Further concerns have been raised this week over the far reaching impact the proposed cuts to the DARD budget may have.
It has emerged that CAFRE is to reduce the number of its veterinary nursing staff at Greenmount from two to one, with a contract not being renewed for a member of staff at the end of April.
Vet nurses are employed to deliver the teaching and student support for the veterinary nursing and animal care courses, with the reduction leading to fears that staff reduction will impact on teaching.
Ulster Unionist MLA Robin Swann has described the decision by CAFRE to reduce their veterinary nursing staff as illogical.
The North Antrim MLA said: “I was concerned to learn that CAFRE have decided to reduce the staff involved with teaching veterinary nursing at Greenmount.
“These courses are absolutely essential to local veterinary services across Northern Ireland and play an invaluable role in preparing our young students for a career in the profession.
“Immediately after learning of the reductions I contacted the Agriculture Minister Michelle O’Neill to firstly seek confirmation as to why this decision had been taken and then secondly to get assurances that it will not have a negative impact on the students enrolling in the courses affected.
“The staff at Greenmount deliver an excellent education and many had skilfully learned to pass the real life skills that they have developed themselves working in the industry through to the students in the classroom. Their support was not only on the campus but also out in practices across Northern Ireland as they worked closely with the students to advance their practical learning.
“The decision to reduce this staffing level does seem illogical to me and therefore I fear CAFRE took the decision more so for budgetary reasons rather than what was best for our veterinary nursing students.”
In response to the concerns, a spokesperson for DARD confirmed staff reduction across the department would form part of the cut backs.
The spokesperson explained: “The 15/16 budget for DARD envisages a staffing reduction of 300 posts. DARD anticipates staff leaving the department under the NICS Voluntary Exit Scheme from the autumn of 2015. The 300 posts will be spread widely across the functions of the department but it is not yet possible to be precise about which posts or functions will be affected including CAFRE.
“Despite the financial challenges ahead DARD remains committed to delivering the minister’s key priorities in 2015-16.”
Meanwhile, The Ulster Arable Society understands that DARD is now close to a decision, as part of their budget reduction programme, to recommend to the minister that the Crossnacreevy Plant Testing Station should be closed.
A statement from the society read: “This recommendation will, if implemented, leave the arable sector in Northern Ireland devoid of any local research capability. The fear must be that a similar fate will befall all but the major enterprises, leaving the others to struggle into decline devoid of any local scientific support.
“This threat has come despite the society’s repeated representations to DARD officials pointing out that the arable research capacity is already at rock bottom and can withstand no further reduction.
“The recommendation seems to confirm our worst fears that in DARD’s ‘robust review of research priorities’ currently nearing conclusion, decisions are being taken on a basis which is not linked to the needs of the industry – but simply because programmes or centres are small.
“We have therefore written to the minister seeking clarification of the criteria used to prioritise the required savings and seeking assurances that if the decision is taken to close Crossnacreavy, that adequate alternative provision will be made to sustain the expertise and work programmes currently undertaken there.
“We have suggested that the criteria used to prioritise research provision must include the essential question: ‘why does this research work need to be undertaken within Northern Ireland’.”
In response to these concerns, a DARD spokesperson said: “The minister is fully aware of the significant implications of the budget position for 2015/16 across her department and its NDPBs, including AFBI. The minister recently informed the ARD Committee that she must find almost £30m (15%) of savings in one year as a result of the Tory government’s cut to the Executive’s block grant.
“These savings, and the competing demands that come with them, must be set against a backdrop of difficult time for our farming community. The minister remains unequivocal in her determination to deliver on her key priorities, including CAP reform, Going for Growth, tackling rural poverty, and HQ relocation. These key priorities cannot be delivered without making difficult decisions, such as staff reductions in her own department of 10%, or reducing programme expenditure.
“The minister is awaiting a final set of costed proposals from AFBI to show how it plans to live within its available budget for 2015/16.”