What does the Journey to a Million mean for student progression and the choices they have in Northern Ireland?

Heather Cousins, Deputy Secretary, Skills and Education Group in the Department for the Economy examines what increased competition means for student progression in Northern Ireland.

In the early 2000s, the then UK Government set out its ambition for 50% of young adults to progress to higher education (HE) in order to reap the manifold benefits of a university education. While this was certainly an ambitious target, I am delighted that Northern Ireland has risen to that challenge during the past 2 decades, with the most recent UCAS data indicating that 52.8% of Northern Ireland 18-year-olds had applied to university compared to 44% across the whole of the UK.i 

However, UCAS now forecasts that by 2030 there could be an additional 300,000 applicants to UK higher education — an increase of around 30% from 2022, and double the volume seen in 2006 — which would result in a million higher education applicants. While this increase is likely to be tempered by a further decrease in the 18-year-old population from 2030, it is nevertheless critical that we consider what this expected rate of growth means for Northern Ireland students and the wider education and training sector here.

Making informed choices

The Northern Ireland 14-19 Strategy highlights that this phase of education and training is crucial for all young people.ii  Every young person should be able to fulfil their potential and be supported in developing the knowledge, skills and attributes needed for adult life. This includes preparation for work to which they are well suited, the development of positive attitudes to continue learning, along with active participation in the economy and one’s community. Higher education will be just one of the available pathways to follow during this phase.

Young people entering the 14-19 phase of education and training face a series of fundamental milestones during this brief period of their lives. It begins with having to make subject choices at the age of 14 which may steer them towards a specific pathway or career. At age 16, further and more definite decisions about what and where to study are made. A small number of young people may choose to leave education and training at this point while, for those who remain, decisions are made on continuation of a programme of study or entering employment.

It is therefore vital that the education and training sectors are equipped with the resources, policies and practices to ensure our young people have clear pathways which transition them from education and training to the world of work. It is also critically important that our young people are empowered to make informed decisions about their choices. The Department, working hand in hand with employers and educators, has built a portfolio of vocational education and training pathways that deliver skills for people, ready to meet the evolving needs of our local industries.

Providing skills for tomorrow

We must also ensure that we are equipping our people with the right skills to meet the needs of industry today and the right skills to develop the businesses of the future, in areas where we have strategic advantage. From high-tech, high-growth sectors to vital healthcare roles, our apprenticeships and youth training provision offers routes to success, through an inclusive approach designed to raise skills levels across our workforce. Employer-led sectoral partnerships are in place across a wide range of occupational areas to review and develop the content of all apprenticeship and traineeship frameworks, to ensure that all those involved in training are industry-ready. 

In Northern Ireland today, over ten thousand apprentices are in work. They are learning as they earn, refining their specific craft skills, embarking on progression pathways that can take them to the top of their fields and are benefiting from the expertise of a committed vocational training system fully alive to employers’ needs. The ApprenticeshipsNI programme offers opportunities at Levels 2 and 3 (GCSE and A-Level equivalent) across a wide range of sectors, with Higher Level Apprenticeships providing additional pathways at Levels 4 to 7 (up to degree level).iii  At the centre of this sits the Careers Service, whose professionally qualified advisers provide free, impartial advice and guidance on a broad range of education, training and career options, underpinned by up-to-date labour market information. 

The need for people coming out of education with high-quality and economically relevant qualifications and skills has never been greater. While universities play a key role in the education system, the economy is also heavily dependent on the vocational skills that can be achieved through the learning pathways offered by further education (FE) colleges, or by various training and apprenticeships programmes. The most recent Northern Ireland Skills Barometer highlights that the major demand in our economy is for skills at Levels 3, 4 and 5.

FE colleges offer a range of academic and vocational courses on both a full-time and part-time basis. Courses are available from Level 2 (including a range of GCSEs, and Traineeships), Level 3 (including professional and technical qualifications, A levels and the new Advanced Technical qualification) up to Higher Education courses at Levels 4 and 5, including Foundation Degrees, Higher National Diplomas, and Higher-Level Apprenticeships. The Northern Ireland FE sector works directly with employers to develop economically relevant curricula and qualifications which will equip learners with the skills required to meet the needs of business and the economy, and gain employment in dynamic and high priority areas.

Pathways tailored for the individual and the needs of the economy

All parts of the education system must be equally valued and supported, and it is essential that our young people are aware of the different pathways available to achieving their career goals. The Department’s ‘FE for Me’ communications campaign promotes the unique offering of FE and ‘HE in FE’ to young people and parents, and highlights that there are many routes to further and higher education and employment.

In order to meet the anticipated increase in demand for higher education, the ‘HE in FE’ offering must be reflective of the different learning styles of individuals, while ensuring subject matter is aligned with the needs of the local economy. An increase in demand would mean a wider range of level 4 and 5 qualifications would need to be delivered in a wider range of accessible formats to best support student choice, progression and success.

Access for all

An increase in demand for higher education could lead to those in under-represented groups finding it even harder to access HE, unless we continue to take action on widening participation. This will mean continuing to have a strong ‘HE in FE’ offering, which is an important avenue for under-represented groups to access HE. 

We must continue to ensure HE providers have robust targets for which they are held to account. Providers will need to think hard about how they use contextualised offers, outreach initiatives, bursaries and a range of other financial and non-financial support to ensure individuals from under-represented groups both make it to university and are supported to be successful once they are there. 

Increased demand will also require pathways that suit people at all stages of their life, supporting a culture of lifelong learning that is in line with the Department’s Skills Strategy. It may well be that more students choose to study later in life and are more interested in flexible timetabling and learning approaches, which would require our universities and ‘HE in FE’ providers to respond to this demand.

As demand for higher education increases, it is not just higher education in isolation that must adapt, but all stakeholders involved in 14+ education. This is essential if we want to continue to provide our young people with the best and broadest opportunities to meet their full potential, and for our education and training sectors to deliver the outcomes required by the wider economy and society. 

iUCAS, 2022 cycle applicant figures – 30 June deadline. Accessed January 25th, 2023.

iiNI Department of Education, 14 to 19 policy. Accessed January 25th, 2023.

iiiNI Direct, Apprenticeships. Accessed January 25th, 2023.

Heather Cousins

Deputy Secretary, Skills and Education Group in the Department for the Economy

Heather holds the post of Deputy Secretary, Skills and Education Group in the Department for the Economy.  The group has policy and finance responsibility for Higher Education (including Student Finance), for Further Education Colleges, for Apprenticeships and Youth Training Programmes, for bespoke employer skills interventions and for the development of a Skills Strategy for Northern Ireland.  Heather’s previous post in the Department for the Economy was Deputy Secretary, Higher Education and Investment Group which included responsibility for financial management and governance as well and policy and finance for Higher Education. 

Heather was Deputy Secretary, Resources in the Department for Employment and Learning from September 2013 to 2016.   Prior to this Heather held various posts in the Department for Social Development from 2003 to 2013, including Deputy Secretary, Resources and Social Policy Group, Director of Housing and Director of Financial Management and Planning in the Social Security Agency. 

Heather is a qualified member of CIPFA (the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy) with over 20 years of post qualification financial management experience and has served on the Institute’s Council, Financial Management Panel and Governments Board.  Heather served on the Court of the University of Glasgow from 2014 -2022 and was Chair of the Audit Committee. 

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