Third-level Qualifications

Oral Answers to Questions — Economy – in the Northern Ireland Assembly am 2:00 pm ar 3 Mehefin 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of David Brooks David Brooks DUP 2:00, 3 Mehefin 2024

9. Mr Brooks asked the Minister for the Economy to outline the work that her Department is carrying out to ensure universities and further education colleges work together to offer qualifications that are not competitive but complementary to each other. (AQO 503/22-27)

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

I agree that our universities and colleges should work collaboratively to deliver the best outcomes for learners. It is also important to recognise that schools and community-based providers play an important role in ensuring a joined-up and effective education sector. In order to ensure that colleges and universities in particular work together in a complementary and not competitive manner, the tertiary education senior leaders' forum has been established. It provides a place for senior leaders from my Department, the Department of Education, further education colleges and higher education institutions to come together to consider strategic matters of common interest, including qualifications. The forum's core purpose is to foster greater collaboration among all those involved in education post compulsory school age and to help move towards a more coherent tertiary education sector.

Photo of David Brooks David Brooks DUP

I thank the Minister for his answer. I was glad to hear more about that at the concurrent Committee of the Committee for the Economy and Committee for Education last week. Will he agree that it is important that, while they offer a range of excellent courses, by making incursions into courses that have traditionally been served by our colleges, our universities do not undermine our excellent FE sector, which is vital for our economy?

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin 2:15, 3 Mehefin 2024

There may be a perception that universities are moving into that space at the expense of colleges. I think that work has been done to establish that that is not necessarily the case. We need to make sure, in a system in which we have very little money to spend — that is why the work between ourselves and the Department of Education across all these matters is important — that we use the resources that we have as best as we possibly can. The responsibility on us as Executive Ministers is to make sure that the system works for education for not just young people but, in terms of the public finances needed to run it, as seamlessly as possible so that we do not get duplication or contradiction but the most complementary system possible. That is why a forum such as this, and the joint work by both Departments, is important.

There is a drop-off. I am advised that we have the lowest numbers of that age cohort since the 1950s. That could explain some of the drop-off in college numbers. Nevertheless, we have a very good college estate and further education sector, and I want to see them fully utilised. We have a real challenge in getting people and skills into the workforce. The college sector is vital in delivering that. I have had discussions with it about that, and I want to make sure, in our joint work with the Education Department and that forum, that the entire system works in a complementary fashion rather than in a competitive one.

Photo of David Honeyford David Honeyford Alliance

I welcome the Minister back and wish him good health going forward. Will the Minister give us an update on the reform of the delivery of further education?

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

The first priority when I came into office was to get the lecturers' pay issues resolved. I am glad that we were able to get that done. I have had a meeting with the principals of the colleges, and we will continue to bring that reform work forward. We want to make sure that we have a system that recognises the unique product of each college, their autonomy and the communities that they serve in a regional way across the North. We also want to make sure that it is coherent and cohesive and tackles some of the big issues that we have identified as problems within the economy, primarily skills and getting young people into education, offering pathways to people who have been out of the education or training system. The colleges are uniquely placed to do that. As I said in a previous answer, they have a good estate and a very good system, and we want to make sure that they are fully utilised. Currently, they are not fully utilised, so any reform that we bring to the fore will be about how we fully utilise those and make sure that colleges act most efficiently and deliver for the economy and for society.

Photo of Phillip Brett Phillip Brett DUP

On behalf of myself and the Committee, I welcome you back to office, Minister. I welcome your commitment to the FE sector and highlight your point that it is important that the sector and its campuses serve the communities in which they are located. In his recent discussion with college principals, did the Minister raise the importance of the Castlereagh campus of Belfast Met, something that my East Belfast colleagues continue to champion?

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

At the joint meeting that I had with them, we did not get down to individual campuses, but I have had discussions. I met the Member's party leader in relation to the Castlereagh campus. I have had correspondence and issues raised with me by other elected representatives. I had the pleasure of visiting the college in the Member's constituency and chatting to the principal and senior staff there. We want to make sure that the system works well. There is a good offering there. There are very good facilities that are well located. We have resolved, and I hope that we continue to work to enhance, the role of and support for the people who work in that system, in the delivery of teaching but also throughout the system, to make sure, if you like, that we have a happy campus, and then to focus on the areas that we have outlined as priorities for the Department for the Economy, particularly in the areas of skills and training.

I have no doubt that there will be individual issues arising among Members about pieces of the estate within various colleges. We want to work through that, but we need a cohesive forum and support for the colleges themselves to get forward with the work that they are doing. I am happy to talk to them about individual areas around some parts of the campuses that have question marks.

Photo of Nick Mathison Nick Mathison Alliance

When will the Minister respond to the recommendations from the independent review of education in relation to FE and HE?

Photo of Conor Murphy Conor Murphy Sinn Féin

Across nearly all Departments, when Ministers came into office, our primary focus was to ensure that we resolved public-sector pay issues. With the exception of the Department of Education — I understand, however, that there will be, hopefully, some progress with the schools this week — those issues, by and large, have been resolved.

I met representatives from the colleges and talked to them about the issue of reform and the report on them that was done. We intend to bring that work forward now, but we want to ensure that it is not an individual or isolated piece of work. We have an education system in which we have joint responsibility for the 14- to 19-year-old cohort, but we have a responsibility on either side of that as well. I want to make sure that our system is as coherent and cohesive as possible and that it serves all of the community as well as our economic needs in the time ahead.