Historic Riddel Hall in Stranmillis opens its doors to the 'first of a kind' college in the province for postgraduates and executives in the business community. Clare Weir reports
'Superb', 'spectacular' 'amazing' and 'game-changing' - these are just some of the thoughts expressed by some of Northern Ireland's top business people as they took a tour around the newly opened Postgraduate and Executive Education Centre at Queen's University this week.
Back in May, Business Telegraph reported on how Queen's was to be the first university in the UK and Ireland to open such a dedicated, brand new facility, which includes a leading Management School, a Graduate School and a Leadership Institute to meet the needs of global and local business.
What is new and game-changing is the fact that part of the project at Riddel Hall in Stranmillis has been provided by The Founder's Club, a group of Northern Ireland and international businesses with bases in the province.
Membership for an initial five-year term was secured through a minimum gift of £50,000 and is limited to a maximum of 20 founder members.
Businesses can avail of recognition on a plaque, naming rights to a room or space, access to the university's leadership and international networks, including India and China, access to sources of future employment, executive MBA scholarships and priority access and preferential rates for conferences or training sessions.
As well as the 20 members of the Founder's Club, it has also been announced that the Institute of Directors has taken up residency in the new centre - a huge vote of support.
The location is the historic Riddel Hall, founded as a residence for women students in 1913 and includes 11 acres of parkland.
In later years it was occupied by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland and will now be home to business education, replacing the former premises at University Square next to the Lanyon Building.
The new building comprises a £5.5m refurbishment of Riddel Hall itself and the construction of a modern extension.
There are meeting rooms and spaces of various sizes, conferencing and exhibition space, lecture halls, dining areas and multi-media suites.
Original features have been retained, including the girls' old wardrobes being turned into cupboards, ornate ironwork on the staircases and wooden panelling.
There are also outdoor courtyard areas which can be used in warmer weather.
Ed Vernon is chairman of the Founder's Club.
Already well known in the business world here, in 1984 he founded technology firm BIC Systems, which was acquired by BT Group in 2004.
He is a board member of Invest Northern Ireland and strategic adviser to BT Ireland.
He said that the fundraising drive to make the dream of the new centre a reality was tough, but he is now ready to embark on a five-year journey with the founders.
"I head up the club and chair it and make sure that there is a lasting legacy beyond the bricks and mortar," he said.
"This is very much a partnership and is about making a generational difference to the way we educate and do business in Northern Ireland."
Some of the supporting business people had a lot to say following their first tour around the complex. Roy Adair, chief executive of Belfast Harbour Commissioners, said he was looking forward to the international links that could be provided by the new facility.
"As a port and harbour, international business is a huge part of our work and is a vital ingredient in our economy," he said.
"When you look at what foreign direct investors are looking for, this place and the links it can provide between businesses and students both here and across the world, the access it can provide, is all a real game-changer in terms of what we have to offer the international community."
Chief executive and founder of call-centre giant Gem, Philip Cassidy said he believed the new facility can help put Northern Ireland back on the business map.
"The leadership development area is one that has been lacking in Northern Ireland," he said.
"It is something that really had to be taken out of Northern Ireland before and now the new business school can help bring it back.
"The fact that the Institute of Directors has also established a base at Riddel Hall is really attractive - as well as being a place of education, people are going to be coming here to do real business - the line between education and real world business is being crossed."
Richard Rodgers, managing director of Carillion Energy and a member of the Institute of Directors, has a dual interest in the new school.
"I've been really supportive of the relocation of the IoD to Riddel Hall," he said.
"We need to get more real business into executive and post graduate education provision.
"This will be a great place to meet, to discuss ideas, to look for potential recruits.
"If you look at the Northern Ireland economy, the public sector has served us really well over 40 years but now we need to stimulate the economy and the private sector and third-level social economy sector and this is a hub where it can all happen - creative space is so important.
"We need to create a momentum and local businesses cannot ignore this opportunity."
Mark Sweeney, global operations director with Caterpillar Electric Power Division, said that no matter how big the company, investing at grass-roots level is vital for the growth of any business and the new facility is a prime example of how to do it best.
"This is a great move for Queen's, for Northern Ireland, for the workforce, for business," he said.
"What is on offer here can help us become much more powerful in terms of leadership and status globally. Caterpillar as a company uses any opportunity it can to invest in new talent and in our people and that is why we joined the Founder's Club.
"Supporting Queen's in this way means we are investing in and supporting education and we are also able to leverage the expertise on offer here.
"There are a lot of strong but diverse companies in Northern Ireland and this new facility is providing us a space and a place where we can come and share our experiences, network, learn from each other and deal with the challenges that are out there."
Professor Richard Harrison, director of Queen's University Management School, said that the story of what the Postgraduate and Executive Education Centre can offer Northern Ireland is just beginning.
"We have all seen the drawings, we all knew the plans, now for the first time we are starting to see what it will look like," he said.
"Students are here and learning, businesses are starting to use it. What we want to see is what really can be done with the building and how we can improve the education and the business world."
Creating a hub for discussion, debate and action
Companies working on the complex include Tracey Brother Ltd, Hamilton Architects, Williams & Shaw, Albert Fry Associates, Faithful + Gould and Consarc Quantity Surveying.
Queen's director of estates, Gary Jebb, said: "We want this to be a hub for discussion and debate and action on the economy. The steady supply of qualified graduates is key to economic growth.
"Support from and support of the business community in Northern Ireland is vital." Queen's University Management School is acknowledged as the leading research-led school on the island of Ireland, while the Leadership Institute will deliver high-level programmes across the private, public and voluntary sectors - locally and globally.
In the past six years, academic staff numbers have doubled to 85 with a further 40 PhD researchers due to start work. The University now plans to increase the postgraduate student population to 30%, or by 4,000, and eight of the university's academic schools will use the new purpose-built facility.
The internet, international business, financial management, risk management, green economies, research and development, ethics, leadership and management are all seen as key growth areas. However, many of those subjects will run throughout all programmes rather than being taught as individual programmes.
An executive MBA course will also be offered in the new building.
The new facility will serve not only students from Northern Ireland, but all over the world.
There are currently 14,000 students of the business school, 12,000 of those in undergraduate programmes, with plans to grow numbers to around 16,000 - 17,000 by 2014.
Postgraduate intake is increasing by between 30% and 50% year on year.