Northern Ireland’s forthcoming skills strategy must be ambitious in its plans to improve learning and skills outcomes

by David Southgate


28 04 2021


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Northern Ireland’s forthcoming skills strategy will set out plans to improve learning and skills outcomes. Our Higher Ambition report, commissioned by Open College Network Northern Ireland, highlighted why that matters.

Economic growth, social inclusion, improved social interaction and developments in physical and mental health are just some of the benefits of engaging with learning and skills development. Northern Ireland’s skills strategy has the potential to help to unlock these prospects by providing greater investment in skills, supporting a partnership approach, fostering a learning culture and pushing for collaboration between learning providers, civil society, employers and the government.

The Higher Ambition report outlined the present skills profile of Northern Ireland (NI), projected its skills development over the next ten years, and compared Northern Ireland’s expected skills profile to other OECD comparators.

The analysis revealed the risk of a substantial skills gap between Northern Ireland and the UK as a whole, Republic of Ireland and other OECD countries into 2030. That would risk holding back opportunity, growth and social inclusion.

Our analysis suggested that by 2030 Northern Ireland would be in the bottom quarter of our sample of 16 OECD countries for the proportion of people with high and low qualifications on current trends. By contrast, the Republic of Ireland could have one of the best qualifications profiles in the OECD.

Northern Ireland also risks significant skills gaps with the rest of the UK. Based on current trends, by 2030 around 25% of Northern Ireland’s working age population would have no or low qualifications compared to the UK’s projected 2030 figure of just 21%. To put that in context, that is just one percentage point lower than the UK has today.

At the higher end of the qualifications profile, by 2030 36% of Northern Ireland’s adult population is projected to have a level 4 or higher qualification. But this is substantially lower than the 43% projected for the UK and is still two percentage points lower than the UK had in 2017.

But this trajectory is by no means inevitable. The skills strategy has the potential to set a higher ambition, and to work with the range of excellent learning providers, employers, trades unions and others across Northern Ireland to make a difference.

In our report, we argue that the skills strategy should prioritise:

  • Setting a higher ambition for skills, and benchmarking progress against a range of comparators.
  • Support for the development of a learning culture in Northern Ireland, with learning embedded across multiple policy areas.
  • Greater investment in skills from a range of private, public and individual sources.
  • Fostering a partnership approach, ensuring that the multitude of agencies involved in meeting Northern Ireland’s higher ambition are working collaboratively rather than competitively.
  • Collaborative working across a range of stakeholders, including government, local authorities, employers, the learning and skills sector, and civil society – supported by cross-community and cross-border partnerships.

The skills strategy has an important role to play in recovery from the impacts of the pandemic and to promote and widen opportunity, growth and social inclusion in Northern Ireland more generally.