AQW 2586/17-22 – Business and Education

Mr Patsy McGlone (Mid Ulster): To ask the Minister for the Economy what measures her Department are taking to ensure good practice and cooperation between business and further/higher education sectors.

Minister for the Economy: My Department is committed to ensuring good practice and cooperation between business and the further and higher education sectors through a variety of initiatives.

The Further Education (FE) sector directly engages with businesses and industry across Northern Ireland to drive improvement in productivity, innovation and creativity, supporting a more competitive local economy. The six FE Colleges currently provide a range of bespoke business services and support approximately 10,000 local businesses annually. The FE Colleges have established strong and effective relationships with businesses, industry and employers specifically in priority growth and employment sectors, through seven College Curriculum Hubs. These Hubs ensure that the curriculum provision and programmes delivered are fully aligned to the sectors’ current and future requirements. Dedicated Business Support Teams support collaboration with industry and the Colleges also host sectoral focus groups and clusters to seek employer insight into current and future skills requirements.

The FE Colleges also collaborate through an economic engagement working group to share employer insights and best practice across Northern Ireland to ensure the FE sector provides a relevant offering which serve the needs of industry. The group also looks for new opportunities and new ways to support the business community and is tasked with raising the profile of the FE sector amongst the business community and key economic stakeholders.

In addition, the Colleges are a springboard for providing the skilled workforce for the future through the offer of Foundation Degrees, Apprenticeships, Higher Level Apprenticeships, Assured Skills Academies and quality work placements. All developed and delivered in cooperation with business.

In regards to the Higher Education sector, my Department continues to address the challenges facing the economy by directly supporting the innovation agenda in Northern Ireland’s universities. Through the Higher Education Innovation Fund, my Department provides funding in the region of £4 million per annum to assist universities in translating their high quality research base into benefits for the business sector and wider society through Knowledge Exchange.

In addition, the Connected programme enables local companies to access world-class expertise, technology and research from within the Higher and Further Education sectors, assisting them to boost their competitiveness, develop new products and increase market opportunities. Connected is unique to Northern Ireland and funded at £1.1 million per annum. 83% of the 700 projects undertaken during the scheme’s last round of funding was undertaken with companies with no previous university or college engagement. Going forward, the scheme will place an increasing focus on re-engaging companies to embed innovation in their business models.