A new era for business in the city is born as Queen's opens the UK and Ireland's first Graduate and Executive Education Centre. The timing has never been better, says Professor Richard Harrison
Where once strict hall mistresses, who ruled with a rod of iron, patrolled the corridors, kept curfews and chased away love-lorn teenage boys, a new era for business in Belfast will soon be born.
Queen's will be the first university in the UK and Ireland to open a dedicated, brand new Graduate and Executive Education Centre comprising a leading Management School, a Graduate School and a Leadership Institute to meet the needs of global and local business.
Incorporating old and new, the £15m project, supported by a mixture of public and private funding, will include both the listed mansion house at Riddel Hall in leafy Stranmillis, as well as the latest new-build technology for the students of tomorrow within the sprawling grounds.
Funding of £10m has already been secured from the university and government while the remaining money is being sought via donations and a network of corporate supporters, 'The Founders Club'. The overall spend, including people and equipment could hit £26m and is one of Queens' most significant investments ever.
One of those organisations which is supporting the new scheme through 'The Founders Club' is software firm Liberty IT.
It is donating at least £50,000.
Based in Belfast, it serves parent company Liberty Mutual, in support of insurance products and services.
Managing director, William Hamilton said that the company takes six placement students from Northern Ireland higer education providers each year.
"This new school will be massively important for the long-term future of Northern Ireland and we want to be a part of that," he said.
There has been business education provision at Queen's for over 45 years and the current accommodation at University Square has long since been outgrown.
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, due to open in late summer.
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.
Professor Richard Harrison, director of Queen's University Management School said that despite the economic downturn, the time has never been better to proceed with the plans.
A review of the business school in 2006 suggested a shift of focus from the traditional undergraduate provision for 19-21 year olds to serving the postgraduate market, withdrawing some courses and replacing them with new ones in a fast-changing environment.
Professor Harrison said that none of what the new school offers will be 'set in stone' - reflecting the seismic shifts that can happen in short timeframes in global industry - there will be near constant adaptation and evolution, in part inspired by the massive changes which have happened in the financial world over the last three years.
"This will be a much more responsive offering of courses than what we have seen in times past," he said.
"A lot of the courses on offer, a lot of what we teach and will continue to teach in the new building are a reaction to the financial crisis in Europe and worldwide. These challenges reflect the nature of business education - it's one theme running through all business schools."
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.
"We have people from Canada, Poland, Lithuania, the Czech Republic, the USA, India, around 20 other countries in total - it's a real reflection of how the labour market in Northern Ireland is changing," said Professor Harrison.
"We have a great pool of creative talent to tap into, and these students not only come to study but they come to stay, at the university and in the city, and we are bringing that talent pool and that quality from home and abroad, to Northern Ireland PLC."
There will also be collaboration with universities in the rapidly expanding economy of China.
A number of research fellows from China are already visiting Queen's.
There are currently 14,000 students of the business school, 12,000 of those in undergraduate programmes, with plans to grow numbers to around 16-17,000 by 2014. Postgraduate intake is increasing by between 30% and 50% year on year.
"The key focus in the new building will be on management and leadership," continued Professor Harrison.
"We're also moving more from areas like accountancy, finance, economics, to things like human resources and marketing which are equally important in today's business world.
"Critical leadership programmes where we can draw in leading figures from the public and private sector is high on the agenda, coaching and teaching people behaviours - it is a shortcoming and we need to produce more leaders who have the ability to bring out talent of people in their teams." The Graduate and Executive Education Centre is an ambitious project in these financially difficult times, but Professor Harrison said that the time has never been better for expansion.
"The face of Northern Ireland's economy is transforming and the private sector needs to show that it it able to lead and help that transformation. We need to be able to show that Northern Ireland is a good place for business."
But despite the focus on attracting big name businesses to support the new complex and address and mentor students, Professor Harrison said that there is still a strong focus on the small businesses which make Northern Ireland tick - enterprise, entrepreneurship and SMEs.
Queen's University Belfast won the title of 2009 'Entrepreneurial University of the Year' awarded by The Times Higher Education supplement.
"Northern Ireland is still an SME economy and a family business economy and will remain so for some time. It is the bedrock of our economy and there will still always be plenty of support for small businesses. But even in this area there are real leadership challenges. Leaderships and strong teams can be non-existent in SMEs and the potential to revitalise the sector through management and leadership skills is enormous. The SMEs are a keen target sector to work with.
"The public sector faces challenges and the transformation will be led by the private sector but the redefining needs to be balanced. We need to look at making efficiencies and decide what is the role of the public sector in a 21st century economy, and how to lead this process of change."
Among the cutting-edge technology in the new school will be a trading room, where students will have the opportunity of learning to trade in a real-time environment using real terminals and equipment.
The Riddel Hall development is proceeding apace thanks to the involvement of the Founders' Club. Membership for an initial five-year term is secured through a minimum gift of £50,000 and is limited to a maximum of 20 founder members. Other opportunities for corporate and individual support for Riddell Hall are negotiable. Already signed up are Andor, Ulster Bank, Liberty IT, Belfast Harbour Commissioners, Clear Pharmacy, Forward Emphasis, Kainos, MJM Group, Phoenix Natural Gas, SHS Group and Tughans solicitors. Businesses involved can avail of a number of opportunities, including recognition through a plaque, naming rights to a room or space, access to the university's leadership and international networks, access to sources of future employment, executive MBA scholarships and priority access and preferential rates for conferences or training sessions. Any businesses wishing to sign up should contact Marcus Ward on 028 9097 3114.
Eliza and Isabella Riddel founded Riddel Hall as a residence for women students in 1913. The ethos was on culture, education and ladylike behaviour rather than boys, partying and sleeping in for lectures. The site includes 11 acres of parkland in Stranmillis and a landmark building. In later years it has been occupied by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, which opened a sculpture garden and ran educational programmes and exhibitions. The Tudor, gothic-style three storey building comprises four wings made with red brick and Scottish sandstone dressings. When completed, the new building will provide teaching, syndicate and post-graduate rooms, academic offices and facilities for executive dining. Companies working on the complex include Tracey Brother Ltd, Hamilton Architects, Williams -amp; Shaw, Albert Fry Associates, Faithful+Gould and Consarc Quantity Surveying.