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Both bright spots and five focus areas for intervention identified as research reveals NI’s competitive edge has slowly slipped over two decades.

The Ulster University Economic Policy Centre (UUEPC) Competitiveness Scorecard, published today, details Northern Ireland’s economic, social and environmental progress over two decades relative to 30 competitor nations.

NI’s performance is measured across eleven areas, three of which have improved over the last decade however NI’s relative position has deteriorated in five. NI’s overall competitive position lagged behind 56% of competitor nations in 2000, this figure has deteriorated to 59% in 2020. This lag is projected to continue and worsen into the next decade with 61% of competitor nations ahead of NI by 2030 if policy action is not taken.

Key findings from the research include;

  • NI’s competitiveness has eroded slowly over the last two decades.  Whilst NI’s performance has improved over time, competitor nations have done so more rapidly;
  • There are a number of bright spots including high levels of wellbeing, electricity generated from renewable sources and a competitive digital infrastructure, which helped to maintain economic activity throughout the COVID-19 pandemic; and
  • NI faces a number of longstanding competitiveness challenges, which impinge upon standards of living. These include education and skills outcomes, low productivity & innovation and childcare costs.

The research highlights that focussing on competitiveness is important for society as “a more competitive economy is one that is likely to grow faster over time” (World Economic Forum).  On average, more competitive economies have higher standards of living and are more equal, which are two of the key areas of focus for the NI Executive and policymakers as society emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic and deals with Brexit induced disruptions.

As society looks towards building a sustainable and inclusive recovery, the research proposes five key areas for immediate focus that will help to build a better future for NI. They are;

  • Seize digital and green opportunities; digitisation creates more jobs than it removes and COVID19 has accelerated the pace of digitisation, creating opportunity. If NI moves quickly to develop and implement policy in the arena of alternative fuels and heat sources, it could gain an early mover advantage in the climate change challenge.
  • Support current and potential work; When the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme and the Self Employment Income Support Scheme end, significant focus is needed to ensure that unemployment – and particularly youth unemployment – is not a long-term issue for those impacted.
  • Skill up for the Future of Work; The pandemic and acceleration of digitisation have increased the demand for technological skills such as coding and data analytics and we know that “human skills” such as leadership, strategy and empathy are less easily automated and safeguard jobs for the future. The report recommends a sustained, long term solution.
  • Raise productivity to boost incomes and standards of living; If sustained investment is made in sectors, capital and skills that boost productivity this could provide a comparative advantage, higher incomes and enable firms to pay higher wages, boosting standards of living.
  • Focus internationally: NI must continue to focus on external markets and opportunities in order to generate income from outside NI, boost standards of living, sustainable and inclusive growth.

Professor Mark Durkin, Dean of the Ulster Business School said,

“The Ulster University Business School is focused on providing timely and insightful evidence to support economic, social and environmental development across the region – the publication of the Competitiveness Scorecard adds strongly to that evidence base.  In tandem with our link to Harvard Business School’s Microeconomics of Competitiveness network the UUEPC competitiveness scorecard helps inform both policy development and practice”.

Gerry McGinn, UUEPC Chair said,

“I welcome this research which provides a comprehensive assessment of NI’s economic, social and environmental progress.  It provides clear evidence of our successes and a framework through which we can focus resource on the areas of greatest need.  Focussing heavily on the areas of greatest need will be essential if we are to make a tangible difference in shaping a better future for the citizens of NI.”

Richard Johnston, Deputy Director of UUEPC and report author added;

“The Scorecard provides a data-driven assessment of NI’s performance relative to 30 competitor nations in almost 150 indicators over two decades.  With almost 100,000 data points, it provides an in-depth assessment of progress. Working closely with colleagues Gillian McCausland and Karen Bonner, the team has made recommendations on the five key areas where we believe policy-makers should focus their efforts in order to boost NI’s future competitiveness and sustainability. We are eager to begin the next phase of the research, to be published in 2021, which will see us delve into the specific policies that can help to make a real difference.”

For those interested in discussing the research with the authors, please contact Richard Johnston at

The full report is downloadable at Download the full report on the EPC website.