Damian Duffy, Director of Development, Belfast Met College

Colleges’ understanding of their role and contribution to the growth and prosperity of the economy in Northern Ireland is driven by a fundamental commitment to a dual mandate supporting both economic (business) development and social inclusion.

This is mapped out in the regional FE Strategy “FE Means Success”. The real secret for an effective “civic” model in Northern Ireland is a clear understanding that colleges provide a public service and are funded to do so.

Colleges are embedded in their communities and can provide a unique insight and practical understanding to support economic development and social inclusion. Colleges in Northern Ireland are seen to have a key role in working with the business community, not only support skills and employability, but also to underpin the work which enhances business development and innovation.

The Department for Economy provides core funding to colleges to support businesses with advice, mentoring, support for upskilling/reskilling through programmes such as Assured Skills, Skills Focus and Innovateus. This approach is supported by the governance model, where colleges are classified as Non Departmental Public Bodies (NDPBs) which locates colleges closely with the Department of Economy as a delivery agent and in shaping and influencing core Departmental policy. Crucially, at the same time, colleges support better connections to the business community by having a recognised seat at the table for joint consultative groups, City Deals, Curriculum Hubs and collaborative groups – sharing information and facilitating employer engagement.

The success of this commitment to a civic-public service model is the transformative impact of a unique “not for profit” Service Level Agreement with Northern Ireland Prison Service to take over responsibility for Learning and Skills provision across three prison sites. The motivation from the outset was to deliver better outcomes for prisoners and their families and an acceptance that colleges could bring the expertise and deliver a shift change in one of the most challenging prison environments in Europe.

This work was recognised with recent comments from Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Prisons in England and Wales in June 2020 stating:

“Outcomes for young men at the Secure College were dramatically better than at comparable prisons in England and Wales. In light of this, we recommend those with responsibility for designing and delivering custodial services for young adults, should study the findings of this report carefully”

The understanding that colleges are vital to economic and social development is shown in the role that colleges play in the Belfast Region City Deal. They bring their expertise to support the development of a skills and employability proposition as part of a £1 billion Treasury funding package.

Working on a collaborative basis with local councils, CBI and other business development agents, we have been determined to ensure that the City Deal can deliver the jobs and economic outputs with a socially inclusive approaches to job creation and skills driven by colleges.

The close conversations with employer groups across Northern Ireland allow colleges to develop solutions which are truly responsive to the needs of the business and deliver a much closer alignment meeting and stimulate demand for skills solutions.

Working strategically with the Department of Economy and businesses during COVID-19

Since the onset of the pandemic, the colleges have worked with the Department of Economy, CBI and other business agencies to support the reconfiguration of the main Skills Focus programme to offer 100% funding for short-course programmes for furloughed and recently unemployed workers.

Colleges have also helped shape a digital solutions framework, which maps out a range of opportunities for all key stakeholders to work more closely together to deliver remote solutions to meet the needs across the region.

Angela McGowan, CBI Northern Ireland Director commented:

“In respect of digital skills, we have worked closely with the FE Colleges and other stakeholders through the CBI’s Digital Working Group to address the skills gap in Northern Ireland.  

"The FE Colleges and CBI have also collaborated closely on the delivery of these skills through the City Deal and have connected through the CBI ‘People and Skills Network’ to bring together Human Resource managers from industry and the FE sector on a regular basis”.

Recognition of the importance of the dual mandate for FE colleges will continue to be key to supporting a socially inclusive economic recovery. Reflecting on these priorities will also help colleges make more balanced decisions around curriculum and involvement in projects which deliver positive impacts across society, rather than a narrow transactional focus on revenue generating activities.

Undoubtedly the change in status of FE Colleges to NDPBs in Northern Ireland, although associated with significant additional obligations in terms of public sector accountability, has been key to underpinning and reinforcing the public service ethos and building collaborative networks which allow innovative solutions to support learners, employers and communities.

The current efforts can be further reinforced in future by building even closer partnerships with Government Departments, Councils and key development agencies. By working together, we can develop and deliver local Skills and Employability plans that meet the needs of employers to support inclusive growth.

Damian Duffy, Director of Development, Belfast Met College

Damian was appointed Director of Development in Belfast Met in 2010 and has worked on issues related to skills, business and economic development in the UK, Ireland and internationally for 28 years. He has been instrumental in leading the College to a number of national awards for employer engagement, culminating with the Queen’s Anniversary Prize in 2019 for creating unique solutions to deliver a digital talent pipeline. He is a Director of the Northern Ireland Centre for Competitiveness and an adviser for the Belfast City Region Deal on Skills and Employability. Damian has also led on the reform of Prison Learning and Skills in Northern Ireland and is a member of the Project Monitoring Committee for the EU PEACE Programme. Having worked as a lead adviser for the EU Commission URBACT programme Damian also has a keen interest in supporting the integration of migrant communities working to create new models to test approaches which enhance social inclusion.

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