Posted on Thursday 16 May 2013 by Ulster Business
Damian Duffy, Director of Development and Learner Services
It is a conversation that the province's largest FE college, Belfast Met, has been at the forefront of, and having made a huge investment in its physical infrastructure and technical capabilities, it is clearly also prepared to walk the walk.
The completion of its flagship £44m Titanic Quarter campus in 2011 was followed last year by the opening of the £18m e3 economic development building on its Springvale campus in West Belfast.
Designed to accommodate up to 500 users on a daily basis, the high-spec, high-tech e3 building houses specialist zones dedicated to digital media, manufacturing technology, catering, business incubation, SME training and renewable technologies.
The name e3 stands for employability, enterprise and economic development – the site's primary goals being to enhance the employability skills of its students, to stimulate enterprise through business incubation and the delivery of innovative development programmes, and to foster enhanced approaches to economic development.
On all counts e3 has got off to a flying start in its first nine months, says Damian Duffy, Belfast Met's Director of Development.
"The building has proved very successful because it is a shared space which enables learners, businesses and community groups to come together," he told Ulster Business.
The location of e3 within Belfast Met's Springvale campus and adjacent to the College's Community Learning Centre, placing it on the Peace Line, is deliberate. Damian Duffy says that opening the doors of e3 last September has enabled the college to have a "very positive community conversation," and helped it deliver new solutions to assist young people Not in Education, Employment or Training (NEETS) through a DEL-supported programme called Threshold.
"There's a very positive vibe here because you have people coming here with different levels of ability. We are covering the full range of educational training from essential skills to degree level qualifications," says Duffy.
"We aim to get our students to understand the benefits of life-long learning. If we can do that, organisations will become more capable and that feeds into Northern Ireland being more innovative and competitive. Jobs and growth follow on from that. It is about trying to get that virtuous circle of skills and employment, skills with a purpose."
Within its massive brief, which sees Belfast Met with over 37,000 student enrolments including full time learners and those undertaking professional development, many programmes have been designed to meet the specific needs of industry sectors and individual employers.
"We are absolutely joined at the hip with business because we need to be responsive to the needs of business. It makes sense to listen if you have the chief technical officer of a company saying we employ 200 people but I could employ 90 more if I had these skills. We need to tune into those conversations," says Duffy.
"When we talk about Northern Ireland plc one of the strengths we have is human capital – a young, educated resource. If we're going to be globally competitive we need to be creative and innovative about how we invest in that human capital."
In its drive to become a world class FE/ HE institution the college has invested in a dedicated business development team that talks to businesses to understand their needs and deliver training solutions to meet them. Solutions range from the Assured Skills programmes needed by Invest NI to support FDI investors, to INNOVATEUS, a knowledge transfer and mentoring programme and its award-winning creative thinking programme FRESH.
"We can have a conversation with a business and bring a qualification to the table for that business within six weeks. We can put together a foundation degree within six months when it would normally take two years to bring together a degree programme. That agile, flexible approach is key for us. You need to be able to respond to the needs of business," explains Duffy.
"We work with some of the biggest companies in the city – the likes of Citi, Bombardier, Delta Print & Packaging, Montupet – to deliver customised training programme and we're developing a new training solution for SMEs to launch in September that has a bit more flexibility built in," he adds.
"The unique thing about Belfast Met is that most of our staff will have industry experience. We have people lecturing who are well connected, understand the needs of business and take a pragmatic, practical approach to it."
Throughout the history of Belfast Met the college has delivered on both academic and vocational solutions. It has been part of the fabric of the success of the city of Belfast and is taking responsibility for driving forward developments in key sectors.
The priority areas for Belfast Met, as laid out in its Skills Matter Strategy, are energy and renewables; ICT; life & health sciences; and advanced engineering & materials. It has joined key groups such as the Energy Skills Network cluster and introduced IT programmes ranging from its Software Professionals Programme right down to the CoderDojo scheme designed to get children aged 6 to 16 interested in programming.
The bright, airy, futuristic design of the e3 campus is certainly somewhere you can envisage innovation taking place. A quick tour shows the college's investment in equipment that has created an industry leading composites autoclave, a renewable energy research hub and a cutting edge digital media technology suite – all with an eye on teaching skills students can use in the industries of the future.
"We also have to be more entrepreneurial ourselves by diversifying and attracting new revenue streams. We have to make the most of the funds we get from the Department and offer solutions to businesses that they are prepared to pay for, in part by offering them access to equipment they couldn't afford themselves," says Damian Duffy.
Belfast Met is also working alongside the universities to help promote the broader innovation ecosystem in Northern Ireland.
A collaborative approach between industry, academia and government will be absolutely crucial if the workforce in Northern Ireland is to gain the skills needed to drive the economy forward. Far from competing with Northern Ireland's two universities that often means close collaboration with them, says Duffy.
"Northern Ireland is too small a place for all the education and vocational training organisations to operate in isolation. We need to have more joined up, collaborative approaches. For example we're using the Connected programme to work alongside the universities on areas like Connected Health to make sure what we're doing is relevant," he explains.
The work taking place at e3 is proof that what Belfast Met is doing is relevant and as it continues to refine its offering, the college believes it can export some of its expertise to other jurisdictions.
"We have a world class capability here and we think there are opportunities for us to package that and bring it to other parts of the world. We've partnered with 20 other FE colleges in the UK to open an office in Delhi; we're about to sign a collaborative agreement with Bombay Chamber of Commerce; we've a team in Saudi Arabia this week exploring the potential to support the development of technical colleges in Saudi; and we're also increasingly talking about how we bring capability to overseas market as a cluster," says Duffy.
It is an approach that mirrors the goals for Northern Ireland's economy to be more export-driven, less inward looking and more entrepreneurial. As the new economy takes shape,
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