentially consigning a significant number of young people to unemployment, or for those who can afford it, a requirement to leave Northern Ireland to seek a place in a university in Great Britain.

“This will be a drain on Northern Ireland’s talent pool as history shows less than 40% of students who leave Northern Ireland to study elsewhere ever return.

Further Education.

“The current further education baseline budget is £196m. Overall, the Department is spending around £160m on 16-19 year olds, over 50% of which relates directly to those participating in further education provision.

“The further education colleges have indicated that passing on the current level of proposed cuts of 10.8% would result in the withdrawal of well in excess of 16,000 places for 16-19 year olds (with Level 1 and below being particularly vulnerable) and a reduction of 500 staff.

“The budget reductions in the further education colleges are compounded with a rates bill increase – on average estimated to be circa 15% or £1m for the six colleges – from the recent non-domestic revaluation.”

The full document is available on the Department’s website at: http://www.delni.gov.uk/del-draft-budget-2015-16. and completed responses should be emailed to: budgetconsultation@delni.gov.uk or delivered to the Department by 5pm on December 29.

Such a bleak outlook will leave many asking what now for Armagh?

The plan had always been to draw all of the various SRC locations across the city, much of which has become rundown, under one roof in a state-of-the-art new-build.

In 2010, a team from SRC, including Chief Executive Brian Doran, attended a meeting of Armagh City and District Council to outline plans for the SRC estate.

But in 2010 we were not facing the severe cuts across all departments which are being witnessed now.

But the Department of Finance and Personnel did advertise in October a tender relating to the works required to drive the project forward. It was a £3 million five-year contract to lead and pull together all elements of the scheme.

The closing date for interested parties to submit applications for the services contract was October 31.

The scary thing now is the unknown and what will take priority.

Employment and Learning Minister, Dr Farry, in response to a question from Newry and Armagh SDLP Assemblyman Dominic Bradley last January, said he recognised that there had not been as much investment in the SRC catchment area as in other parts of the Province.

And he commented back then: “Subject to resources, we will look favourably on making investments in that area, including, hopefully, the Armagh area.”

Now it seems those resources are at an all time low and the city’s hopes of a new campus seem further away than ever before.

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