The Question was as follows:
To ask the Minister for Employment and Learning whether he can provide an assurance that technical colleges will prioritise and support the training of potential employees in high-tech engineering, such as polymer and biochemical engineering. (AQO 291/10)
I am happy to give the Member such an assurance. My Department sets the broad strategic framework for the further education sector in Northern Ireland and channels its funding accordingly. For example, one of the Department’s public service agreement targets is to increase the proportion of college provision that is in Northern Ireland’s priority skills areas, one of which is manufacturing engineering.
Under the further education funding model, colleges receive weighted funding for delivering such provision. Consequently, further education colleges offer a wide range of subjects in the areas of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) to prepare their students for employment in the hi-tech engineering sector.
Initiatives include collaboration with Northern Ireland university partners to develop and deliver training for local SMEs; full-time programmes in renewable energy, energy efficiency and sustainable construction; and the development of industry-linked foundation degree programmes in STEM subject areas through the innovation fund. The Department also supports the delivery of a polymer technician apprenticeship programme. The South Eastern Regional College delivers a course in polymer processing and materials and is working to develop a composite materials apprenticeship.
I thank the Minister for his reply. I spent 15 years in polymer engineering, and I know that it is an important area for the future of the aircraft industry, which we are proud to have in Northern Ireland. Biochemistry is another field of engineering in which we can continue to compete in the world market; we can compete against low-cost manufacturing economies. Does the Minister agree that it is vital that people are trained to have the expertise to work in those industries? It is particularly important that those people are trained in readiness for the day in the near future when those industries take off.
I agree with the Member’s comments on that issue. There are a number of initiatives in the sector. The Member will probably have heard of the Connected programme — a major open source software initiative — which includes the polymer technician programme. That allows a college to have access to a substantial reservoir of research and other information, which would short-circuit many individual research programmes that each college would have to undertake. Students and colleges can access Connected, and it allows the colleges to engage with private sector companies with a view to solving the problems of those companies. They also have the backup of the Connected research facility. I support the Member’s comments, and I believe that the colleges are keen for delivery of their services via that mechanism.
On a similar vein, will the Minister outline his assessment — [Interruption.]
I apologise for that, Mr Speaker.
Will the Minister outline his and his Department’s assessment of the independent review of economic policy from the perspective of the further education sector, particularly on the question of innovation in firms and the delivery of skills to encourage inward investment?
The Member has devoted much time and energy to this subject, and he will be aware that we are moving into a time in which, because of European changes, grants for economic development will be unavailable to government. Northern Ireland’s main selling points, as was pointed out by the recently appointed economic envoy, Declan Kelly, are the skills of its workforce. That will be our major incentive as we try to attract industry and businesses into Northern Ireland.
The further education sector is ideally placed, and we have invested heavily in it. On completion of the current investment programme, we will have one of the most up-to-date and sophisticated estates in any part of these islands. The colleges fully recognise the importance of training people for business and giving them the required skills. We have been working with the economic envoy to ensure that any specifications that are requested by incoming investors or people who want to collaborate or enter into partnerships are met. We will endeavour to ensure that such people are provided. If they are not, we can tailor bespoke training for individual companies, and the colleges are prepared to do that. The opportunity is there, and the colleges have the initiative and expertise to deliver it through their lecturers and other dedicated people. The further education sector is a wonderful asset.
With respect to higher education, the STEM review concluded that the number of students participating in such courses has dropped over the years. However, the Department now believes that through a combination of different initiatives that trend is beginning to change. We now have the STEM review report, and we also have the recent MATRIX report. I believe that all the strategies are now in place. Furthermore, both Queen’s University and the University of Ulster received awards last week. Queen’s University was awarded an enterprise award, and both universities also received excellent ratings in last year’s RAE exercise.
With respect to the further education sector, the Department is continually in contact with that sector and is continually pushing courses with a professional and technical element.
As I said in response to Dr McDonnell’s supplementary question, the attitudes in our further and higher education sectors today are very different to the attitudes of a few years ago. Indeed, I think that Dr McDonnell would agree that there has been a huge change in the past decade. The days of the ivory tower are gone. There is now a concentration on all levels, from degree level to the technicians who make business work. It is not all about research, however important that may be. Mr McCrea can be confident that the Department has in place the necessary policies and the necessary people to deliver them in our further and higher education sectors.