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As an engine for world-class research, innovation and skills, Ulster University is playing a leading role in ensuring Northern Ireland secures its future as a global hotbed for talent, expertise and research excellence.

According to Professor Gillian Armstrong, Director of Business Engagement at Ulster University Business School (UUBS), a collective and strategic approach to education and skills development is at the forefront of sustainable long-term economic recovery, with the education sector instrumental in helping key industry sectors address local workforce challenges.

“Even with many areas of the tech and digital sectors thriving over the past eighteen months, individuals and businesses are facing a dynamic landscape, as skills shortfalls remain a challenge in the region.

“We are living in a tech-led world, with digital integration across all parts of society further accelerated by the pandemic, so the demand for relevant skills, such as mid-level and advanced digital skills and professional business skills are soaring. Employers are confronting recruitment and retention challenges as a result.”

Enhancing digital capabilities and developing the nation’s digital spine through increased investment in skills is a top priority for Northern Ireland, as outlined in the Northern Ireland Skills Strategy: Skills for a 10x Economy, which sets out the region’s strategic skills agenda from now until 2030.

Professor Jonathan Wallace, Professor of Innovation within the Faculty of Computing, Engineering and the Built Environment (CEBE) and Chair of the Faculty’s Computing Employer Advisory Board (CEAB) says tackling the digital skills deficit will require strategic engagement and interventions at post-primary level.

“To ensure continued growth of Northern Ireland’s key industrial clusters including Digital, ICT, FinTech and Agri-Tech, we must prepare our future generation for a digital economy and that means improving and building our digital skills provision at Level 3 and 4.

"Crucially, we must inspire our young people and ignite and sustain an interest in technology-related careers from early on in their educational journey so they are primed to succeed in the future economy.”

Addressing these challenges, Ulster University has partnered with Queens University Belfast and both private and public sector partners and the UK Computing Professional Body to form the British Computer Society NI Computing Education Committee (BCS NICEC), an educational advisory group advocating the discipline of computing in schools and beyond  to ensure the region has the skillset it requires to attract inward investment, create high-value jobs, improve productivity and maximise business potential.

BCS NICEC held its inaugural meeting on 3rd September 2021 and has extensive representation from the public and private sectors, including Department for the Economy, CCEA and industry as well as the primary, secondary, further and higher education sectors.

Dr Ian McChesney Chair of BCS NICEC said:

“By facilitating strategic communication between interested parties to computing education in Northern Ireland the committee will seek to build on the strengths of our educators and extend opportunities for a quality computing education for all. ”

As Northern Ireland’s civic university, Ulster University is committed to delivering meaningful social and economic change across the communities in which it operates while making a tangible impact on industry. For many decades, the university has enjoyed a long and prosperous history of working in partnership with businesses across Northern Ireland to solve real-world issues and deliver impact.

Peter Devine, Head of Strategic Partnerships within the Faculty of Computing, Engineering and the Built Environment (CEBE) comments:

“Industry collaboration is firmly embedded in our DNA at Ulster and, across the university, we work collectively with government, businesses and academia to prime both our indigenous sectors and foreign direct investment clients for growth, whilst at the same time ensuring talent pipelines are geared towards the needs of the economy.”

This work is having a direct impact on Northern Ireland’s regional recovery and growth. In July 2020, the university responded to the Department for the Economy’s call for short-term skills interventions with an extensive portfolio of free online courses in areas such as computing, engineering, business and leadership to help upskill and retrain people whose jobs had been affected by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Professor Gillian Armstrong explains,

“Dramatic shifts in the economy and jobs are directly impacting the skills needed for the future workplace. The Skill Up initiative, funded by the Department for the Economy, continues to unlock the potential of the local workforce, bringing valuable opportunities for learners to gain industry-relevant skills in priority growth areas.”

“An excellent example of collaboration that is delivering real impact is the Advanced Certificate in Management Practice (Transformational Management in a Digital World) programme. Combining academic and industry expertise, this course was designed in partnership with Digital DNA and Belfast Metropolitan College to provide the workforce with the tools and knowledge to respond effectively in today’s digital world. Students are leaving these courses with the knowledge, confidence and qualifications they need to thrive in a transformed post-pandemic economy.”

In 2020/21 Ulster University has provided more than 800 learning opportunities to people across Northern Ireland through this funded skills initiative.

From guest lecturing to professional work placements and ‘live’ assessments, there are many additional ways in which Ulster is engaging with industry to channel critical business insights and current industry thinking to the student learning experience.

Peter Devine comments,

“Employer engagement is imperative to the design, delivery and assessment of our curriculum. Our Employer Advisory Board allows us to consult with key stakeholders from a wide range of industries across Northern Ireland and beyond on programme development to ensure teaching and learning is aligned with the latest business practices. Board members are well-positioned to shape content and education in their respective industries.

“Critical feedback from this forum has led to the development of several pioneering programmes including the MSc Data Science, MSc Artificial Intelligence and MSc Business in Technology (jointly developed by UUBS and CEBE) which directly address emerging requirements in the tech and business services sectors and contribute to a more future-looking Northern Ireland.”

Collaboration between academic departments within the university is common practice, leading to increased opportunities for meaningful impact and the development of more context-specific courses.

Professor Jonathan Wallace says,

“Bringing together wide-ranging academic and research expertise across business and technology disciplines, UUBS and CEBE have co-created multiple multi-disciplinary programmes including the BSc Business Technology, BSc Financial Technology, BSc International Accounting with Data Analytics and MSc Business in Technology, to name a few. Such programmes are making powerful contributions to future talent pipelines in high-growth areas.”

Furthermore, Ulster University has signalled its leadership and participation in several multi-million pound transformational innovation and research projects in recent times, including several projects in both the Belfast Regional City Deal and the Derry-Strabane City Deal, the BT Innovation Centre and the Strength in Places funded Smart Nano NI among others, reflecting the university’s longstanding commitment to accelerating growth and prosperity on the island of Ireland.

This academic year, Ulster University is reinforcing its pledge to cement Northern Ireland’s international reputation as a great place to live work and study in, through the phased opening of its new £363.9million state-of-the-art enhanced Belfast campus. The campus will promote a creative, innovative, transformative and vibrant environment that will stimulate, inspire and add value to the university’s core activities of teaching and learning, and research and innovation.

Professor Gillian Armstrong adds,

“Representing a potential regeneration impact of £1.4billion to the local economy, this new campus will see the Faculties of Computing, Engineering and the Built Environment; Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences and the Ulster University Business School co-locate to the city, connecting a vibrant community of researchers, policy makers, professional associations, academics, students and business leaders from all sectors.

“The city centre location presents an exceptional opportunity to capitalise and deepen the university’s existing relationships with industry and wider stakeholders and we’re looking forward to bringing students, academics, business and local communities closer to an ever-increasing range of future opportunities.”