Colleges: a key economic driver

260912WC2_020-new Gerry Campbell, Chief Executive of Colleges Northern Ireland, talks to Owen McQuade about the sector’s contribution to skills, research and employment, and how colleges have used reform as an opportunity to improve their own performance.

Best known as major providers of education across Northern Ireland, the six regional colleges of further and higher education are continuing to play a growing role in developing skills for business and industry, meeting the needs of inward investors and giving young people hope for the future by developing their skills and attributes and improving their employability

Colleges Northern Ireland (CNI) is the membership body for the six colleges of further and higher education and its upbeat Chief Executive, Gerry Campbell, is seeing real progress in how the sector is helping to meet today’s economic challenges and improving its own efficiency at the same time.

Following a re-structuring of the sector in 2007, six new regional colleges came into existence. The colleges are funded primarily by the Department for Employment and Learning (DEL). CNI is, in turn, funded by the six colleges. Campbell explains its role as providing “a collegiate and sectoral voice in areas such as policy development” and “a common voice in engaging with their stakeholders” i.e. public sector organisations, political representatives and a range of business organisations such as the CBI and Federation of Small Businesses.

Supporting the colleges in strategic discussions with DEL is a key part of CNI’s role and involves engagement with ministers and senior civil servants across several government departments, Assembly committees and political parties.

The board of CNI comprises the principals/chief executives and chairs of each of the six colleges, who work with the CNI Chief Executive to develop a strategic direction for the sector. “The colleges are all individual colleges in their own right and they are major educational institutions in terms of UK colleges,” Campbell comments, “but coming together enables them to share common practices and experiences and to work together as a sector, and CNI provides the common platform to do that.”

At a very practical level, CNI provides a common IT solution for information management across the six colleges and supports the Connected knowledge transfer programme, in conjunction with the two universities. Established in 2007, Connected acts as a ‘one-stop shop’ for businesses looking for research and technical expertise from the universities and colleges. To date, it has helped companies to access research and undertake innovation, and training to boost their productivity, develop new products or enter new markets.

Higher education is a very strong component of the regional colleges’ offer. The six colleges hold a 20 per cent market share of the higher education market in Northern Ireland via the delivery of higher national diplomas and foundation degrees. In the latter qualification, an individual studies for the first two years of their degree at college and then finishes the degree at a university. In the current year, 11,000 students are studying within higher education through the flexible approach that the colleges provide.


Continuing to develop the skills needed by business and industry is a key priority for the sector. “It’s difficult out there in terms of job opportunities,” he acknowledges. “We are very focused on helping the Executive meet their targets within the Programme for Government and the Economic Strategy, and in terms of having the capacity to develop the right level of skills for economic recovery and growth.”

CNI has focused more closely on this theme over the last two years e.g. through the Colleges into Industry programme (sponsored by DEL) which places lecturers with businesses and the Skills Pipeline Initiative (developed alongside Invest NI) for foreign direct investment.

“Organisations looking to invest in Northern Ireland can work with the colleges to identify how their needs for skilled people can be met,” he says of the initiative. “For example, an organisation may approach DEL or Invest NI with the need for a number of people with a certain skill. The request will go through CNI as a single point of contact with the FE sector. CNI will then engage with the colleges and deliver a sectoral response to meet the business/industry request.”

Now in their third year, the high profile BEST awards highlight the opportunities which STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects provide for further study or even setting up a new business. The awards are organised and managed by CNI to help promote STEM subjects to a wider audience.

Last year’s awards saw over 100 students showcase their projects at the Glenavon Hotel in Cookstown to a panel of judges from the colleges, universities, business and industry. CNI has also engaged with the Royal Academy of Engineering to raise the profile of STEM subjects and this year will run a series of STEM-related workshops for National Museums Northern Ireland. CNI has also engaged with the regional technical colleges in the Republic of Ireland to explore cross-border opportunities in this area.

One challenge that is not immediately obvious to those outside the sector has been the re-classification of the colleges as non-departmental public bodies. The colleges have become increasingly innovative and enterprising in working with business and industry but this re-classification threatens to stifle such innovation. The colleges were re-classified by the Office for National Statistics, and Campbell says that CNI is “working through this issue closely with DEL to ensure that any future model of governance supports the colleges in the delivery of world class vocational, technical and professional education and is flexible to enable colleges to support and contribute to the economy.”

Employment and Learning Minister Stephen Farry has set a shared services programme as a priority for the sector, which follows on from the colleges “working together more collaboratively” over the past five years.

“There is now more of a sectoral approach to issues,” Campbell adds. “In terms of shared services, it’s really about getting ‘more bang for your buck’. It’s not about cutting functions. It’s more about getting greater value through improvements like collaborative procurement.”

260912WC2_087 Opportunities

The activities of the colleges range from vocational, technical and professional qualifications through to foundation degrees and academic qualifications such as A-levels, with Belfast Metropolitan College having the largest number of A-level students in Northern Ireland.

“It’s market choice,” he states. “Many students want to repeat A-levels is a college setting and it is recognised that further education gives many young people a second chance.

“In today’s world, it is a significant cost to go to university and you no longer just walk into a job on leaving university. Many young people now don’t think of going to the regional colleges as a second or even third choice. Often, it best suits their chosen career path.”

Flexibility is one of the strengths of the FE colleges as a course can be studied full-time or through a wide range of part-time options. “These allow many students to work and train at the same time, to either up-skill or re-skill,” he comments. “Together with an industry-enriched curriculum, it offers better job opportunities and clearer

pathways to further development and/or employment.”

The colleges also deliver over 120,000 hours of teaching per year to the post-primary sector, engaging with 14 to 16 year-olds. Under the entitlement framework, schools work with FE colleges to deliver more vocational curriculum offerings. A young person from school, for example, may go to college one day a week along with pupils from other schools (often from both the maintained and controlled sectors) to work on vocationally-based subjects such as construction.

This is an example of positive working between colleges and schools. Whilst challenges such as area planning and the establishment of the Education and Skills Authority remain, the colleges offer a strong vocationally based programme which is very much based on the best interests of the young person.

“One of the strengths of the FE sector is that it has always been a truly shared environment for young people,” Campbell points out. This is often the first time that students are entering the same educational setting with those from different schools and backgrounds.

“Tackling youth unemployment is now a significant issue,” he adds. “Government is taking a joined-up approach to the whole issue of NEETs. Rather than having young people sitting at home if the jobs are not there, the colleges offer them the opportunity to not only acquire some skills but to raise their self-esteem and raise their hopes and aspirations.”

The colleges provide an outreach to areas that have been particularly disadvantaged. For example, local community groups can use the world class facilities at the e3 centre on the Springfield Road in West Belfast.

All of those projects are examples of the strong partnership working that underpins CNI’s work. Partnerships range from links with sister bodies in Great Britain to those the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment and the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure, partnering with Invest NI on international opportunities and linking with Belfast City Council on EU funding opportunities.

Streamlining the sector from 26 colleges through to 16 to now six “strong colleges, in terms of size and reputation” has helped further education to raise its game. These are challenging times, with no extra funding and costs rising, but Campbell concludes that “it’s a challenge the colleges are up to.”

Colleges and campuses

Belfast Metropolitan College

Titanic Quarter and e3 (Springfield Road), Millfield, Tower Street

Northern Regional College

Farm Lodge (Ballymena), Trostan Avenue (Ballymena), Ballymoney, Coleraine, Magherafelt and Newtownabbey

North West Regional College

Strand Road (Derry/Londonderry), Limavady and Strabane

South Eastern Regional College

Lisburn, Downpatrick, Newtownards, Bangor, Newcastle, Ballyboley, Holywood and Ballynahinch

Southern Regional College

Banbridge, Armagh, Newry Campus, Greenbank (Newry), Portadown, Kilkeel and Lurgan

South West College

Cookstown, Dungannon, Enniskillen, and Omagh

Size of sector

£250 million turnover

£340 million capital investment over last 15 years and “still more to be done”

4,100 lecturers across the six colleges

155,000 enrolments in 2011-2012 (115,000 different learners)

25,000 essential skills enrolments (maths, ICT and literacy)

7,000 apprentices and trainees on government training schemes

120,000 hours of vocational curriculum delivered to post-primary pupils

7,500 businesses engaged (from local SMEs to multinational companies)

Profile: Gerry Campbell

A native of Antrim, Gerry attended St Malachy’s College, Belfast, and Queen’s University where he studied history and politics and then took a masters in management. In the 1990s, Gerry worked for a private training company before joining the British Red Cross and managing its training in Northern Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man.

He was then Director of Corporate Services with the Northern Ireland Social Care Council and CEO for the Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People before taking up his current role in July 2011. Gerry is also a board member of Health and Safety Executive, Sport NI and Extern. He has an interest in sports, including disability sports, and is Secretary of the Northern Ireland Knights Wheelchair Basketball Club. His other interests include reading history. Gerry is married to Fiona and has three children: Cameron, Jenni and Emmet.

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