28 Jan 2021

Higher Skills Ambition Needed for Northern Ireland

Action required to stop Northern Ireland slipping behind other countries on Skills

Northern Ireland risks slipping further behind other countries in the Skills of its workforce, a new report by a leading research institute finds.

The report, from Learning and Work Institute, looks at how the Skills of Northern Ireland’s workforce are likely to compare to other countries by 2030. It finds that in 2030 Northern Ireland will have a substantially higher proportion of people qualified below the equivalent of GCSE level than the OECD average (17.4% compared to 12.8%) and a lower proportion with at least a degree-level qualification (44.9% compared to 47.8%).

Welcoming the report, Niamh O’Reilly, AONTAS CEO said: “This timely report makes stark predictions that widening educational disparities are evident and growing. The clear message is immediate action must be taken to address this issue and all efforts are required. Indeed, having this solid evidence base from which to create an inclusive adult learning system is vital and the finding from this report make a compelling case for sustainability funding community learning in the longer term.”

According to the new report, commissioned by Open College Network NI (OCN NI), by 2030 Northern Ireland will have the fourth highest proportion of low qualified people out of 16 OECD comparators. Moreover, it will be ranked as low as 14th for the proportion of people who are highly qualified. In comparison, the Republic of Ireland would be joint first for the proportion of people with high qualifications and have the joint lowest proportion with low qualifications. Northern Ireland’s Skills profile in 2030 will struggle to match the UK’s position today, despite a further ten years to improve Skills.

This would have profound implications for economic growth and people’s life chances. Education and Skills are central to improving economic growth, social justice and community cohesion. The report highlights that learning can help to increase employment, improve productivity, grow incomes, support community cohesion, improve wellbeing and reduce health inequalities. The coronavirus crisis has sharpened the need for investment in Skills to tackle the big rise in unemployment and help people retrain for new jobs.  

Martin Flynn, CEO OCN NI said: “This report provides us with a glimpse into what the future may be like, in terms of NI’s skills profile.  While the report shows that Northern Ireland’s skills are likely to improve over the next 10 years, we will still remain behind other countries. The report provides the Northern Ireland Executive with an opportunity to set a higher skills ambition in Northern Ireland, which in turn will contribute to improved economic growth, social justice and community cohesion.”

The report calls for the Northern Ireland Executive to set a new higher ambition for Skills, backed by investment. It argues for increased investment in learning and skills, making learning a key part of other public services like health, and taking a more joined-up approach with government, employers and individuals working together. There should be regular independent reports to keep track of progress and compare this to other countries.

Stephen Evans, Chief Executive of Learning and Work Institute, said: “The importance of learning and Skills have been heightened by the coronavirus pandemic. Many more people will need help to find work or to retrain. Our report shows that Northern Ireland’s Skills are likely to improve, but still lag behind other countries. If we want a prosperous, fair and inclusive Northern Ireland, we need to invest in a higher ambition for learning and Skills.”  

Martin Flynn concluded: “Time and again our partners across the education, health and community sectors, and our learners, have commented on how the impact of achieving qualifications like OCN NI learning outcomes have overflowed into other parts of their life and helped deliver wider individual, family, social and economic outcomes.”

“Such transformation for learners, by increasing their self-esteem, confidence, improved motivation, changed behaviour and attitudes have benefited them, their families and their community so we are calling on the Northern Ireland Executive to raise the bar in terms of skills attainment ambition in Northern Ireland.”

To view the full report click here