Belfast Telegraph

Colleges must be developed to serve needs of the economy

By John Simpson

The Department of Employment and Learning (DEL) has overall responsibility to ensure that Northern Ireland people are equipped to offer the qualifications and skills needed to enhance the productivity of the economy.

An examination of the progress in meeting these objectives is difficult because DEL, which has the central co-ordinating and planning role, does not publish clear guidance on the set of objectives, the baseline position and the incremental achievements.

There is an absence of measurable targets and no timetable to make changes or increase the specific skills levels of the upcoming generation.

DEL argues its 2009 'quality and performance report' "has set out the first comprehensive quantitative baseline analysis of DEL provision...". It can claim to be first to introduce some quantitative analysis but the coverage leaves too many unanswered questions about the adequacy of its claim to being comprehensive.

Part, but only part, of the gap in adequate information to assess needs and trends in meeting the skills deficits, lies in weaknesses in the quantitative curriculum planning and comparisons of the plans with the results.

This debate must look at the overall ambitions, convert these to objectives and plans for different institutions, and then consider the mechanisms and incentives to meet the overall ambitions.

For the upcoming cohort of young people, this suggests an analysis of the ambitions for the universities, the further education colleges and the commissioning of specific training and skills from training organisations.

Each of these strands merits careful review. For the universities, there is still no firm conclusion on the recent review of their strategic role. The report by Sir Graham Davies was, regrettably, an opportunity deferred.

Whilst the universities tend to attract high profile attention, the critical and wide-ranging contribution of the FE colleges is almost taken for granted.

The six restructured FE colleges are positioned to be major contributors to a range of qualifications that are an essential part of the matrix of key skills where Northern Ireland needs to step up its performance.

The contribution of the FE colleges is not carefully tailored to the needs of the economy. Individual colleges endeavour to meet a wide range of needs (sometimes too wide) and are mentored by a system of earning funds from DEL on a weighted funding basis.

There is no quantified matrix of subjects, qualifications and number of places on which to assess what is expected. The curriculum evolves around student demand and funding formulae.

Some years ago, an idea to encourage greater effort in key areas was linked to the setting up of a small number of priority subjects. However, this ambition was without any delivery mechanism and, in general, proved ineffective.

Whilst there are notable skills and training specialisms in different FE colleges, there appears to be no mechanism for the minister and DEL to set wide-ranging objectives for each college and to monitor delivery.

The deficiencies of the 'scatter gun' approach of DEL emerges in its own documents, from last year, offering a description of most of the main parts of the skills and training actions, followed by a separate response by DEL itself to the issues in its own 'quality and performance report'.

The quality and performance report is an interesting perspective since it is DEL judging itself.

What may be the most critical omission in this internal report is the absence of an explicit acknowledgement that Northern Ireland is facing into a period when a much larger proportion of the labour force should be better qualified for the changing structure of an improving economy. Even as a generic ambition, a statement of that kind would help to sharpen the analysis.

A mechanism to give greater momentum to the development of a more targeted and ambitious FE sector is needed, with more specific curriculum planning and targeted funding of FE colleges.