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South Eastern Regional College:  Ballyboley Campus

Employment And Learning – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 3:00 pm on 2nd November 2009.

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Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon DUP 3:00 pm, 2nd November 2009

2. asked the Minister for Employment and Learning what steps his Department is taking to ensure that a suitable range of night courses are available at the Ballyboley campus of the South Eastern Regional College, to meet the needs of adult learners.        (AQO 290/10)

Photo of Reg Empey Reg Empey UUP

As I have said, further education colleges are responsible for determining the nature and timetabling of provision offered at each of their campuses, based on local demand. I am advised that the South Eastern Regional College has recently held two open days, produced a mini-prospectus and conducted extensive market research to encourage adult enrolments at Ballyboley campus. As a result, enrolments have almost tripled, although most of the increase is for classes held during the day.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon DUP

I thank the Minister for his response. It is good that, of the first four questions, Strangford is mentioned in three. Strangford is to the fore again.

I thank the Minister for his update. Ballyboley campus is doing exceptionally well. Are the additional classes designed to help people retrain and obtain employment, or are they for those who are educationally disadvantaged and need help and support?

Photo of Reg Empey Reg Empey UUP

The Department’s curriculum policy has been developed to ensure that, through the curriculum offered, the further education colleges achieve an appropriate balance between provision that strengthens economic and workforce development and enhances social cohesion and that which enhances individuals’ skills and learning. As part of that, colleges are required to increase the proportion of their provision that is on the national database of accredited qualifications. Members understand why that should be. We place no restrictions on the type of non-accredited courses that colleges can deliver. However, at present the level of resource for non-accredited courses during the current academic year is projected to fund many enrolments.

There is a mixture of courses and a balance to be achieved. I will ask the college to provide me with the details, and I will pass them to the Member. My understanding is that, for whatever reason, the demand is for courses held during the day. The pattern is that courses held in the evenings tend to be of a recreational nature, whereas those held during the day tend to be more economically relevant. In this case, there is a balance. I cannot give the Member the precise details of that balance, but I will write to him to provide that information.

Photo of Sue Ramsey Sue Ramsey Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. In line with the Programme for Government commitment on social inclusion, has the Minister held discussions with the colleges on concessionary fees?

Photo of Reg Empey Reg Empey UUP

The Member knows that that issue is ongoing. I have had copious correspondence on that with Members over the last couple of years. We have attempted to widen the pool of students who attract financial support. The latest addition to that is anyone who qualifies for rates relief, which opened up things even more. My Department provides resources to colleges for hardship funds, and other sources of funding are also available.

The solution to this problem lies in the national review that is taking place. There are also developments in Europe that hold the key to a solution. We got caught up on the hook of not being able to discriminate in favour of people because of their age just as we are equally not supposed to discriminate unfavourably against people because of their age. As a result, that has been a doctrine of unintended consequences. Therefore, we have all got into a position that none of us wants to be in.

There is a way out of this problem somewhere down the line. In the meantime, however, we have tried to broaden the base from which people can draw additional resources to help them, because it is in our interest to see the colleges used to their maximum. For reasons more related to the economic situation, however, there has been a substantial increase in the number of students attending further education colleges this year.

Photo of Kieran McCarthy Kieran McCarthy Alliance

I am delighted that the Member for West Belfast has taken a real interest in Ballyboley. I am sure that she knows where Ballyboley is, and I thank her very much for her contribution.

I thank the Minister for his efforts in tripling the applications for daytime courses, but we want to see an increase in applications for night-time courses. The Minister mentioned recreation and arts and crafts courses, which not only educate the local population —

Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker

Will the Member come to his question?

Photo of Kieran McCarthy Kieran McCarthy Alliance

What can the Minister do to triple the number of applications for night-time courses?

Photo of Reg Empey Reg Empey UUP

As I indicated, in fairness to the college, it has been making a big effort. It produced a prospectus and went out and promoted courses locally. The majority of new students have been taking daytime courses. The college will have to continue its marketing activities locally. However, it is at least producing a result, and we have to be grateful for that, thank the college for that and encourage it to do even more. With the support of the Member for West Belfast, how can the college possibly fail?

Photo of David McClarty David McClarty UUP

Given their immense popularity, will the Minister outline the situation in respect of non-economic, non-vocational courses?

Photo of Reg Empey Reg Empey UUP

The Member for Strangford, who asked the substantive question, is now getting virtually international interest in Ballyboley. It is obviously becoming a centre of great learning, which is what we want it to be.

Although we have, in the main, encouraged courses with an economic element, a significant proportion of resources is still available for recreational and similar courses. The college is the responsible authority for promoting itself locally. No government Department is best placed to micromanage such a situation. Local people must have a major say in how that is done, because they know the territory and the local demands.

The South Eastern Regional College was quick off the mark in responding to the economic downturn, which is a subject that we will be returning to in a moment in another question. There has been a substantial capital build, and we are encouraging as many people as possible to use those facilities for such purposes. With the widespread support that we have, I am confident that we shall succeed.