Official Report (Hansard)
Date: Wednesday, 14 March 2012
Committee for Employment and Learning
The Deputy Chairperson: I welcome Isabel Jennings, Professor Tony Gallagher and Una Reid from Queen's University Belfast (QUB) and ask them to give us a presentation.
Professor Tony Gallagher (Queen's University Belfast): Thanks very much for inviting us to come along to talk about Student Plus. I will immediately hand over to my colleagues, who will talk you through the detail of the presentation.
Ms Isabel Jennings (Queen's University Belfast): As Professor Gallagher said, we are delighted to be here this morning. Thank you for taking time out of your busy schedules to learn a little bit about the Student Plus team. I have given you a lot of detail in the pack that you received in advance. I plan to highlight a few areas, after which I will happy to take questions on anything you would like to discuss.
As the names suggests, Student Plus is all about the student. We have quite a broad portfolio of areas, as you can see from the slides. We want to tangibly impact on the student experience of everyone who walks through the door of the university. Our connection, through marketing, recruitment and admissions, starts in primary schools, where we engage and try to raise young people's aspirations so that they can realise their potential. We try to do that in a fun way, through science workshops like 'Magical Christmas' and ‘Exploding Vegetables and Fuels of the Future’, using a very pictorial approach that engages young people from a young age. As we move into post-primary schools, we are, in many regards, trying to make young people think about why they should go to university and how to make an informed choice about what to do. We are particularly interested in the students who are the most able but the least likely to progress. In essence, we are trying to identify talent and nurture it the whole way through the system.
Clearly, given the world that we are in, we want to provide a global experience for our students. We have 1,400 international students on campus, and they genuinely enrich the student experience for our domestic students. If students are talking about leadership in a tutorial and someone from China or India is there, that helps them to understand some of the challenges that you will find in the workplace today.
Engagement with employers is fundamental. In fact, next Saturday, we are having quite a large conference, to which all the careers teachers from across Northern Ireland are invited. Invest Northern Ireland will present an employment landscape that looks at what the future will look like and at driving the vision for the economy. A number of key employers will be there to talk to careers teachers and to help to inform parents about making the right choices for young people.
Even the students' union takes centre stage in this area. We are fortunate to have the students' union within the directorate. It is almost the heartbeat of everything that we do. A student sits at every table and influences all the decisions that we make on everything from the mix of sporting facilities through to the catering. It is a bit like a campus living room. All decisions are informed by student opinion, and we are constantly changing our mix to respond to the needs of our students. Within the students' union, we have The Hatch, which is an incubator. So not only can you think of your business but you can bring it to life within the union. A lot of role models across Northern Ireland come in to support young people in unlocking their entrepreneurial perspective, and we have won quite a lot of awards in that area. We recently had our own "QUB Apprentice". Barry McElduff was good enough to attend, and Jedi Jim was the Lord Sugar on that occasion. We have a vibrant connection with our students in that regard.
Every young person is unique. We provide childcare facilities for those who need it, and we have a 40-year history of doing so. At the moment, a third of childcare places are taken up by children of international students and staff. That enriches the experience for the young person receiving childcare and supports students with children in their studies.
We are trying to bring the campus community alive. We want people to live in accommodation that is conducive to learning well, so we have invested significantly in custom-built accommodation that meets students' needs. You will see more of our sports facilities shortly. What we are really trying to do is enrich students' CVs and make them stand out from an employment point of view by getting them involved in the 130 clubs and societies that are available across the campus.
We also have a strong and unique cultural and arts heritage. We have our own film theatre, gallery and festival, which will be 50 years old this year. We have quite a number of students who may be very strong in science but are also very good at music. We are trying to enrich the breadth of talent that each young person has.
In essence, Student Plus is all about ensuring that every young person who comes through the door of Queen's has a life-changing experience. It is very much anchored in creating an exceptional student experience that leads to career opportunities for our graduates and, in particular, develops global citizens who will address international challenges. We have a long heritage of Queen's graduates going across the world and making a difference, and we want to continue in that tradition.
The Deputy Chairperson: Thank you for your presentation. One thing that I noted was the connection with careers teachers and students. It is important to ensure that students are guided in the direction that they should be going in. Again, that would involve working with employers and businesses and so forth to ensure that we are tapping into the right issues for students and that they are being guided in the right direction. Could you elaborate on the work between the careers teachers and the students?
Ms Jennings: Our engagement with careers teachers probably starts when young people are choosing their GCSEs. We are trying to open the minds of young people, particularly if they choose the university route, around what enabler subjects they have to choose to give them access to a university choice that will lead to the career that they want. In the main, careers teachers and parents understand what the traditional careers like medicine, law, teaching and pharmacy look like. We have been proactively working with companies like Citigroup, CyberSource and areas with software engineering career prospects, and one of the challenges is that careers teachers and parents do not know anything about those careers, so it is very hard for them to guide a young person in that context. We have tried to allow careers teachers and principals to go into the workplace and learn about the very good careers in those areas. For example, students who are very good at science and maths may automatically think of medicine as a career route, but that may not be the best career choice for them. Many of those students have fabulous software engineering careers available to them in Northern Ireland. Indeed, much of the inward investment that has occurred has experienced a deficit in the numbers of qualified graduates available to work in the areas that are required to drive the vision for inward investment.
With Invest Northern Ireland, we have been bringing together a lot of very active employers across the various sectors that represent Northern Ireland's economy. In fact, we have just created an employers' forum to influence our curriculum development as well as how we ensure that young people make choices about careers that will actually be available when they leave university. There is a lot of engagement. We reach out at a school level. We speak with students in year 10 and year 12, so we help students all the way along the journey, but, more and more, we are doing that in an enriched way, with content from employers. People want to see outcomes, and it is about the culmination of what we do, from primary school right through to post-primary school, university and the very many career opportunities, to unlock the unique talent that each young person has.
Mr Douglas: Thank you for your presentation and your hospitality. It is very much appreciated. You mentioned that there are 1,400 international students on campus. Where are they from?
Ms Jennings: The highest proportion comes from China. Our key markets include China, Malaysia, the USA and India, but we have students from Taiwan, too. Of those 1,400 students, 1,027 are full-time students who come directly to the university. We have 200 who are on progression or foundation degrees and who will then transfer to Queen's. We have about another 200 ERASMUS students, who are exchange students from Europe. Equally, we have an arrangement whereby our students go to universities in Europe and do not pay fees. That exchange occurs on both sides.
Mr Douglas: As well having responsibilities involving the bars and entertainment, the director of the students' union, Gordon Douglas — he is no relation, but I know him from his work in east Belfast, and he is a good lad — is also involved in student engagement and community development. Can you tell us a wee bit about the community development side?
Ms Jennings: I can talk specifically about the union, but Professor Gallagher may want to add a broader perspective. We are fortunate to have Gordon leading the union, because he held a community role before and has good connectivity in that regard. We also have a vice-president for community, who is an elected officer in the union. What we are doing is inspiring our students to be good citizens and to respect their neighbours when they are in the city, and we are showing them how they should behave and so forth. We do a lot of outreach work in the community, everything from clearing things up to volunteering. Indeed, a volunteering strategy has been developed, and I would be happy to send that to the Committee, if it would be of interest. That highlights a lot of the detail of what the union does in that area. We recently won an award for that strategy, and we have benchmarked it against the strategies of other students' unions. The network that Gordon has is fundamentally important in that regard. Professor Gallagher, do you want to discuss the connection with the broader university?
Professor Gallagher: In addition to the 130 or so clubs and societies that are available for students to join and participate in, each year we organise a big clubs and societies fair for first years so that they can sign up. We also bring in lots of external organisations that are looking for student volunteers, and quite a few of them now come in each year to recruit students for a whole range of different types of opportunities. The union also runs its own volunteering activities around a number of different themes, and, this year, it is focusing on homelessness, working with older people and with families who have family members in jail. We have also recently been involved in discussions on educational issues in Sandy Row and places like that. That work has largely been driven by the interests and the energy of the leaders of the students' union, and we are happy to support that as much as we can.
Mr Douglas: Finally, in your briefing you mentioned democratic services. Can you tell us a wee bit about that? Perhaps we could learn something about that up on the hill.
Ms Jennings: We have just held our elections, and 21 young people put their hat in the ring for seven positions. About 17% of our student population engages in elections, compared with about 13% in other universities. We would like to have a lot more engagement. Gordon Douglas is leading a strategic plan and review of the focus of the students' union for the next three years, and one of the biggest themes is how to increase engagement with young people. Last year, a slightly higher number of students voted. However, that was probably due to the fees issue, on which there was a lot of engagement. We try to raise the profile of what our young representatives do. Those seven young people are really inspirational; they work very hard and are very focused, and what they do inspires others to engage. We have tried to do a lot of "you said, we did", and to demonstrate the benefit of engagement and of making a difference.
We are trying to get the best leaders we can, and most of the past presidents of the students' union have gone on to do amazing things. We try to show what a fundamentally important part of their student experience it can be if students have the courage to step forward and show leadership. We are trying to celebrate a lot of the positive things that past presidents have achieved because they had the courage and were prepared to put the work behind their vision.
Mr Douglas: Thank you, Isabel.
Mr McElduff: Thank you. I welcome the delegation to their own house. How successful has the enterprise and development section been in inculcating a sense of entrepreneurship among students from non-traditional areas, such as languages or other areas beyond business? How successful has that unit been in engaging the wider student population?
Ms Jennings: We have the What's the Big Idea?' competition, which strands across every area. That has brought out even those in drama and music. We also have a "Dragon's Den", which is specific to the arts and areas that, as you say, do not traditionally think in an entrepreneurial way. As a result of that, some students have brought to life productions for theatres, and some of them have done small movie clips. There has been a lot of what I call creative industry-type work going on within that space. Santander sponsors that. Students can come up with their idea, and we try to enable them to get seed funding to get started. Obviously, they have The Hatch, so they can use the office and infrastructure that is there. We try to support them, and there are two full-time members of staff in Enterprise SU who provide business advice. We also have the benefit of our alumni, who come forward as role models and who are constantly wanting to help young people who have an idea to improve. We have a lot of the ingredients that have made it successful in that regard.
When Enterprise SU opened, we initiated our membership in Students in Free Enterprise, which is an international organisation. We have been competing at a world level, even though we are relatively new to that. The inspiration and talent that we have here have punched above their weight in a short time. Most of the success that we have benefited from compares on a world stage; it is not only within Ireland and GB. We are winning across the world.
Recently, we won the Entrepreneurial University of the Year award. One of the strands of that was the success of Enterprise SU. It opened in only 2007, so it is a relatively new concept. There is a 24/7 screen. When young people are queuing up to go into the disco, you can get their attention and make them think of things that they might do. It is done in such a way as to try to inspire them and call them to action. They can go in and do things online, for instance, while they are waiting. It is positioned at the front door of the students' union, which is a space for which we could get a lot of rent, if we wanted to use it in a commercial sense. However, the university has chosen to use it for this, because of its importance to young people. It is high on the agenda for every young person we have as regards their employability.
Mr McElduff: I welcome the focus that is being put on that, and I was surprised to see that it is positioned just inside the front door of the students' union.
I move now to student support services. What, typically, are the issues that students are going to see student support services about in 2012?
Ms Jennings: They can be anything from financial issues to personal issues. There are also a number of mental health issues, issues associated with disability, or issues related to the transition from school to university. GCSEs and A levels are done through modular assessment, and students can repeat and get questions in advance, and, all of a sudden, they are in an independent learning space. Some people find that very difficult. It is across that full spectrum.
Within the students' union, the advice centre has specialists to help with the academic side. Equally, we have a number of people who have worked with Citizens Advice who can assist from a finance point of view and a social perspective. We also have a very professional service in the guidance centre that is not within Student Plus. It sits within the directorate of academic and student affairs. They provide counselling and support that is tailored to the personal, financial or educational needs of the student.
Mr Lyttle: Thank you for your presentation. I have an interest to declare as a Queen's graduate. I do not know whether it would be good for you to advertise that. I was a student counsellor at the union and a Queen's soccer player, so I am green with envy at the new facilities that you boast now. I have friends who play on them. I congratulate you on that service.
I remain concerned about the careers guidance on offer in our schools. It was encouraging to hear you mention the careers teachers' conference and the engagement with schools that you are trying to roll out, particularly in the promotion of the importance of understanding enabler subjects. Will you go into a wee bit more detail about what the conference is going to include and who it will involve? What level of engagement do you have with schools on the issue at the moment?
Ms Jennings: It will be chaired by Ellen Douglas-Cowie, who is the pro-vice-chancellor for education and students. First, she will profile some of the new curriculum development and the changes that we have made in the portfolio of subjects from which students can choose to study as a result of the shift in demand from an employment point of view. Jeremy Fitch from Invest NI will then do a presentation on the employment landscape. He has some detail on inward investment deficits. At the moment, inward investors cannot find the appropriate graduates for jobs. You hear a lot about unemployment, and there are challenges in that space. Equally, a lot of graduate jobs are vacant because we do not have the connection between demand and supply at this point. He is going to share some information on that, but he is also going to share some information on indigenous businesses in Northern Ireland and the needs that they have. He will even cover things like language needs and so forth to drive the vision of developing the economy.
We have a number of other big employers in Northern Ireland that are going to share their perspective — Citigroup and PwC. There is a lot of discussion around the importance of STEM, but we are moving into the STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and maths) space as well in terms of the importance of the arts, the mix of talent that we need and the fact that every young person has different talents and we need to unlock them. I have had a lot of conversations recently with principals about young people who were forced into doing maths and then perhaps did not get their grades because it was not really the right subject for them. There is quite a concern about not forgetting about the fact that we have particular talents and we should look at every young person individually, unlock them and connect them with an employment outcome. Society needs a mix of all of those people. We are going to have a debate on that.
There will also be some updates about the nuts and bolts of admissions that careers teachers also need. What we try to do every year — we did the same last year — is agree an agenda of dialogue with them. For example, we had a number of sessions — I know that a number of you attended them — where we brought together employers and careers teachers. We have a principals' forum that meets on a regular basis. We now have a new employers' forum. The connectivity between all of that space needs to start at primary school and work all the way through to post-primary and university — even the work that INI is doing is for both the University of Ulster and Queen's, because we need to integrate in terms of the economy for Northern Ireland. Effectively it is all about the young person and us collectively doing the right thing in their interests to drive the economy.
Mr Lyttle: What sort of attendance do you have at the conference? Is there a wide coverage of schools across the region involved in those projects?
Ms Jennings: Absolutely.
Ms Una Reid (Queen's University Belfast): We expect to have about 200 people there next Saturday. As Isabel mentioned, because now there is an established series of employers' forums and head teachers' forums, we find, having done that over about 14 months, that you can see the benefit of the joined-upness of that, because people are now looking for the conference and are interested in coming. The issues are not being discussed on one day and then completely parked. They are things that are being raised by the teachers themselves, then we will perhaps go away and take some action on it, and then they are being followed through. We are really looking forward to having those teachers here on Saturday.
Mr P Ramsey: Tony, good morning to you and your team. I was keen to hear how the engagement was going with the primary and post-primary schools. How are you measuring the success of that? One would imagine that it is very difficult. Leading on, something that the Committee has been very challenged on is widening participation. It is fundamental going forward to make sure that those most marginalised or vulnerable groups can have access to it. What percentage of the student body do we have from that category?
On the point that Barry raised about the student support services, we knew last year, for example, that there were huge problems getting the release of money from DFP, which caused a bit of a crisis in the system. I am keen to hear how it is allocated, basically. Maybe not today, but perhaps you could furnish us at a later stage with more detailed information on how the money is output to students.
Professor Gallagher: We have operated a variety of different support systems for students, through bursaries and other forms of support. Because of the changes in the whole funding environment, we are in the process of looking at all of that again and trying to develop our schemes for next year. That links in to our access agreement with the Department and the broader widening participation strategy. It is all in a little bit of flux at the moment, but we need to get that sorted out quite soon. We can send on details of the types of support that we provide as soon as it is finalised.
Ms Jennings: One of the things that is most successful for us is to send a young person who is at Queen's who came from that school. We have data on low-participation schools, and we have some amazing students who come from there. The most effective thing is to send that young person back in so that someone relates to them locally and they feel that they can do it too. A lot of our strategy is underpinned by things that are working on that. We have some really good success stories in widening participation. We have quite an ambitious programme that we are bringing forward to the senate. We are trying to be even more innovative in that regard and learn from what we have done so far. We will be happy to share that with you when it is approved.
Mr P Ramsey: You referred to disabled students. What percentage of the student body are they? At a recent all-party group on disability, the range of services that are available to a student with a range of disabilities came up. As you, quite rightly, say, someone's disability could be mental-health related or a much more general physical disablement. There may, for example, be a student who has a learning disability, but is still capable. That type of information would also be useful. It would be hard to throw it out now, but certainly at a later stage.
Ms Jennings: Absolutely. We will be happy to do so.
Professor Gallagher: We have a disability office which works with students who have particular challenges and identifies the sort of things that they need. We have a procedure by which that information is made available to the people who work with them, so that they can get the level of support that they need to ensure that they are on an equal playing field with every other student. We can get that information easily enough.
Mr D McIlveen: Thank you for your hospitality as always and for hosting us here. I want to probe a little further into your relationship with the private sector, particularly on the overseas side of things. Certainly, in my private-sector life, representative bodies were very important. They were a vital link to businesses on the ground that I could, ultimately, work with. I can think of one group — I think that it was the Software Technology Parks of India — which was a huge representative body of all of the movers and shakers in the software industry there. I want to try and establish what sort of relationship you have on an outreach capacity with groups like that, which would, obviously, make it a lot easier to get businesses on the ground and your graduates on the ground to connect with the right people.
Professor Gallagher: That links into our broader international strategy. When we do international work, we try to combine a number of different elements. Obviously, student recruitment is part of that. We also try to develop partnerships with businesses in other countries, universities and other educational institutions. We also want to use our alumni network as strongly as possible.
As Isabel was saying earlier, we have a number of key target markets, such as Malaysia, India, North America and China. In all of those places, we have strong connections with the business world in those areas. For example, in Malaysia, we have a long-standing link with Petronas, the petroleum company, which relates to some of our alumni network. Some students who were at Queen's in the 1950s went on to take leading positions in Petronas. We have a very large research relationship with Petronas through our chemical engineering department. We also recruit a lot of students. Therefore, we try to see those things as all being connected. In China, we are in the process of discussions with the China Medical University around a big pharmacy programme, which will link into the needs in China for qualified pharmacists. All of those sorts of connections are very important as part of our broader international strategy.
With regard to Northern Ireland and where we are with this new development, one of the key contributions to putting that development in place was the Founders' Club: 20 of the leading businesses in Northern Ireland, which all made a financial contribution to the redevelopment of the site. We see this site as having a key role in our engagement with local business here in a whole range of different ways. We also work very closely with INI on the FDI strategy. It is our link, particularly with the financial sector; Citi and groups like that. That becomes very important. We are operating those business connections at a number of different levels in order to try to do what we are doing better, to try to make as good a contribution to Northern Ireland as we can and to enhance opportunity for our students.
Mr D McIlveen: Obviously, we have INI here. There are other representative groups like that in other parts of the world. Do you have any direct engagement with those groups, or do you do that through INI?
Professor Gallagher: We tend to work through INI. That said, in our key international markets, we work and try to build partnerships with whoever we can. Often, that will involve local engagements on the ground in those areas.
Mr F McCann: I apologise for being late. I had an early meeting and then, even though I am from Belfast, I got lost. [Laughter.]I apologise for missing the presentation. I just want to pick up on some of the stuff that Sammy said around community development.
Certainly, for many people where I live and represent, Queen's is just a set of beautiful buildings that none of them, at present, have any expectations or aspirations to go to. There has been a drive to encourage people into education, certainty in the broad community sector, and most of those people have near enough dropped off the education chart. I want to try to find out how you interact with them in terms of community development. For example, in my past life on Belfast City Council, when the Ulster Orchestra applied for grants, Tom Hartley asked what sort of connection it had with communities in west, north, south and east Belfast. From that, the orchestra developed an outreach programme that took it into community centres and community groups to try to break down its middle-class, establishment image. Is there anything there that allows the university to deal with people who have fallen off the chart, especially in socially deprived communities?
Professor Gallagher: A lot of research work that is going on in different parts of the university, particularly in the school of education, plays a role in those sorts of issues. For years now, we have been running a major widening participation programme called Discovering Queen's. One of the key features of Discovering Queen's is to bring students from primary schools and post-primary schools that, traditionally, have not sent many students to university, into the universities so that they can see what it is like to be there. They feel that they have a right to be there and a place there. It gives them the experience of being at university and it generally raises people's sense of ambition and expectation about the possibility of further and higher education as a legitimate goal for them to aspire to. However, the whole point of Discovering Queen's is to create that sense of connection. There is more that we can do, and we are looking at some of those issues. However, we have been doing quite a lot in that area for quite a considerable time.
Ms Jennings: One of the areas that works well with that is sport. I have had the experience of going into schools and seeing young people become inspired because they want to play a particular sport. From an outreach perspective, we have had the opportunity to bring them into our sporting facilities, and they want to be part of that. Some mothers have even written to me to say that their child would not focus and that that got them motivated. Their inspiration and what they wanted to do started from that and everything else followed. We bring a lot of students from all over Northern Ireland to the Queen's Film Theatre, and sometimes that is their first experience of coming in through the door, getting to meet all the students and feeling how normal it is. There are quite a lot of things that we can do to reach out and connect with young people in an area that matters to them. I find that connecting with young people and getting the dialogue going around something that they are interested in really makes a difference.
Mr F McCann: I know that, where I come from, there has been an emphasis on trying to encourage young people who have dropped out of secondary school or are just older than that and convince them that education is the greatest thing in the world, and that if they go into education, they can look forward to a wide range of employment opportunities. Only last night, I had a group of eight young people up at the Assembly, and I tried to explain to them the best way to lobby. They chose to focus on the topic of suicide, which is high in west Belfast — and high right across Belfast. They are doing a mural on suicide. However, after that, you just worry that it stops there if there is nobody to encourage them to take the next step and go to college and then on to university. I understand and appreciate about going into schools, but there are a wide range of other groups out there that see education as the greatest thing in the world but are not tied in formally to the education system.
Professor Gallagher: A few years ago, the school of education did some research around alternative education provision and support for that. I know that that has been an issue for the Department of Education, which has developed some strategies for that whole area and has been making contributions to it as well.
Mr Ross: Can you tell us a bit more about The Hatch idea? How does it work practically and what are the linkages with local companies or local businesses that have bought into that? I know that you mentioned some mentoring. If there is the genesis of a good idea, is there financial support from the university for students who have that business idea or are there linkages with the banks? I know that bank lending is a whole different issue. However, are there linkages with the banks or Invest NI to help students get those sorts of ideas off the ground or a spin-off company-type idea from the university? Have you any examples of success stories or anything that is developing at the moment?
Ms Jennings: We can send you details of that. However, to give you an overview, there is a competition for business ideas to win the opportunity to operate within The Hatch. There is always much more demand than there is space. Effectively, it is an office suite with the infrastructure that you would needed to set yourself up. It is provided free of charge and funded by the students' union. We have had different types of businesses, and we have been able to link some of them with other infrastructure that has enabled them to be funded. It could be back through where you would normally go to set up your business: INI. We inform students and signpost them. We also have a number of business angels among our alumni, and we know how to connect the students with people who are interested in their particular areas. Sometimes we help them to write their pitches to the bank. It is kind of discrete, and the business areas have been unique. We would love to make that bigger. In fact, we have been talking about a hub idea for the creative industries, and we will give evidence to another Committee on that shortly. We have lots of ideas of what we would like to do.
The kernel of this in the students' union was a commitment to help young people to unlock their creative talents. We wanted to put our money where our mouth was. We started with the resources that we had, and we are very dynamic in how we respond. The businesses are there for a year. That is supposed to be the springboard for them to move on, and new talent then comes through the door. We would like to keep raising the bar. Maybe we could provide you with some of the examples of what we have done, and if you have any ideas as to how we might make that more effective, you could give those to us. We link in with all the other agencies and try to draw and leverage everything that is available to make sure that those ideas can benefit.
The Deputy Chairperson: OK. All members have exhausted their questions. We thank you all for coming —
Mr McElduff: Chair, if you have to declare interests, I was at Queen's too. When Fra talked about people not having the vision and ambition to go to Queen's, it reminded me that, in Carrickmore, people would ask, "Were you at Queen's?" and they would say, "I was at Mickey Queen's", which was the name of a local pub. [Laughter.]
The Deputy Chairperson: I think we will leave that out. [Laughter.] We will not advertise that for our students. I thank you for your presentation and for taking on board all the questions that have been put to you. Thank you.