Belfast Metropolitan College, Castlereagh Campus: Proposed Closure

Adjournment – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 5:15 pm on 21 May 2024.

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Photo of John Blair John Blair Alliance 5:15, 21 May 2024

In conjunction with the Business Committee, the Speaker has given leave for Joanne Bunting to raise the matter of the proposed closure of the Belfast Metropolitan College, Castlereagh campus. Joanne, you have up to 15 minutes.

Photo of Joanne Bunting Joanne Bunting DUP

I am delighted to have secured the debate on an issue that is crucial particularly for but not restricted to my constituency of East Belfast.

Towards the end of last year, Belfast Met launched a pre-consultation on the proposed closure of its Castlereagh campus. Castlereagh college, as it is known in our part of the world, is legendary. It has been an institution in more ways than one and in the best possible sense for decades. It would be impossible to overstate the impact that it has had on the people of East Belfast and beyond for generations. After a long, proud history of many decades, it is abhorrent that that proposal is under consideration at all.

The rationale offered is the investment that would be required to bring the college up to standard. Belfast Met states that Castlereagh requires £10 million that it simply cannot find for capital and maintenance works. It says that the condition and layout are not in accordance with Education and Training Inspectorate (ETI) standards and that the campus is not a modern teaching environment. Some, including me, might suggest that, while an outdated facility is not ideal, it is certainly much better than none.

The location of Castlereagh college is first-rate. It affords considerable room for expansion, is widely considered to be the easiest to access of the four Belfast Met colleges and has the benefit of free parking. It is now even more profoundly important for our locality and our economy that our people, young and old, have easy access to training and skills. This campus offers opportunities that the other campuses do not. Naturally, then, I express my opposition to the proposal in the strongest terms. I consider it to be regressive, discriminatory and short-sighted. In truth, I am concerned that the consultation was merely a tick-box exercise to go through the motions for an ill-conceived decision that may already have been taken.

Thus far, DUP delegations have met representatives from Belfast Met and the unions, students, employees, other interested parties and the Minister. We will oppose the closure vehemently and at every turn. We will not readily allow our young people to have yet another learning option closed to them. Moreover, skills are essential to the success and growth of Northern Ireland's economy. The proposal will result in poor access to education for those who do not engage well and have not engaged well with traditional education. What about those who advocate an alternative pathway to academia for those who learn in a different way? The proposal would see literally thousands of people have such opportunities denied to them.

Something just does not add up. What is to be gained from the closure? It should be noted that Belfast Met's 10-year preventative maintenance programme states that the campus has been maintained to a good standard and that the £10 million cost of maintenance and modernisation is over a 10-year period and is a worst-case scenario.

As I understand it, there is insufficient room or capacity to transfer all the courses and people to the Titanic campus. It must be pointed out that the Castlereagh campus is the all-island centre of excellence in information technology (IT) and is still growing exponentially. The proposal, for the sake of £10 million, flies in the face of the Northern Ireland Executive's plans to grow our economy and close the skills gap. It runs entirely contrary to the 10X Economy strategy that was hailed by key business and educational leaders.

We seek to move away from the prevalence of and dependence on public-sector employment to having a better balance with increased employment in the private sector, increased inward investment and increased skills but with one less college. It is folly. How can our economy grow when we shut down the very places in which skills are taught? We do not build by contracting those facilities. What message does it send to inward investors? Does this look like a Northern Ireland that is open for business and seeking to upskill the workforce for potential employers?

In addition, with the potential closure, Belfast Met will have further stripped this side of the Lagan of educational facilities. East Belfast has already lost the Tower Street campus, Rupert Stanley College and the Dundonald government training centre, on top of the loss of several secondary schools. By the way, since its opening, Belfast Met has flagged the Titanic campus as a city centre campus. Now, it seeks to rebrand the campus as an east Belfast location.

Forcing people from the east to travel further distances or face a parking charge of £12 per day at the Titanic campus, which is prohibitive for many, could prevent some people's access to learning altogether. Accessibility is a significant issue. Queens Road is already notorious for traffic problems during rush hour, and those would be exacerbated by additional numbers of students. Public transport may well be suggested as the solution. However, it has long been recognised that public transportation outwith the city centre is not easy. Those familiar with south and east Belfast will know that going "down" and "in" is fine but that going "across" is not so fine. The Glider may well have a dedicated service to Queens Road and the Titanic campus, but a traveller from the east of the city must reach the Upper Newtownards Road first, and the park-and-ride at Dundonald is already at capacity. Castlereagh college has the easiest access of all four Met colleges and benefits from on-site car parking, a considerable advantage to students and staff alike.

When considering the courses moved from Castlereagh to other sites — incidentally, some of Belfast Met's most popular courses — it is not a leap to ponder whether Belfast Met has deliberately run down its Castlereagh campus to achieve this outcome. That question is on the lips of many who have spoken to me, since 75% of joinery courses and all science and plastering courses have moved to the Titanic campus. Decision makers are well aware of the impact of such measures and proposals, including the consequences for enrolment numbers of the surrounding uncertainty, which can be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

What message does all this send to young people and parents in East Belfast about the value of education and learning and its prioritisation in the east of the city? What signal does it send about their value and the opportunities afforded to them? In the past 24 years, at least seven educational reports have been written, each concluding on or concerning the educational under-attainment of working-class Protestants, particularly boys. Yet, faced with such facts, Belfast Met is moving to shut down an avenue for such boys to access education in their heartland and in an environment where, for many decades, thousands of boys have been proven to thrive.

On issues around attainment, this would never be allowed to happen in the west of the city — it would not even be countenanced as an option — so why is it permissible for the east? Are those in deprivation in the east to lose another avenue to succeed and educate themselves out of it? Significant numbers of people and areas in East Belfast feature in indices of deprivation. The closure of places like the Castlereagh campus will adversely and severely impact people's ability to educate themselves out of poverty, poverty that is multigenerational. Are we to permit further harm to those who are underprivileged? I need not demonstrate the importance of education and pathways other than academia. We all concur on that, so we must not stand idly by when opportunities for those who have disengaged from traditional forms of education and who left educationally disenfranchised after their time in school are lost.

We must not ignore the location of the facility or the demographic of the area in which it is placed. Without question, the people most affected by the closure and by the loss of the economic benefits gained by the locale from having the facility will be working-class Protestants. Neither Belfast Met nor the Department can merely skip over the proposal's adverse impact on the Protestant/unionist/loyalist (PUL) community, nor would they if it affected other areas of the city. I am tired of the imbalance and of the mentality towards my part of the city that it will be OK, that it will sustain or that it is fine to be perpetually at the bottom of the pile in Belfast. That is what the statistics bear out. No. East Belfast can absorb only so much, and we are starting to see the consequences of that attitude.

I am led to believe, although it has not yet been verified, that there were around 1,200 responses to the consultation, with the vast majority expressing a desire for the campus to remain. What now? What are the next steps? Was there a plan B, or was the plan always closure? If the consultation was not a mere cosmetic exercise and the response, apparently, was clear, what does the governing body do now? Once the college is closed, there is no going back. It cannot be undone, and it will be all the more difficult to engage those who felt that school did not work for them but thrived in a different learning environment.

As a result of underfunding, Belfast Met has been forced to consider something radical, but at what long-term cost and damage? It is in the interests of Northern Ireland to allow Castlereagh the opportunity to grow and contribute. People in the east deserve their opportunity to upskill and secure a good job.

Castlereagh college has had a long and illustrious history of bringing back to education those who were disenfranchised from it at school. The college, through its different way of learning, has given many young people opportunities. If our economy is to grow, the teaching of skills is essential to that growth. Removing an easily accessible college when there is insufficient space to accommodate those classes in other campuses is appalling, short-sighted, regressive and detrimental to Northern Ireland plc. There is an onus on the Department to step up and step in and on Belfast Met's governing body to rethink and find another way. The campus must not close. I urge the Minister to intervene and assist.

Photo of John Blair John Blair Alliance

All other Members who wish to speak will have approximately seven minutes.

Photo of Peter McReynolds Peter McReynolds Alliance

I welcome today's debate on the impact that the recently consulted-on closure of Belfast Metropolitan College's Castlereagh campus would have on the immediate area of East Belfast, as well as the surrounding areas of Belfast and the local economy. I do so as an East Belfast MLA and a former employee of Belfast Metropolitan College.

I was surprised when I first received an email from the college in October of last year. Since then, I have met senior management on two occasions; attended the public consultations; spoken on the issue in the Chamber through a Member's statement; twice questioned Minister Murphy while he was in post; and written to Minister Murphy inviting him to engage with the college. As well as that, my constituency colleague Naomi and I submitted our response to the consultation, calling for the college to be retained and alternative options explored.

Today's Adjournment debate — I thank Ms Bunting for securing it — is welcome and can play a key part in communicating the importance of the college and the key role that it can play in the local economy if it is supported and looked at differently by the Economy Department and the new Economy Minister.

We all know that Northern Ireland is one of the world's leading countries for cybersecurity, with the Castlereagh campus having two dedicated, specialist cybersecurity labs. It is a leader in its field here. Moreover, I know, from speaking with data scientists, that Northern Ireland could be in a unique position, using our unique status, to house data from the USA, UK and EU. That is the crux of my argument. It simply does not make sense for us to close a campus that is playing a crucial role in shaping and creating the new tech minds of Northern Ireland. For example, the 10X strategy provides a clear strategic focus on good jobs, regional balance, productivity and decarbonisation. In addition, we now have increased clarity, post-Brexit. The previous Minister said to me in the Chamber that it:

"helps in making sure not only that those internationally who are interested in potential investment here understand what the position is — that means North/South, east-west and the dual access that we have". — [Official Report (Hansard), 26 February 2024, p25, col 2].

We will need skills to deliver on that strategy. The goals of the 10X strategy are essential and the Castlereagh campus plays a crucial role in delivering them and creating the minds that are going to deliver for the economy here in Northern Ireland.

Aside from the skills that East Belfast would begin to miss out on, there are passionate staff who care about their students and have been in contact with me, as they have been with Ms Bunting. At one of the public consultations last year, teachers spoke out at the slow erosion of classrooms in the college over the past number of years, which skewed the data that the college had presented to show how enrolments had been steadily declining over the years. That is data that, I must say, I am not so sure about, given the graph that I and Michael Long, a councillor for the area, were shown that compared the enrolments at the Castlereagh campus with those in all the other campuses in Belfast. When we asked for a clearer breakdown, we were told that that data was not publicly available. I know that the staff share my concerns regarding the accuracy of the information, further compounding the uncertainty and distress in the college at this time and over the past number of months.

Finally, it would be remiss of me not to highlight the scenario that we were in last year. I was a frustrated MLA and this place lay empty and silent to the concerns that were being raised by staff and students at the proposed closure. As I have said multiple times in the Chamber, with the energy that we now have in this Building — a restored Executive, a Minister in post and a watching public who do not expect us to be perfect at all times — it would be a crying shame for my constituents in East Belfast and for us as elected Members if we allowed the campus to close without so much as attempting to intervene.

That is why I again call on the new Economy Minister to take an interest in the proposed campus closure, take up the offer that Naomi and I made earlier this year on behalf of the college to meet them, hear their concerns and challenges and listen to what plans for the future could be realised with government intervention at this time. I appreciate that Minister Murphy was of the view that he would not be able to do that and that it was a campus decision. However, like Ms Bunting, I fear that we are sleepwalking into a decision that we will look back on and wonder whether more could have been done. I call on Minister Hargey to do all that she can to intervene and to engage with senior management as a matter of urgency.

Photo of Andy Allen Andy Allen UUP 5:30, 21 May 2024

I thank my constituency colleague for securing this important Adjournment debate.

The Castlereagh campus is more than just a building: it is a beacon of education, opportunity and community spirit. It is home to a diverse array of courses that cater for a wide range of interests and career aspirations. The Castlereagh campus's website states that it is home to courses in:

"Science, Engineering, Motor Vehicle, Sport, Health Care, Theatre, Fashion, Media and Make Up Studies", and more. However, as has already been said, some of those courses have been moved to other campuses, which skews the data that we have been provided with. The courses at the Castlereagh campus offer a unique blend of academic and specialist vocational programmes. They are not just about imparting knowledge; they are about equipping students with the skills that they need to thrive in the modern workforce.

The facilities are described on Belfast Met's website as being of "industry standard". In many cases, they provide students with an environment that mirrors the professional world, whether it is the fully equipped science labs, state-of-the-art engineering workshops or cutting-edge creative media studios. I had the honour of engaging in a course recently at the Castlereagh campus. Those facilities are not just tools for education but investments in the future for our community. Indeed, many of the students I have engaged with have not expressed any concern about the facilities that are on offer.

The closure of the campus would mean the loss of a critical educational resource for our young people. The campus serves as a vital stepping stone for many students by offering pathways to higher education, apprenticeships and employment. By closing the campus, we would be cutting off those pathways and limiting future prospects for many. Other Members acknowledged that and spoke about how Belfast Met would struggle to accommodate at other sites the courses that are delivered at the Castlereagh campus. Moreover, the closure would impact on the local businesses and industries that rely on the skilled workforces that are produced. The courses in IT, plumbing, creative media production and other fields are tailored to meet local employers' demands. Those businesses depend on graduates to fill their ranks with capable trained professionals.

The social impact of closing the campus cannot be overstated. Castlereagh campus is more than an educational institution; it is a community hub. It brings together people from diverse backgrounds, fostering a sense of belonging and mutual support. It is a place where lifelong friendships are formed and where students can find mentors and role models. Closing the campus would mean dismantling a vibrant community that contributes significantly to the social fabric of East Belfast and beyond. We must also consider the message that closing the campus would send to our current and future students. It would convey a lack of commitment to their educational and personal development. In an era where we should be championing education and lifelong learning, closing what should be a thriving campus would be a step in the wrong direction.

Like other Members, I have engaged extensively with Belfast Met's senior management, and I have concerns that are similar to those that have been conveyed. I, as, I am sure, have many other Members, have conveyed those concerns and those of students, staff, the wider community, unions and many others who have engaged with me and other elected representatives about the proposal to close the Castlereagh campus.

I urge Belfast Met to reconsider the proposal to close the Castlereagh campus, and I urge the Minister and Department to intervene to prevent the closure of that much-needed facility.

Photo of David Brooks David Brooks DUP

Like my colleagues, I speak today in support of Castlereagh campus, its staff, students and people in the local community, all of whom are dismayed by the proposal to close the site. Any such closure would be, as my colleague said, regressive and a denial of opportunity to the community that it serves. It would also be a strategic error when it comes to supplying the workforce that is required for growing industries in Belfast and Northern Ireland.

Castlereagh campus is ideally situated in the heart of working-class communities in East Belfast. It plays a vital role in ensuring those communities' access to courses that Belfast Met provides, equipping them with education and skills for work, encouraging social mobility and equality of opportunity. I know that the Minister, not least from our short time together in Belfast City Council, has a strong interest in building up working-class communities. Indeed, I know that she is aware of this issue, having attended the consultation at the college with me in the past months. I ask her to listen to the appeals here today.

It is well known that there are long-term issues with educational attainment in Protestant working-class communities, particularly among males. A recent study of educational underachievement that Queen's University and Stranmillis undertook identified the lack of access to local educational provision as a major contributor to underachievement, and it said that distances to provision serve to reinforce the idea that education is not a priority. The removal of further education facilities in Castlereagh would only reinforce that negative perspective and further entrench educational underachievement. The fact that the consultation on the potential closure of Castlereagh campus seeks to use the lack of diversity as a reason to consider closure is to discriminate against communities in that part of Belfast on the basis that many come from a Protestant working-class background. There is a failure to consider that that cohort has repeatedly been identified as requiring greater access to and assistance in attaining qualifications and skills. I share the concern of others about the lack of engagement on, imagination about or serious consideration of alternative options. Along with colleagues, I was exasperated and expressed my frustrations that the college had positive blueprints and visions on its shelf that were never seriously promoted or driven forward and, as such, have had little progress. Furthermore, BMC has raised concerns about the condition of the campus. It is simply not an acceptable or valid argument for BMC to use the condition of the building as a reason to move out of an area when it has chosen actively not to invest in the campus.

The real shame is that the Castlereagh campus is so perfectly located to serve a spectrum of growing new industries and reinvigorated traditional industries in east Belfast. These businesses are ever hungry for skilled workers, and nowhere is better located than Castlereagh to partner with them to serve that need. It is a world-class advanced manufacturing hub, producing highly skilled talent for world-leading and growing local businesses nearby, like Thales, Spirit AeroSystems and Harland & Wolff — businesses that we discussed just yesterday in the Chamber when talking about the growing potential of the defence industries here. Indeed, the campus, quite uniquely, has an aircraft fuselage and the advantage of significant space, which other campuses lack, to host such facilities that could be utilised to train our future workforce.

It is not just about manufacturing. At the opposite end of Montgomery Road from the campus lies Loop Studios, which is another base for Belfast's relatively young but booming multimedia and creative industries. The campus is already a peerless local centre for cybersecurity, with a course that is thriving in Castlereagh, serving an industry in which Belfast has established itself as one of the global leaders and demonstrating the need for investment, not abandonment.

Furthermore, a previous proposal that the campus had looked at was creating a potential sports hub. This should be looked at again. There is a real potential for growth in this sector. A number of sports clubs in East Belfast are professional, such as Ulster Rugby and Glentoran FC, and many other clubs are looking at similar models. As part of that professional set-up, there is an educational element, especially around academies. At the moment, these are catered for through universities in GB, and it would make more sense for local facilities in Castlereagh to be used for courses, either directly or by tying in with universities. Wider work needs to be done by the Department on the role of colleges and universities. They should not be in direct competition. In the course of meetings with BMC, I got the distinct impression that the college, in a way that is not uncommon within the further education sector, has become compliant and subservient to the notion of the dominance of our universities. Our universities are rightly celebrated, but that does not mean that our FE colleges should bow to them. With universities veering ever further into courses on foundation levels of education, which were traditionally catered for by FE colleges — doubtless with the aim of reaping financial benefits — BMC seems remarkably resistant to considering anything that might irk or cause a deterioration in its relationship with them. I perceive it to be akin to an institutional Stockholm syndrome. The universities continue to steal FE's lunch money, and colleges all but thank them from the crumbs of their splendid tables, when colleges would be best placed to offer apprenticeships that are linked to industry need.

The abandonment of the Castlereagh campus would be symptomatic and symbolic of continuing a misplaced submissiveness and failure of leadership at all levels to defend the place of BMC from the incursion of universities upon the viability of the entire sector. A decision to leave the Castlereagh campus, which is so clearly an asset, to facilitate the range of courses and related facilities that could not easily be facilitated at other campuses and would require a new location being sought, would run entirely contrary to logic. It would be a decision to abandon an area with a locality far more ripe with key demographics for further education to target.

Any closure of the Castlereagh campus will be a denial of educational opportunities and career progression to communities that are all too often left behind. The Minister and BMC have an opportunity to pause and consider alternatives. As an MLA for East Belfast, along with my party colleagues, I am happy to work with the college to find a long-term solution and secure educational provision for the local area.

Photo of Matthew O'Toole Matthew O'Toole Social Democratic and Labour Party

I am pleased to speak in this Adjournment debate and congratulate Joanne Bunting for securing today's debate. It is a vital subject. I do not represent East Belfast, but I do represent South Belfast, which is right next door to the boundary. In fact, the campus is very close to the boundary of South and East Belfast, or it was until the most recent boundary changes. It is important to say that although what was Castlereagh College, now the Castlereagh campus of Belfast Met, historically takes a significant chunk of its intake from that part of east or south-east Belfast, its intake goes significantly further than that heartland, as it were, into south Belfast, other parts of Belfast and further afield to parts of Ards and north Down.

It is a significant contributor to our FE offer in the greater Belfast area, as has been said.

For a start, it is highly regrettable that the proposed closure has been communicated in this way. There are real concerns among students, staff, unions and other key stakeholders that the process has not been handled well, to put it in the most diplomatic terms. Before I engaged with senior management in Belfast Met, I engaged with concerned staff members, affected students and, indeed, unions. There was genuine shock and sadness at the development and at the approach that was taken by Belfast Met. It is important to acknowledge that there are real budgetary constraints on the Department and, consequentially, on Belfast Met. I understand that senior leaders in public services are having to take or at least consider decisions that they would not otherwise take, but it is important for those of us who are public representatives, particularly public representatives for areas such as south-east Belfast where, as has been said, significant groups have not done as well as they should have in skills and education, to say that those people deserve the best possible opportunity.

There is a historical and real tradition at what was, as I said, previously known as Castlereagh College, now the Castlereagh campus of Belfast Met, of those groups getting access not just to traditional apprenticeships or trades, important though those traditional qualifications are, but to cutting-edge qualifications, whether in advanced manufacturing or in cyber and tech. As has been said, some of those trades have left the campus and are now pursued in other parts of the Belfast Met estate. Whether that was the right decision is debatable, but there is real frustration that some of those specialisms left Castlereagh.

It is important to say — it will come as a surprise to people who have perceived the Castlereagh campus to be a more traditional further education site — that it is an island- and Ireland-leading campus in its tech provision. It is therefore vital that, at a bare minimum, Belfast Met and, by extension, the Minister and the Department be obliged to give an account of why simply taking all that provision out of south-east Belfast will improve FE provision in the city overall and how that connects to the economic vision that the Minister has set out and to our broader determination to improve and upskill our economy and create opportunity in working-class communities in particular.

Those are real questions that the people who are engaged in this, who are studying or employed at Belfast Met or are involved in the wider community, are asking, and I am afraid that they have not been answered yet. While I acknowledge that the leaders at Castlereagh campus face real budgetary pressures and that they at least have to consider taking difficult decisions — the formal consultation period, to which I and others responded and made our views known, ended in February — the bare minimum that could be done is to pursue absolutely every avenue in order to avoid the blunt instrument route of closure and to give to those who care about further education provision in that part of south-east Belfast the most thorough explanation possible of the alternatives. That has not yet been given, which has contributed to a real sense of a lack of communication and of frustration on the part of people who care about education provision — not just education provision but opportunities and the ability to create a skills pipeline into the, in many cases, world-leading businesses that David Brooks mentioned — in that part of Belfast.

I look forward to hearing from the Minister the Department's position, its view on the future sustainability of Belfast Met overall and whether simply closing Castlereagh campus is an unavoidable outcome. I would like to hear whether alternatives have been considered. If that is the route to be followed, has it been stress-tested, and have alternatives been exhausted? What is the plan for the working-class communities in particular who availed themselves of courses at that campus? Inclusion is vital, but it is also about producing a pipeline of skilled workers, whether they go into cyber technologies or into the creative industries. As I say, there is real concern about this, particularly in that part of Belfast but also in the FE sector more broadly, so we are keen to hear from the Minister about the Department's view.

Photo of John Blair John Blair Alliance 5:45, 21 May 2024

I thank all Members who have spoken and call on the Minister for the Economy to respond.

Photo of Deirdre Hargey Deirdre Hargey Sinn Féin

I welcome today's discussion. I thank Joanne for securing this important debate and thank all the Members who contributed.

At the outset, I want to say explicitly that no decision has been taken on the future of the Belfast Metropolitan College Castlereagh campus. I am acutely aware of the depth of feeling that exists around the future of the campus. There has been a large response to the consultation that has taken place, and it is right that time is taken to assess the responses and consider them in the time ahead. Indeed, as David Brooks said, I experienced that at first hand when, in my capacity as an MLA for South Belfast, similar to Matthew, I attended the public engagement event in February. I still have the notes that I took at that event. I listened at first hand to students who were there that night. It was not a student event, and I know that there were other events. We heard, in particular, from the trade unions and the 167 staff who are working at the site. We also heard from ex-staff, and it said something about the campus that they still feel that connection. Importantly, we heard from the community that resides around the campus as well.

In the context of the impact of the campus, locality is important, where these things are geographically based. We know that 24·5% of the learners come from east Belfast. There is a huge cohort, as was said, that comes from beyond east Belfast, and, of course, that is a testament to the campus. When you look at the numbers there, it shows that, even in the locality of east Belfast, more could be done.

At those engagements and since then, concerns have been raised about the widening of educational attainment gaps and the potential loss of local economic growth if closure were the selected option. It is evident that the local community, the staff — past and present — and those who attended the college feel strongly that the campus should be retained. Indeed, I am aware that a considerable number of consultation responses have been received, including many from Members of the Chamber. Again, I welcome that, and, as I said, we want to take the time. I know that the campus and the college are looking at that, and, obviously, as Minister, I will also want to look at that.

The institution makes a contribution to the lives of people not only educationally but in the economic and social links with the campus, and that as been touched on in the contributions today as well. Equally, it is right that Belfast Metropolitan College take the appropriate steps to understand the long-term viability of the campus, including looking at whether there is an ambition to invest in the site. That is something that I will want to look at closely. Belfast Met's criteria include important elements such as health and safety, increasing sustainability targets and the need to deliver a meaningful modern curriculum for learners from state-of-the-art facilities that are in line with the current emerging industry needs.

As Conor Murphy set out when he delivered his economic vision here a number of weeks ago, skills are a key enabler of driving good jobs, increasing productivity, delivering regional balance and decarbonising our economy. Conor's vision statement explicitly referenced the importance of colleges and the need to grow college numbers. The significant uplift in lecturers' pay represents the first important step towards that goal, and Belfast Met's consultation criteria for the campus include investing in the Castlereagh campus to address structural issues, review curriculum delivery and increase student numbers. As a result, full consideration should be given to investigating all possible options in the future. That includes exploring alternative uses for the campus, consolidation or restructuring possibilities and the need to be mindful of the legal and financial implications. I am encouraged to see that Belfast Met is taking proper time to understand all the potential inputs to the important consultation process.

That is reflected in the numbers that came forward. When full, proper consideration has been given to the issue, the college will share its findings and proposals with the Department for a decision to be made. The Department will ensure that all key concerns have been taken into account in the decision-making process. It will also ensure that all risks and opportunities are thoroughly evidenced and considered as part of any decision on the future of the campus.

The previous Minister, Conor Murphy, met a variety of representatives with an interest in the campus, including the MP for the area and the trade unions that have been involved in the ongoing discussions and consultations. He has tasked officials in the Department to ensure that any future proposal is robustly assessed. I have met officials on the back of notes that I have taken to make sure that we robustly look at the issues when they come forward from Belfast Met.

In relation to the ongoing provision of services at Castlereagh, I can confirm that the college has advised that it fully intends to continue its standard curriculum delivery in 2024-25. I am aware that speculation had been building on the issue of closure due to minor adjustments to service delivery and the renewal of contracts. I have been assured by the college that those are standard changes and in no way signal the decision to run down the campus. An issue around catering contracts was also raised in February. I have received assurances that those contracts will continue to run into next year. Some of that was clarified on the night of the meeting.

I thank Belfast Met for its continued engagement and thank all those who offered their views on the future of the much-valued institution. On my part, I am committed to ensuring that our further education system is fit for the future, is accessible to all and, importantly, is a key contributor to the economic vision that Conor set out around good jobs, productivity, decarbonisation and regional balance.

We want to robustly look at all the issues around the ambition of Castlereagh campus. Areas such as IT, engineering and the creative industries are all growth sectors for the economy going forward. Locality is incredibly important, and that is something that we want to pay particular attention to as well.

I thank the Member for securing this important debate, and I look forward to continuing engagement with key stakeholders in the time ahead. When we receive the information from the college, we will look at it robustly.

Photo of John Blair John Blair Alliance

Thank you, Minister, for that response.

Adjourned at 5.58 pm.