GOVERNMENT invests heavily in higher and further education and if we are to move towards the aspiration of a world class workforce, it is essential that that investment is well focused and delivers the skills required by the Northern Ireland business sector.
Contemporary economic research shows that a modern, competitive economy is driven less by natural resources, physical capital and low-skill labour, and more by access to, and quality of, knowledge within the economic region. My department is, therefore, fully committed to supporting knowledge transfer from the research base, leading to increasing collaboration between our universities and local companies.
We have recently reviewed and re-designed our main higher education funding programme for knowledge transfer activities and also launched a new programme – the first of its kind in the UK - to enable the higher and further education sectors to identify and meet the needs of business in a coordinated and holistic fashion.
Success through Skills, the Skills Strategy for Northern Ireland, is the first comprehensive framework for the development of skills. It sets out the long term vision for skills, with the twin goals of social inclusion and economic success. This Strategy recognises that the skills levels of the workforce play a vital role in raising productivity and increasing competitiveness.
Skills are also important in promoting social inclusion, since for individuals, they provide a route to stable employment, better wages, and long-term prosperity, as well as to personal development and fulfilment.
The strategy acknowledges that in the context of a global economy, and in common with other developed economies, Northern Ireland cannot compete on low cost production alone, but must strive for high value, knowledge-based jobs.
This involves a step change in the skills our workforce can offer, with schools and colleges focusing more strongly on providing students with the skills employers need.
The Department for Employment and Learning, Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment and Invest NI have recognised this reality and have been addressing these issues in recent years.
The Skills Strategy aims to improve the identification and articulation of the skills needs of business through structural changes, which will engage employers and their representative bodies to determine local demand. The Skills Expert Group was set up to ensure that the work on labour market information is focused, so as to provide a clear and broad based picture of current and future skills needs.
Workforce Development Fora were established to advise my department on the local demand for skills, while the Sector Skills Councils were recognised as providing a vehicle, through the development of their Sector Skills Agreements, for identifying and addressing the major skills concerns and issues in their sectors.
My department supports the Sector Skills Councils in this work and encourages them to engage directly with the universities; such partnerships are key to the development of future courses. This will enable providers to develop a better understanding of the needs of employers and to plan for appropriate future provision.
Foundation Degrees are a key feature of this work, as they are designed specifically to meet business needs. This qualification provides a mix of academic and work-based learning, with courses being developed in consultation with industry.
This ensures that students cultivate the skills required by employers and that courses lead to specific job opportunities. Alternatively, Foundation Degree graduates can choose to progress to an honours degree course.
Foundation Degrees are particularly suitable for existing employees who wish to improve their skills, as courses can often be studied part-time. My Department is currently conducting a review of its policy on Foundation Degree delivery, with a view to increasing the profile and take-up of this qualification.
For many students, however, opportunities at the higher level are constrained by the decisions they make about which subjects to study during their school years.
For example, there is demand for graduates with a background in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (collectively known as STEM subjects), but these are less popular choices for school pupils.
My department, together with the Department of Education (DENI), recognises the vast range of choices open to young people and the importance of good quality careers education, information, advice and guidance in assisting with these choices. This will be addressed in a forthcoming Careers Strategy consultation document.
My department is also working with the DENI and the Association of Northern Ireland Colleges (ANIC), under the chairmanship of Dr Hugh Cormican, to review government policy on the provision of STEM subjects at schools and further education colleges, and I look forward to receiving their findings at the end of the year.
In terms of higher education, my department makes funding available for the provision of Co-operative Awards in Science and Technology (CAST).
CAST Awards are research studentships intended to encourage the development of collaboration between universities and industry and in particular to provide an opportunity for graduates to undertake research of direct interest to industry, for PhD study.
The recent publication of the Leitch Review of Skills in England aims to identify the UK’s optimal skills mix for the year 2020 to maximise economic growth, productivity and social justice. My department is broadly in agreement with the principles outlined in the Leitch Review.
In fact, many of the principles suggested, for example, the need for increased employer engagement and a need for a more demand led skills system, are shared with our Skills Strategy for Northern Ireland.
However, whilst we share many of the principles, it is important that our Skills Strategy is tailored to the specific needs of Northern Ireland and makes a significant contribution to the development of the local economic and social inclusion agenda. With the support of our partners in education and industry, we can raise the skills level of the whole workforce and secure Northern Ireland’s future in the global marketplace.