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New Northern Ireland Assembly has got to utilise outside expertise

By John Simpson

Published 10/05/2016

Universities like Queen's need more integration
Universities like Queen's need more integration

The Assembly election is over. Now, can the promises be delivered?

The task is to build a coherent functioning regional government. The election, without being dismissive, has left a large unfinished policy agenda on bread and butter topics.

High on the Stormont agenda must also be:

1: an appreciation of the unresolved tensions in the Stormont budget

2: the strengthening of policies to grow the economy

3: the transitional needs as the welfare reform agenda is implemented

4: resolving the hiatus in energy policies and pricing

5: identifying the priorities for infrastructure investment and

6: making effective changes to build a better equipped (or skilled) labour force.

Senior party politicians may be inclined, at this stage, to rely on civil servants or advisers to detail the agenda. Past experience suggests that would be a mistake. Officials usually emphasise 'more of the same' from the recent past. What is needed is a more radical rethink. Are the senior politicians ready to reach further than the official advice and find expertise outside the abilities of existing special advisers?

There is expertise outside the central core of our political networks that could be tapped. Business and academic specialists too infrequently are invited to work on policy options. Now would be the opportunity to turn the tables and challenge the business and academic communities to be constructive in a well-informed agenda to improve how Stormont functions. The house on the hill, Stormont, should learn to function as a less exclusive environment.

To illustrate just one aspect of the potential to change the policy-making debate, the searchlight might be turned on to serious questions about what we expect of our universities and how they should be treated. Arguably, in Northern Ireland, the three universities have been praised, then left to manage their academic contributions according to their own agendas, offered unduly restrictive funding, and expected to balance their accounts, if necessary, by curtailing some of their interests.

The stand-back approach does little to integrate the universities, as corporate entities or as a source of expertise, into the wider local society. That does not diminish the value of their contribution in leading national or international scholarship nor other features such as building a qualification as a member of the Russell group of universities. What this does ask is whether the local universities do enough to fulfil their potential roles as civic leaders.

Admittedly, these questions pose potential tensions. Leadership in scholarship and learning is an admirable objective. It converts easily into programmes of leading edge research which should also serve to stimulate positive endeavours in stimulating an up and coming generation of vocational and organisational leaders. All of that can take place at arms length from the local communities and the political institutions that relate to local people.

These questions can evolve in different directions: two examples.

To the business and community leaders: how well do you know the leading academics in the local universities with special knowledge in topics relevant to your organisation? If you have little or no knowledge, are you at fault? Alternatively, do the academic specialists make adequate efforts to cross the divide between academic cloisters and workshop floor?

To the senior politicians: how do you better support our civic universities? Official funding is less supportive than in Scotland or England. Different fee charging systems are discriminatory. What solution to the present distortion of different fees and inadequate public sector funds can be urgently implemented?

Northern Ireland needs a more appropriately qualified advanced labour force. How can policy makers be sure that we get a well-judged programme of enhanced skills from our universities? Not by relying on the status quo.

Belfast Telegraph

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