NI: FE, skills and apprenticeships

What would UCU like to see?

The UK’s further education and adult learning sector is diverse and complex, catering for a wide range of needs and educational aspirations.

In recent years, there has been an increasing focus across the UK on skills for growth and the expansion of apprenticeships. Over 50,000 people have started apprenticeships in Northern Ireland since 2010, with the proportion of people starting level 3 apprenticeships rising year on year even as the number of overall starters has decreased. At the same time, funding for adult learning has fallen dramatically. In Northern Ireland, 9.4% fewer students were enrolled in further education by 2013/14 than in 2009/10.

Education policy, including further education, is devolved in Northern Ireland. However, UCU would like elected MPs for Northern Ireland to promote a holistic vision for further education and adult learning. High-quality apprenticeships should continue to be supported, but education policy should look beyond skills for employability and politicians should agitate for appropriate funding to support a wide range of learning opportunities and outcomes.

What is each party proposing?

Alliance Party of Northern Ireland

  • Ensure a wide variety of education, training and employment schemes are available in Northern Ireland
  • Invest in a wide range of programmes to assist young people in gaining appropriate skills and by working with specific industries where appropriate
  • Implement an early intervention and prevention strategy to reduce the number of young people not in education, employment or training (NEET)

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Democratic Unionist Party

  • Provide a well-educated and skilled workforce

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Social Democratic and Labour Party

  • Ensure access to essential skills, apprenticeships and lifelong learning for all
  • Build upon the cross-border cooperation between colleges and universities to meet the needs of students and business

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Sinn Féin

  • Create more diverse, high quality routes into work, in particular by strengthening the quality of apprenticeships and other vocational qualifications
  • Improve workforce skills through an agreed approach to economic development across the whole of Ireland

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Ulster Unionist Party

  • Ensure that every school leaver has three essential options: third level education, training for a skill, or an apprenticeship
  • Support small businesses to create more apprenticeships, mandate public bodies and public service contractors to offer additional apprenticeships, and promote apprenticeships as a route to prepare young people for careers in creative industries
  • Make careers’ guidance a core part of the schools’ curriculum, and develop a skills-based agenda based around STEM subjects
  • Retain the Educational Maintenance Allowance to allow young people to continue in education

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UCU analysis

Each of the five main parties has set out an aspiration for improving the population’s skills, but with widely varying levels of detail. As education policy is devolved, it is unsurprising that some manifestos don’t go into much detail on further education policy; nonetheless, each party sets out an expectation that skills will be a crucial lever for economic growth.

The DUP manifesto links skills policy firmly to employment in its proposal for a ‘skilled workforce’. Similarly, Sinn Fein talks about improving ‘routes into work’ but with a focus on improving the quality of qualifications available. The party also calls for cross-border coordination of economic policy to create a cohesive approach to skills. In the same vein, the SDLP calls for greater collaboration between colleges and universities, in order to meet the needs of business as well as students. The UUP has clearly recognised that apprenticeship growth relies on employer engagement, and has focussed heavily on how employers can be encouraged to offer more places.

Alliance and the SDLP have concentrated on widening access to learning, with both parties promoting access to a variety of different learning opportunities. The UUP has focussed more closely on young people, stating that every school leaver should have options for either skills training, an apprenticeship or higher education, while promising to improve careers guidance in schools, promote STEM skills and retain the education maintenance allowance. Alliance has also included youth-focussed education policies, which aim to reduce the NEET population and improve the links between young people and industry.