QUB and UU warn of plans to cut 1,100 student places
Northern Ireland's universities have warned that they will have to cut 1,100 student places in the fall-out from last week's executive draft budget.
The Department for Employment and Learning (DEL) is to lose almost £81m.
As a result, Queen's University Belfast and the University of Ulster said student places would be cut from next September.
The vice chancellors of the universities said their talented people were "one of NI's greatest resources".
In a joint statement, they said those lost to Northern Ireland universities would probably go to England or Scotland and pay £9,000 fees.
Prof Patrick Johnston, Queen's University Belfast (QUB), and Prof Richard Barnett, Ulster University (UU), said the Northern Ireland economy would suffer as a result of the cuts.
They described their students as "the lifeblood of local and international businesses, the research base and ultimately, our economy".
"Higher education contributes £1.5bn annually to the local economy and is a key economic driver providing 8,000 high-quality graduates each year who are sought after by investors and indigenous businesses," they said.
"The budget agreed by the executive has imposed one of the biggest cuts on the Department for Employment and Learning and, in consequence, the budget to higher education could potentially be cut by at least 10.8%."
The leaders of the university said past experience suggested that the majority of those who left Northern Ireland would never return.
"In effect, the executive will be encouraging local talent to leave Northern Ireland whilst subsidising universities in England and Scotland," they said.
The chancellors said the "devastating impact" on skills levels was clear but it was harder to predict the consequence of the cuts on the world-class research carried out at both universities.
"From improving survival rates for cancer patients to engineering new materials that aim to revolutionize the global aerospace industry, our universities are at the heart of internationally leading research," they said.
"Some of the world's greatest advances have been pioneered by our universities and Northern Ireland has the second fastest growing knowledge economy in the UK. The decision to cut the higher education budget places this achievement, and our future, at risk."
The president of the NUS-USI union, Rebecca Hall, called on the executive to act to overturn the proposed cut, saying it could be catastrophic for students and for the economy.
"Students must not be targeted within this budget. Students are Northern Ireland's future leaders, and the proposed budget could have massive ramifications for them.
"It would be horrific if the cut proposed leads to a decrease in the number of student places at universities and colleges in Northern Ireland," she said.
Meanwhile, Gerry Campbell, from Colleges Northern Ireland, which represents six regional colleges, said thousands of their student places were also at risk.
He said two out of five students came to their colleges without essential GCSE qualifications.
"The further education colleges come in and pick up the pieces, providing them with essential skills in literacy and numeracy," he said.
"About 43% of our students come from deprived and disadvantaged backgrounds, with care and support, they progress on to positive pathways."
In October, DEL Minister Stephen Farry said he had warned both universities about the impending drop in funding.
In common with other government departments at Stormont, DEL had its budget cut by 2% during the summer.
In September, the UU told its staff it was making an immediate £3.15m budget cut due to financial pressures at Stormont.