In the end, I never got round to reading the 150 page Alliance manifesto before the election. On Friday night, the five main parties informally ran d’Hondt to select their ministries – and announced the informal selections via the Executive’s twitter account, controversially some suggest – allowing them to spend the weekend making informed choices about suitable ministers from their elected MLAs.
With nine ministries selected, Alliance had no option but take the remaining Department for Employment and Learning as their ministry. North Down MLA Stephen Farry is expected to be named as their nomination on Monday.
While the party “is conscious that the Northern Ireland Assembly is first and foremost a legislative Assembly”, unfortunately the Alliance Legislative Programme for Government 2011–2015 doesn’t suggest any legislation directly pitched at DEL (though suggestions in other areas would affect deployment and learning).
Civil servants will be rifling through each party manifesto to pick out the priorities that the new ministers will bring to their new departments on Monday. With such a detailed manifesto published in advance, what does it suggest Alliance will do with its new portfolio?
- ‘Martini’ careers advice – available to anyone, anywhere, any time;
- fewer overlapping advice organisations;
- a focus on encouraging STEM subjects and creative arts and design;
- addressing course drop out rates;
- limiting student fees;
- limiting support for NI students choosing to study outside NI to the maximum support available to students remaining in NI.
Pages 47-61 are dedicated to the topic of Skills – Investing in our future.
[Alliance] believe that the skills and education of the workforce play a central role in ensuring that this [NI economic] revolution becomes a reality.
Their document identifies key problems, pointing out that NI has lower levels of skills than its UK neighbours; high rates of economic inactivity (“a lower proportion of our population is available for work when compared to any other region of the UK”); poor levels of labour productivity; workers receive less in-service training than any other region of the UK; too many young people leave education without the security of a full-time job or are unable to find employment that utilises their training.
We need to raise the level of basic skills held by our population by ensuring all school leavers, college leavers and graduates are competent in the three essential skills of literacy, numeracy and ICT …
We believe that essential skills provision for all individuals up to Level 2 should continue to be free … targeted at individuals holding no qualifications (both individuals in and not in employment) including adult learners …
… there is a need to address employability skills of school leavers, college leavers and graduates [including] ability to solve problems, work in teams, time management etc. These softer skills are highly valued by employers across all sectors.
Assembly speaker Willie Hay may want to send any MLA turning up late to ask a question on one of the DEL-supported time management courses!
The new Alliance minister will want to put an emphasis on proper careers advice appropriate to “the needs of specific users”, eg “young people, existing employees and career changers, and the unemployed and economically inactive”. He’ll also “recognise the need to engage with young people who have fallen outside the education and training network” by using support groups such as “alternative education projects and the youth justice agency”.
The manifesto refers to the New Zealand model of delivering careers advice, with a combination of website, face-to-face, phone, email and out-of-hours services.
We believe where possible, information should also be passed to parents and guardians. In the 2007 Young Person’s Behaviour and Attitudes Survey, 72% of young pupils indicated that parents and guardians were the most influential factor in their decision making process when going to further education college or university.
Expect to see an Alliance minister working to simplify the skills advisory landscape.
Currently DETI and DEL fund a range of organisations … Workforce Development forums, Sector Skills Councils and the Sectors Skills Alliance, Invest NI, the NI Employment and Skills Advisory Group, Future Skills Action Groups and the network of Skills Solutions Skills Advisors, as well as investment by the Further Education colleges in business development units.
With 45% of employers reporting in a 2010 CBI/EDI survey that they are having difficulty recruiting skilled STEM staff, an Alliance minister will want to encourage uptake of science, technology, engineering and maths. [As a maths graduate – hurray! Though in 17 years of work, I’ve only used a fact from my three years of university maths once.]
An easier transfer between [Further Education] and [Higher Education] in STEM related subjects needs to be facilitated. 10% of STEM students in our universities drop out within first year, rising to 18% in engineering and technology subjects.
But STEM isn’t the only “priority growth sector”.
Alliance believes that creative arts and design subjects should also be valued and supported … The success of Derry in achieving UK City of Culture is testament to out talent and potential in this area. IT is estimated that currently almost 12,000 people work in the creative and cultural industries in Northern Ireland, and that as many as 4,000 more jobs will be required in this sector by 2017.
Other employment commitments that the new Alliance minster might be expected to pursue or lobby for would include
- an individual’s right to time off for training, to provide a mechanism to support employees in accessing training while in employment;
- the introduction of tax credits and direct grants or subsidies to encourage business investment in training;
- Further Education colleges should be free to develop foundation degrees with UK [means GB] and international universities where local universities are not in a position to support course development;
- pushing Further Education colleges to reduce low achievement and high drop out rates;
- supporting the “sustainable expansion of Magee Campus at the University of Ulster … in collaboration with the North West Regional College”;
- making the reduction of the number of NEET (Not in Education, Employment or Training) young people a priority in the next Programme for Government, and fully supporting the implementation of the cross-departmental NEET strategy.
Interestingly the manifesto notes that there will be “a 50% decline in the 18-year old population over the next 10 years” leading to a need “to offer access to training and education to raise the proportion of the workforce qualified to levels 4 through to 8”.
On student fees – and the Stewart report that will be sitting dusty near the top of the new minister’s in tray, Alliance “believes that Government should remain the primary funder of higher education teaching and will resist a move toward the level of student contributions in place in England”.
They believe that “cost should not be a barrier to participation”, that universities should “compete to retain our young people”(only 42% of local graduates who study outside NI return here to work). As a lever, the Alliance minister will want to
… limit the level of support available to Northern Ireland students studying in GB to the maximum available to Northern Ireland students studying at local universities.
The new minister will also support “a progressive system of repayment, where the amount paid back is tied to what a student earns and an increase in the repayment threshold to reflect specific Northern Ireland conditions is key”.
We will also consider the introduction of real rate of interest and a reduction in the student loan subsidy for graduates in the highest income brackets.
Charged with addressing employment and unemployment, the new Alliance DEL minister will “not support the approach adopted by Westminster to move people from welfare toward work through the use of sanctions” as these “fail to consider local job market conditions, the impact upon household and childhood poverty and the need to address the range of barriers to employment”.
The Alliance minister is likely to introduce “a pilot scheme to support parents who make the transition to employment, including additional support and assistance for employment; child care support; and an earnings disregard to enable them to keep some of their benefits when making the transition into sustained employment”.
Quite a list of things for the department to action over the next four years …
Alan Meban. Tweets as @alaninbelfast. Blogs about cinema and theatre over at Alan in Belfast. A freelancer who writes about and reports from civic, academic and political events, reviews cultural performances, chairs discussions, and live-tweets, streams and records lectures and conferences. He delivers social media training, coaching and consultancy, produces podcasts, is a member of Ofcom’s Advisory Committee for Northern Ireland, FactCheckNI board member, and is a member of the Corrymeela Community.