Leading representatives from Northern Ireland’s six colleges discuss the future of further and higher education, and highlight its importance to economic development. The College STEM Initiative (CSI) is the colleges’ main initiative to encourage learners into careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics and building those skills is their main priority.
What will be the consequences for the colleges after the UK Budget?
We have to see the outworking of the Budget and how it translates into decisions made by the Executive here. For colleges it will be down to the Executive recognising the value of what we deliver – in terms of essential skills, vocational training and support to the economy.
Reductions in funding will create further pressures on what we can deliver. It could be the first time that funding is not sufficient to meet demand.
We also have significantly more students aged 16 who are leaving school and turning to the colleges that traditionally would have moved into employment because the jobs just aren’t there; and we have rising numbers who have been made unemployed and more people recognising the value of increasing their skills.
Northern Ireland is not geared up for the trials and tribulations ahead. It’s universally acknowledged that we don’t have, collectively, an economic strategy. Although we are working on a skills strategy, the question is about how that fits within an overall economic strategy.
Any response to the global situation must be grounded in vocational training and skills-based. There are strong signals from Vince Cable and David Willetts that the balance in England and Wales towards universities was wrong and that there is a much greater role for colleges in areas such as the provision of HE.
In a recent debate, the Minister recognised that colleges are doing a lot more than they are being funded for and that is welcome. Colleges have increased productivity without an increase in resources.
Colleges are also working smarter. As we move forward, there’s great scope for colleges working even closer together.
The key way forward is to look at look at HE, part-time provision and more flexible provision, and the greater use of e- learning, mentoring and partnerships with a wider range of people.
The UK Commission for Employment and Skills highlight that 75 per cent of the current workforce will still be in employment in 2020. Their skill levels are going to have to increase to just maintain the level of productivity we have in our companies. This is a significant challenge.
It’s the colleges that will provide solutions to these challenges.
What are the specific challenges in higher education?
The main challenge is the number of places, which are restricted. Given the increase in fees for full-time higher education, people are more likely to access their education through a college. The six colleges across Northern Ireland are well-placed to provide that access.
A lot of young people are now trying to access HE which is affordable – it is almost 50 per cent cheaper in our colleges than in our universities.
The foundation degree framework also provides greater vocational content and can be more closer aligned to the needs of our economy.
Universities find it difficult to deal in areas of provision where numbers are small and the ability to bring on new courses, whereas I think FE is much more responsive to the needs of industry and is able to cope with smaller class sizes.
The colleges need the flexibility to actually engage beyond the local universities. We are not permitted to engage with universities in England, Scotland or Wales for the development of foundation degrees or other educational programmes. That’s something that is extremely frustrating in terms of our ability to respond flexibly.
As an economy in Northern Ireland, we face the challenge that the private sector is too small and certainly cutbacks in government finance will see the public sector reducing. The colleges are critical in helping the private sector grow but that growth needs to be equipping the private sector with skills which are relevant to business and jobs.
HE has been seen as more of a route towards university rather than meeting the needs of businesses.
What is going to define us, in competitive terms, are the skills that we have. It is the colleges which are actually going to deliver those skills in the next few years, not schools or universities. We are going to be the major change-drivers and we need to be resourced to do that.
The Assembly has put the economy at the heart of the Programme for Government. This is the challenge for the entire Executive.
Our college covers five district council areas and out of those 2,000 people leave each year to pursue higher education. A lot of those people won’t come back and so there’s a loss of youth and a loss of skills.
The challenge for the Executive is to properly resource the colleges so that we have the access routes and provision locally to allow young people – and those in employment – to get the skills both they and the economy needs.
With the latest unemployment figures out, is the sector getting the profile it should be getting?
I was in FE back in the 1970s and 1980s, for the invention of Youth Opportunity schemes. It’s almost Groundhog Day where we had that huge bulge of young people who had nowhere to go.
We are capped this year, not just in HE but in a number of other areas. We enrolled far more people in this year and we are in danger of having to turn people away next year. I think that those people are potentially NEETs – not in education, training or employment.
We need to look at, in a Northern Ireland context, where these people are going to go and what they are going to do.
That comes back to problems with the strategy. Even though there’s a three- pronged approach, the department centres very much on the skills strand. There hasn’t been the same attention on the social cohesion aspect. The cost of NEETs-related delivery is higher and more challenging because we need to support those learners more.
The colleges have demonstrated, for example through partnership with the Prince’s Trust 12-week programme that brings marginalised young people back into the fold, that we can reach out and have an impact with these learners who have been failed by the schools. Success rates have been extremely impressive and we need to build on that.
If it hadn’t been for the programme-led apprenticeships, we would have had 3,000 more NEETs and therefore it was responding to a crisis situation. Like all things, it’s not perfect but I think going forward we need to have much more of that thinking and then bring the resources in a co-ordinated fashion.
Tesco’s probably has a churn rate of 9 per cent, of customers going to Tesco’s one week and Sainsbury’s the next week. Ninety per cent of our enrolment is new every year. In the private sector, I don’t think there are many companies that have that level of customer churn. That rate is caused by what is happening in the economy; and we deliver courses to respond to demand and very often that is to those people who become unemployed or who didn’t get what they needed in school. So we have experience of being very responsive.
What is the sector doing to develop the STEM agenda?
Although construction is still suffering, there are areas where we actually are seeing growth e.g. in ICT, in pharmaceuticals. Randox, for example, is a company which we work with and our students are carrying out industrial projects for the company.
If you trace the origins of the colleges here back, the science, technology, engineering and mathematics agenda is really at the heart of how we started.
STEM is an expensive curriculum to deliver. Government has defined priority skills and they haven’t been redefined in quite a number of years. Sometimes they just don’t match what should be the current agenda and that needs to be kept under continuing review.
We are really pushing forward in this area. Not just in working with schools and young people but also in how we support local businesses in key areas such as the green economy and innovation and delivering real solutions to support industry and local businesses.
What we need to have is an economic strategy which identifies areas of growth, specialism and employment. There’s no point in generating a new wave of scientists if there’s no scientific jobs for them to go into. You just can’t create a scientist. It’s got to start away back in the primary school and part of the work we’re doing in the CSI is identifying pathways to STEM careers.
Companies like Andor Technologies, which is based in the heart of west Belfast, face very significant challenges in getting the high-level technicians. It’s probably easier to get your top notch PhD student globally but to have a local resource of people who can work on those inspirations, developing the technology, manufacturing technology and improving technology – that’s where the colleges can break through.
Companies argue that there is an intersection between creativity and other subjects which interface with people who have the technical skills and knowledge. The big private company is saying: “We don’t just want everybody who has a science degree. We actually want a mix- and-match because true innovation comes from multi-disciplinary issues.”
In that skills review, we need to stop this narrow focus on what’s STEM and what isn’t STEM. Sport science is not seen as a STEM subject – the creative industries have just as much impact on innovation and building our competitiveness in the world. STEM is bigger than this very focused and tiny definition which we’re working on at the minute.
What have been colleges’ successes in supporting the economy and supporting local businesses?
Colleges have more engagement with businesses than any other part of government that is involved with economic development. In our own place, we are engaged with over 1,100 businesses across Ireland as a whole. There’s a depth of engagement from the very largest companies right through to start-up companies and pre-start-up companies.
Through the training contracts and our higher education placements, we have significant numbers of students actually placed with businesses.
That engagement isn’t just about the provision of training and up-skilling the existing workforce. We’re very heavily involved in knowledge transfer, including the Connected project where knowledge transfer and consultancy services are being provided to a large number of businesses across a wide range of different fields.
In numerical terms and turnover terms, it would outstrip the areas that Invest NI are engaged with. When you actually consider the funding of Invest NI, I would suggest that FE is actually a very good value for money mechanism in supporting new jobs – and one that gets down to the very smallest of businesses.
We are able to help support those businesses, to drive entrepreneurship, to give practical assistance. Rather than creating strategies and so forth, it’s about doing things that are actually of direct benefit to those businesses.
This a key challenge for the Executive: How we get genuine cross departmental action to support the economy. Our college works very closely with businesses, both small and the large international players to ensure they have the skills they need.
We need a stronger dialogue between the private sector and the colleges in terms of us getting out message out and actually giving them examples of what we can deliver.
In the end, if FE remains dependent on just current funding model to exist, then we’re talking about an FE sector in decline certainly over the next three to five years. Using the private sector as a champion for FE may unlock other funding streams in a more creative way.
Most small and medium-sized businesses don’t have a research and development facility and that’s why they come to us for support. If you were to examine the CVs of the staff in colleges, there’s been a tremendous change in the last decade right across the six colleges. That resource could be used even more effectively.
It goes back to willingness and the capacity to deliver. They are certainly not in short supply in the colleges but what we need is the resource to do that.