Skills: What can England learn from Northern Ireland?

As a commission publishes a report on the future of FE in Northern Ireland, Jackie Henry explores its skills provision

Jackie Henry

Colleges and skills: What can England learn from Northern Ireland?

I see the challenges that businesses face every day. More than a year on from the beginning of the biting effects of the pandemic, it is clear to me that among the most pervasive challenges it has highlighted is developing skills for the future of work as it changes at pace.

At a time when the immediate challenges we face with the pandemic are front of mind, we must not lose sight of ensuring that people have the skills they and businesses need for the future and in the future. 

Skills are rightly high on the political agenda and a priority area for economic recovery. There are enormous challenges – from the implications of automation, an ageing population, the climate crisis and leaving the EU. The coronavirus pandemic has shone a light on the weaknesses in our labour market.

Recent research from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development has found that by 2030 Northern Ireland may have the fourth highest proportion of low-qualified people out of 16 OECD comparators. Similarly, the recent Ulster University Economic Policy Centre (UUEPC) Competitiveness Scorecard Report shows that competitiveness has been falling in NI over the last decade. It predicts that this will fall further by 2030 unless we start addressing issues such as skills. We must act now, and with high ambitions.


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Contributing to the success of businesses and creating possibilities and opportunities that weren't there when I was growing up in the 1970s and 1980s is a personal passion of mine.

Why colleges are central to closing skills gaps

That’s why the Skills Strategy Advisory Group – which I chair – is addressing skills imbalances, driving economic growth; creating a culture of lifelong learning; and enhancing digital skills to develop Northern Ireland’s regional spine. All of this is vital to create a secure and prosperous future. Colleges must be seen as central to this.

The pandemic has brought into sharp focus how vital colleges are to our society and economy. Up and down Northern Ireland we have seen them support their local communities and businesses during the toughest of times. They are central to supporting businesses with the skills they need to survive and thrive. With a Skills Strategy soon to come from the executive, we have the opportunity to further capitalise on their role in supporting businesses and driving our prosperity.

Today, the Independent Commission on the College of the Future published its report for Northern Ireland, and we should take pride in the real strengths of the college system that it highlights. We should also take pride in the fact that many of the commission’s recommendations for across the UK are based on things already happening here, with significant inspiration drawn from colleges working in a system, the explicit role for colleges in economic regeneration and in supporting employers through curriculum hubs. This should be seen as an affirmation of the direction of travel in our skills system.

We do, however, have some way to go to fully unlock colleges’ potential. The report from the commission sets out measures that address the complex and large-scale challenges we have. Its recommendations are wide-ranging – building on and developing the system that exists. From calling for the creation of a cross-government body for the skills strategy and a single college structure, to setting out the case for a right to lifelong learning, the proposals set out in this report warrant serious consideration and action. What I’m particularly exercised by is the call for funding measures that will empower colleges to maximise their capacity for business support and innovation.

A high-skilled workforce is an essential component of economic recovery and of economic success in the future. It is what attracts companies from across the UK, Europe and the globe to invest in Northern Ireland. To kick-start economic recovery in Northern Ireland and build a more competitive, inclusive and greener economy, colleges must be seen as a vehicle for a brighter future. By further investing in skills and continuing to grow the strategic potential of colleges, I am confident that we will have the people and innovative practices to succeed in the globally competitive market.

Jackie Henry is the chair of the Skills Strategy Advisory Group, Deloitte UK, consulting people and purpose lead and Northern Ireland office senior partner

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