JOURNAL CAMPAIGN: Employment and Learning Minister, Dr Stephen Farry writes about the NI economy, the North West and the importance of skills
Skills are the key driver of positive economic change, and are also a powerful tool to promote individual opportunity and to achieve greater social inclusion. They encourage greater investment and innovation, they help businesses compete in export markets, and ultimately they support economic growth and enhance productivity.
There is a general demand for higher level skills across the economy, and my Department is taking forward a number of initiatives to improve the match between the supply and demand in a number of priority sectors and to ensure we have the skilled workforce necessary to capitalise on future economic opportunities.
The ‘Skills to Succeed’ campaign aims to ensure everyone is aware of the importance of skills acquisition and life-long learning coupled with highlighting the numerous pathways to learning and gaining new skills.
The campaign aims to raise skills at all levels, from ensuring that everyone has the required abilities in literacy, numeracy and ICT, through enhanced systems of higher level apprenticeships, youth training, encouragement of the uptake of foundation degrees and initiatives in widening participation in higher education to ensure that all with the ability can achieve their aims, irrespective of their societal and economic backgrounds.
I recognise that an expansion of higher education in Derry would bring about a significant change for the better in terms of economic regeneration. The One Plan sets out an ambitious vision for higher education expansion and details the outcomes and benefits expected to flow from this.
The Executive’s Economic Strategy recognises that skills are the bedrock of an innovation-based knowledge economy and clearly investing in higher education does drive economic growth. The Executive’s priority is to grow the Northern Ireland economy through maximising participation in higher education, and its policy in this area recognises the critical role that our universities play in producing graduates to meet existing and new economic opportunities.
It also recognises the importance of the higher education sector to research, economic development and innovation.
In fact the majority of research activities in advanced innovation economies take place on a collaborative basis between businesses, higher education and public research institutes. We need to ensure that our higher education sector keeps pace with other developed and developing economies. The case has been proven that Northern Ireland needs a vibrant higher education sector and I firmly believe that we need to continually grow and expand the sector for the good of everyone in Northern Ireland including the North West region.
However, the current Programme for Government does not contain a commitment to deliver higher education expansion in Derry as outlined in the vision of the One Plan. It contains one reference to the One Plan which is to develop the One Plan for the regeneration of Derry, incorporating the key sites at Fort George and Ebrington. There is no specific reference to higher education expansion apart from the commitment to increase the uptake in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) subjects. Clearly higher education expansion in Derry is a key transformational theme within the One Plan and there is understandably a strong lobby in the North West in support of this.
Since taking up office I have increased the number of undergraduate places at our two universities by 1,210 and 652 of these went to Ulster University for its Magee campus. This expansion has gone some way to meet the interim target set out in the One Plan. My Department will continue to process bids for capital projects that are currently in the pipeline from Ulster University, including the Magee campus, in the normal way. Clearly any new bid would have to represent additionality and not be at the expense of undermining quality elsewhere in the higher education system, and would also need to be considered in conjunction with other investments required to consolidate the world-class standards of universities and the wider development of skills in our economy in areas such as apprenticeships.
I have also been able to increase the number of post-graduate places being funded from a baseline of 495 to 845 places by 2015-16. My Department’s higher education strategy, “Graduating to Success”, has a target of increasing the number of such places funded to 1000 by 2020. We were well on our way to making positive strides in expanding higher education but the budget settlement for 2015-16 put a brake on this expansion and we now need to collectively work to ensure that we obtain a more favourable and sustainable budget settlement for higher education in the 2016-20 period and beyond.
The vision for the expansion of higher education in Derry as set out in the One Plan is ambitious. It envisions a campus which serves 9,400 (including 6,000 full-time undergraduate students), supported by enhanced provision of 750 full-time undergraduate students at the North West Regional College over the 10 year period to 2020. There is an interim targeted increase of 1,000 places by 2015 which we were close to achieving prior to the budget reductions for 2015-16.
I am committed to take forward the expansion of Magee and recognise the importance of this in terms of regenerating the economy in the North West. However, this is set against the fact that my Department is still facing a challenging £62million worth of budget cuts.
The One Plan cost estimates for the expansion of Magee are significant. It would cost in the range of £30 to £40 million per annum on a recurrent basis.
In the current financial climate my Department does not have the funds for an expansion on this scale.
The Derry~Londonderry Strategy Board commissioned a business case to support the expansion of Magee and this was submitted to my Department in December 2014. The business case has been scrutinised by officials and feedback has been provided to the authors on the first full draft of the appraisal. The business case needs to prove that an expansion of higher education in Northern Ireland is warranted and specifically that the expansion of the Magee campus represents the best value for money option. It will take some time before the business case is deemed to satisfy the requirements of the Northern Ireland Guide to Expenditure Appraisal and Evaluation. Should the business case present a convincing and compelling argument for the expansion of Magee I have undertaken to make a bid in the next comprehensive spending review exercise.
In Northern Ireland higher education places are funded at a level, depending on the subject studied, of between £1,000 – £2,500 lower than comparative places in England.
This underfunding has been the result of successive budgetary reductions over the years and the decision not to increase tuition fees beyond the level of inflation.
Such a significant expansion of the Magee campus would need to be funded on a sustainable basis and that means finding funding for each place at a level higher than we currently fund.
To do otherwise would be to risk reducing the teaching and research quality of Ulster University and placing it in an uncompetitive position in relation to institutions across the UK.
This structural underfunding issue is already seriously impacting all our higher education institutions and it is one which we should strive to address and correct.
At the present time Ulster University is planning to construct a new teaching block at Magee.
The development of the new teaching block will remove some existing teaching facilities and replace these with flexible state of the art facilities that can be used for a range of different subjects i.e. the new teaching space is generic, not specialised for particular purposes.
The campus will then be able to cater for the existing enrolments and accommodate the additional full-time undergraduate places already allocated to the campus. In addition to this it will provide some spare capacity to accommodate several hundred more full-time places at some point in the future.
The University has already obtained planning permission for this development which is projected to cost £11.2m with the University seeking a grant of £10m towards it.
The capital fund development has been approved by my Department and it is now with the Department for Finance and Personnel (DFP) for its review and approval. Once all approvals are in place I will bid for the resources required for the construction of the block.
With an annual budget of around £23 million the North West Regional College also makes a valuable contribution to both higher and further education in Derry.
It is a leading provider of Further and Higher Education and skills training.
The College’s three main campuses in Derry, Limavady, and Strabane boast modern and industry-standard learning environments, at which over 20,000 students, including almost 1,700 students on higher education courses achieve their personal educational goals, through full and part-time study every year.
An investment of £9.9 million capital funding over the past 5 years has assisted the College to upgrade its estate including the construction of a new facility at Boating Club Lane.
The College is now working on the next stage of its Estate Strategy.
This work has already received DFP approval, will shortly begin the design phase and is expected to cost in the region of £9.3m.
The associated projects will see a major redevelopment of its Springtown Campus as well as reconfiguration of accommodation at its Tower Building and Northland sites.
Since 2010, my Department has also contributed £7.9 million towards the costs for the Northland Building which was delivered as part of a Public Private Partnership agreement.
The College student population ranges from school leavers and mature students to professionals and jobseekers who wish to improve their skills and qualifications.
In recent years, the College has witnessed an increase in student numbers across its Level 2 Diplomas, Level 3 Extended Diplomas and Higher Education provision.
North West Regional College delivers a broad range of support services to business clients through a diverse range of support mechanisms – all of these contribute to the economic development of the North West.
The College has a frontline role in skills development in Derry, providing a wide range of business-focused training focused specificially on the needs of employers in the area.
This is funded by way of block grant, capital funding, support and hardship funding and other earmarked funds accessed by the college.
My Department’s Careers Service also provides input to skills development in the city providing support to fourteen schools in the Derry area and to students at NWRC.
Additional support is provided for young people with learning disabilities.
The “drop-in” service in Derry Careers Resource Centre at the Diamond provides advice to nearly 3000 callers on average every year.
My Department has also provided significant funding in support of WorldHost training to help the hospitality and tourism sector in the city.
WorldHost provides short training interventions to help staff who interface directly with visitors to showcase their local environment and provide an exceptional standard of service leading to an enhanced visitor experience.
Derry’s success in becoming the first city in the UK to achieve WorldHost Destination Status is testament to the impact of this investment.
Local businesses also have access to Department’s suite of management and leadership development initiatives.
I am also pleased that I have been able to support the important work of the Education and Skills Group which leads on skills matters relating to the One Plan.
My Department is represented on the group, but I also agreed to provide day- to-day assistance to the group to enable it to have a dedicated resource to allow it to progress its work.
Following through on this commitment my Department has provided an Employment and Skills and Liaison Officer to work for the group with a particular emphasis on engaging with employers and the local community.
This role includes promoting a clear understanding of the skills development and employment opportunities and support in the city.
We are predominantly a service and knowledge economy, with growth in business services such as ICT, finance, life sciences, advanced engineering and manufacturing, food and drinks manufacturing, tourism and creative industries.
It is these sectors that I have prioritised for training and support from my Department.
My Department has engaged with stakeholders in promoting and supporting this important area of work in the North West.
Significant progress has been made in highlighting STEM as a study and career path of choice for both men and women. STEM opportunities in the North West were a key feature of the September STEM newspaper supplements produced by the STEM Business Group, and Derry based STEM companies will continue to feature in the forthcoming February STEM supplement.
In addition further work is planned to help promote the benefits of a diverse STEM workforce. Collaboration between the STEM Business Group and the Equality Commission has to date resulted in 31 organisations, including locally Seagate, Allstate and Ulster University, committing to the STEM Charter to demonstrate their commitment to equality in STEM employment.
The associated STEM Employers Equality Network (SEEN) aims to help employers improve the gender balance. Work is planned to re-launch the Charter and extend the Network to the North West in the spring.
As part of the NI Science Festival from, 19 February to 1 March, my Department is sponsoring a STEM Seminar at the North West Regional College on Thursday 26 February.
The event, aimed at students, employers and educators, will feature speakers with significant experience and expertise in building links between education and industry in Massachusetts, USA. There will be presentations from myself as the Minister for Employment and Learning, the US State Department’s Special Representative for Global Partnerships, Andrew O’Brien and local people telling of their experiences and successes in the STEM sector.
My Department’s Employment Service also plays a significant role in contributing to the Derry area’s future economic success, for example by annually hosting a major Job Fair in the Millennium Forum. Support for local unemployed people has been recently enhanced by the launch of my Department’s new flagship employment programmes, Steps 2 Success.
I will finish by restating that I believe that skills are the main driver of transformation of our economy.
Facilitating the creation of a workforce equipped with the skills needed by business will continue to be the strategic focus of my Department. I, Executive colleagues and my Department remain committed to playing a major role in the economic development and prosperity of the North West.
For further information on the range of programmes and initiatives available via the Department for Employment and Learning visit www.