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STEM Uptake

Oral Answers to Questions — Employment and Learning – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:00 pm on 19th January 2016.

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Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP 2:00 pm, 19th January 2016

1. Mr Weir asked the Minister for Employment and Learning to outline the initiatives being considered to increase the number of college and university students studying science, technology, engineering and maths. (AQO 9405/11-16)

Photo of Stephen Farry Stephen Farry Alliance

STEM subjects are and will continue to be essential to our economy. That has recently been verified by the skills barometer, which identifies a strong demand for mid- and higher-level skills in STEM subjects. My Department is funding a number of approaches to raise the profile of and create opportunities for STEM study and careers; for example, through STEM supplements in local newspapers and career booklets across a range of STEM sectors.

I am pleased to say that, after the success of its inaugural year in 2015, I have agreed to extend my Department's sponsorship of the Northern Ireland Science Festival over the next four years. My Department has also supported a report by the STEM business group called 'Addressing Gender Balance — Reaping the Gender Dividend in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM)', which contains a number of good-practice guidelines aimed at addressing the gender gap in STEM subjects and careers. Over this Assembly term, I have supported over 1,400 additional STEM undergraduate places at our colleges and universities.

As part of the Budget preparation process for 2016-17, I submitted bids for the resources required to meet our skill shortages under a reduced rate of corporation tax. Looking ahead, there will continue to be enhanced funding for the majority of STEM subjects delivered at our colleges and universities, and I will continue to support them in rebalancing their subject provision towards economically relevant subjects. I will also continue with the implementation of our apprenticeship strategy through the funding of additional higher-level apprenticeship pilots in areas of economic relevance.

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

I thank the Minister for his response, and I welcome the initiatives that are taking place. One of the weaknesses at times is the lack of realisation of the careers availability in STEM subjects and the disjoint with careers advice. Will the Minister outline any initiatives that are taking place to ensure that we upskill our careers advisers in schools to ensure that there is greater awareness of the opportunities for careers in STEM subjects?

Photo of Stephen Farry Stephen Farry Alliance

I thank the Member for his comments and his question. Given his role as Chair of the Education Committee, he will be aware that careers spans my Department and the Department of Education. My Committee conducted an inquiry during this Assembly term. More recently, we have had our own review of the careers strategy. We have an implementation plan across the two Departments. Shortly, we hope to publish the formal strategy for careers over the next five years. That is being finalised across the two Departments. I am sure that, as my Committee holds me to account in that respect, the Member will do likewise with his Minister.

Photo of Robin Swann Robin Swann UUP

In regard to numbers, especially the numbers going into colleges to study STEM subjects in higher education, has the Minister looked at increasing the maximum student number (MaSN) cap for HE colleges?

Photo of Stephen Farry Stephen Farry Alliance

The difficulty with raising the MaSN cap is that we do not have the resource in that regard. Obviously, that is something that we would like to see, and it should be considered in future Budgets of the Executive. In our current provision, we have had a rebalancing of the offer over the past number of years in the direction of STEM, particularly in what we term "narrow STEM", which are the maths, physics and computer science subjects. As we have wrestled with some budget cuts over the past number of years, we have worked with the colleges and universities to protect those narrow STEM subjects from the cuts that have happened elsewhere.

Photo of Bronwyn McGahan Bronwyn McGahan Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat. I thank the Minister for his responses so far. I ask him for an update on his efforts to attract more females to study STEM subjects and take up employment in that sector.

Photo of Stephen Farry Stephen Farry Alliance

I thank the Member for the question. That will be the subject of some questions further on. In my answer, I alluded to work that we are undertaking in promotional activity through a number of projects. We work closely with the Equality Commission in that regard. It remains a structural difficulty in our economy. While we have strong participation rates in further education and higher education across both genders, with women more represented than men, we still see significant segmentation in the choices that people make. Some may argue that that does not really matter and that people have different preferences, but it matters when we look to the areas of the economy that are set to grow the most over the coming years. Unless we fully utilise the talent base in Northern Ireland in terms of the pipeline of skills going into those areas, we will not live up to our full potential. There is a real importance in ensuring that we have the proper balance. It is important that we encourage all people to influence others to think, particularly at an early age, about a range of careers and that we try to tackle some of the stereotypes that may have channelled people in different directions.

Photo of Gerard Diver Gerard Diver Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Minister for the information so far on STEM. How much of the extra £5 million allocated to apprenticeships in the 2016-17 Budget will be used for STEM?

Photo of Stephen Farry Stephen Farry Alliance

It is not just a case of how much of that £5 million will be allocated to apprenticeships; that is part of a much bigger pot. The Member will be aware that, this morning, the Finance Minister indicated that another £20 million would be available for skills in the future Department for the Economy through the Budget exchange scheme. All of that goes into a pot to support skills, and it includes higher education, universities, mainstream further education and apprenticeships. One thing that I am seeking to do, in working out with Jonathan Bell the budget for the new Department for the Economy is to ensure that we have a dedicated mainstream budget for the new higher-level apprenticeships. Previously, that has been funded through the change fund, which was not baselined. Therefore, it is important that we now move ahead with a proper budget for apprenticeships baselined for the future Department, and we are doing that. Obviously, the £5 million will be an aspect of ensuring that we can achieve that.