|Hilditch Speaks On Cross-Border Education|
David Hilditch (DUP)
I speak as a member of the Committee for Employment and Learning — indeed, a relatively new member — who is attempting to get his head round the many challenges that currently face the Department. Although the motion calls for the Minister for Employment and Learning and the Minister of Education to work closely with the Department of Education and Skills to remove the barriers that limit student flows on the island of Ireland, I, for one, acknowledge the historical background, where we are today and the implications of any change to the current situation. However, like Mr Buchanan, I question the usefulness of today's debate.
As I said, I am new to the Committee, and, admittedly, this is the first time that I have looked at the report in any detail. If I am being totally honest, I believe that most of its findings could be described as almost stating the obvious, with information — or, perhaps, the lack of it — on economic and grade equivalences being to the fore. The recommendations clearly flow from these findings, and that is where I have concerns about financial implications and pressures in this budgetary period, together with any further burden to the taxpayer. Some recommendations relate to much that can be done in the sector itself and, indeed, in other jurisdictions. However, there is also a call for government resources to be made available for commissioned work, and this report would form the basis of any collaborative working.
It is worth noting that some of those in the Republic of Ireland who participated in the formulation of the report expressed concern that they could not justify the expense at this time of severe financial cutbacks. Here in Northern Ireland, in our devolved Administration, those pressures are no different. Indeed, my attention was drawn to the section in the research pack that gave some detail on what is expected in monetary terms from the Department for Employment and Learning during the current mandate alone. The figures are quite stark and certainly exercised the minds of members of the Committee for Employment and Learning. Further to that, I understand that the cost of cross-border education to our devolved Administration is around £11·6 million. Clearly, any increase would affect departmental budgets.
I believe in educational choice. However, I am concerned about the impact that this motion or, indeed, any private Member's motion would have on our priorities. The Minister has been strong on issues that relate to growing the economy in Northern Ireland. He has clearly set out the Department's stall in recent statements on higher education. We know where improvements can be made in the system here. I advocate strongly that any additional resources made available should be diverted to priorities here in Northern Ireland that will shape and create an innovative economy. Having attended my first couple of meetings of the Employment and Learning Committee, I have already been hearing of the basic need for capital spend on facilities and enhanced careers guidance down the line. Those are examples of local bread-and-butter issues that we must prioritise for our limited resources. I am concerned that a motion such as this would divert resources from real needs, and I will not be supporting the motion.