Supporting the skills pipeline and growth

Gerry Campbell puts the case for more Executive spending to support skills and economic development.  Colleges NI’s Chief Executive talks to Owen McQuade about the further education sector’s offering and its contribution to economic growth.

“You need to invest in your people if you are to grow the economy.” That is Gerry Campbell’s main message to the Executive as the further education sector prepares for challenging economic times ahead.

“If we’re going to have a prosperous Northern Ireland, which has the foundations in place for people to improve their life opportunities and ensuring that people can get access to the best jobs and developing them as individuals, the FE colleges will continue to play a very important role.”

The FE sector, in his view, is in a good position right now “even given some of the challenges and the environment that they operate within.” The sector is “very strong” and has matured, becoming “confident in the role that it plays within Northern Irish society, both for individuals and the economy in general.”

During the last 10 years, the sector has focused on adding value and its overall contribution to economic development.
“Over 90,000 students progress through our FE colleges during a given year,” he comments, “which equates to over 157,000 enrolments. The colleges in each of their own areas are significant economic contributors to their local economy but when you take the whole FE sector as an entire unit, that’s an annual turnover of over £260 million.”

Significant investment has prompted a sharper approach to business and industry from colleges. “There’s still very much a focus on retention, achievement and supporting both young and adult learners,” Campbell comments, “we are very much geared towards what the economy needs, fostering innovation and business growth and supporting the skills pipeline – this is the journey ahead.”

The colleges are “in the right place” and have the capability and expertise “to move forward into the years beyond 2015-2016 with a degree of optimism that they can meet the skills needs of the future.” The Executive, though, must continue to invest significantly in the FE colleges – especially if it wants to deliver the full benefits of lower corporation tax.

They are also an “additional key lever” for the Executive by providing appropriately skilled labour in its drive to help the local private sector to grow and to attract more foreign direct investment. Reducing corporation tax is welcome and will become effective in itself but will become more effective if the right skills and the right labour supply are available. The colleges are “integral to the sucess of the skills pipeline” for providing those economic opportunities.

Campbell sees the economy’s twin challenges as recovering from a deep recession and also rebalancing between the public and private sectors. The latter process “will take time” and he wants the FE sector to be adequately supported by investment for economic growth.
“Like other parts of the public sector, our income has been significantly reduced in the Budget for 2015-2016,” he explains. “Allied to that, a lot of the real-time investment in the colleges has been standing still over the last five to six years.” The colleges’ ability to help grow the economy will be constrained after 2016 if the current funding situation remains.

The sector supports young people who have left school at 16, adults who are returning to FE, and reskilling and upskilling those in employment. “It’s very attractive for investors locating in Northern Ireland,” he remarks. “They see the quality of the individuals coming through but if that tap is slowly turned off over the next number of years, the choices that the colleges will have to make will become much starker.”

Colleges, for example, will need to consider whether to focus their resources in higher level skills areas or spread them right across the range of courses provided. At present, around 30 per cent of qualifications are above Level 2 – e.g. foundation degrees, higher national diplomas and higher level apprenticeships – and are geared to supporting economic growth.

The majority (70 per cent) of the qualifications achieved in the FE sector remain at Level 2 and below which he characterises as “picking up the pieces” where colleges support young people who have left school without five GCSEs at grades A*-C, including English and maths.
“If we turn off the entry opportunities for those young people, where do they go?” he asks. “Many young people are coming through, getting themselves on to a skills escalator and into employment, and the pathways are opened up and they begin to make significant contributions – both economically and socially whilst also acquiring the essential skills of English, maths and ICT.”

Two out of every five pupils who leave school at the age of 16 don’t have five GCSE passes (as defined above). Twenty-nine per cent of Northern Ireland’s present workforce left the education system without any formal qualifications.

“Effectively, you have the public purse paying for the inadequacies of post-primary education,” he states. “Many young people go through seven years of primary education and five years in post-primary education and cannot get a grade C in English or mathematics. There’s something wrong there.”

Further education is also good for social mobility. Forty-three per cent of learners come from the most disadvantaged wards in Northern Ireland, where unemployment is higher and there are fewer opportunities.

“FE plays a very strong cohesive role for many young people coming through who haven’t achieved what they should have achieved at post-primary school,” Campbell continues. “It gives them their second chance. For some young people, it’s their final chance.”
Colleges NI strongly contends that FE is not simply a second choice for young people. The economic landscape is changing with many people going to university coming out with degrees that will not necessarily guarantee them a job. Higher education is also training large numbers of people for “jobs that are no longer there” e.g. when Northern Ireland has “too many teachers and too many lawyers.”

Careers guidance and advice also needs to be strengthened and made more cohesive. Campbell notes: “Schools are holding on to a wider spectrum of achievers and offer them the opportunity to go on and do AS and A-levels. We find more and more young people joining a further education college at the age of 17 where they have done one year of AS study and don’t continue on with the second year.”
If careers advice to those students had been more effective, they could have spent that first year in the college, developing professional and technical skills, and getting an opportunity to progress in their chosen career. A learner in a FE college can still take a higher national diploma and progress to university to complete their degree.

He finds that young people in FE also develop their communication, teamwork, leadership and entrepreneurial skills.
Working with an employer is an integral part of a professional or technical qualification. Campbell welcomes Employment and Learning Minister Stephen Farry’s focus on placing an equal importance on vocational and academic routes. “There is a need for more seamless pathways to move from one to the other and back again,” he comments, “and a real value placed on the professional and technical route every much as the academic route.”

Campbell expects to see many more opportunities opening up for investors and adds that employers are looking for the skills that FE colleges can provide. The six regional FE colleges are major educational institutions operating within their own localities but also come together as a strong FE bloc that is mature, outward-thinking and working “very much in partnership” with business, government and universities. The Connected programme, for example, involves a close working relationship between the colleges, universities, Invest NI and businesses.

Further education, he maintains, will be a very strong policy area within the ‘department for the economy’ to be established after the next Assembly election. Colleges NI already supports Invest NI’s inward investment work and will seek to identify which skills are especially needed over the next five to 10 years, and to this end the Colleges NI board is looking forward to the publication of Northern Ireland’s Skills Barometer.

The FE sector can supply the skills solutions to back up Northern Ireland’s offer to potential investors e.g. through reduced corporation tax or other incentives. After 10 years of rationalisation and investment within the FE sector, the six colleges are now major players and economic powerhouses in their own right. However, they all work together on a Northern Irish basis, especially to support investors, and the sector is well-placed to face the economic challenges going forward.

To conclude, further education can deliver investment in our skills base and offer hope and aspiration for Northern Ireland’s population. “It’s a no-brainer for me,” Campbell says. “Other successful economies have demonstrated that we have to invest in our skills pipeline and ensure that it’s kept open and flowing.”

Profile: Gerry Campbell
An Antrim native, Gerry attended St Malachy’s College, Belfast, and Queen’s University where he studied history and politics and then took a masters in management. He 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 a board member of Extern and Sport NI and is the Independent Audit Chair for the Commission for Older People (Northern Ireland). Gerry was previously the Deputy Chairman and a board member of the Health and Safety Executive for Northern Ireland. He has in interest in sports, including disability sports, and enjoys reading history. Gerry is married to Fiona and has three children, Cameron, Jenni and Emmet.

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