Question Time: Employment and Learning Tuesday 19 January 2016

Peter Weir MLA asked Employment and Learning Minister, Stephen Farry, what initiatives he is considering to increase the number of college and university students studying science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) during today’s Question Time. The Minister maintained “STEM subjects are and will continue to be essential to our economy. That has recently been verified by the skills barometer, which identifies a strong demand for mid- and higher-level skills in STEM subjects.” As such, the Department is funding a number of approaches to raise the profile of and create opportunities for STEM study and careers including STEM supplements in local newspapers and career booklets across a range of STEM sectors. Further examples of the Department’s support for STEM subjects include the extension of its sponsorship of the Northern Ireland Science Festival over the next four years; supporting the report by the STEM business group called ‘Addressing Gender Balance — Reaping the Gender Dividend in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM)‘, which contains a number of good-practice guidelines aimed at addressing the gender gap in STEM subjects and careers; supporting over 1,400 additional STEM undergraduate places at our colleges and universities; and continuing with the implementation of the apprenticeship strategy through the funding of additional higher-level apprenticeship pilots in areas of economic relevance.

The Minister also discussed the cost of training a teacher in response to a query from Leslie Cree MLA. The Grant Thornton report, commissioned as part of a two-stage review into initial teacher education, analysed the cost of teacher training in our universities and university colleges against comparators in the United Kingdom. The findings were that the cost of teacher training here is significantly more than in the comparator institutions and significantly higher in the university colleges than the universities. Mr Farry explained “the variance between the universities and university colleges is due to the additional premia paid in respect of their status as small and specialist institutions. In reality, it is primarily paid to ensure their sustainability.” The Minister continued “Members will be aware that I proposed the removal of the premia as part of my Department’s 2015-16 budget. I do not believe that we can afford such an inefficiency. As I have highlighted before, it is bizarre that it costs more to train a teacher here, when we have too many, than an engineer, of which we have too few. We have to get our priorities straight, and the ‘Aspiring to Excellence’ report proposes several options that would be more efficient and would also improve quality.”

During Question Time the Minister also answered questions on the Leading the City to Work initiative, the skills barometer, legal advice during employment tribunals, benefits of the apprenticeship levy and student support payments.