Official Report (Hansard)

Session: 2011/2012

Date: 29 April 2009

Members present for all or part of the proceedings:

Mr Danny Kennedy (Chairperson) 
Ms Martina Anderson 
Mr Tom Elliott 
Mrs Dolores Kelly 
Mr Ian McCrea 
Mr Barry McElduff 
Mr Francie Molloy 
Mr Stephen Moutray 
Mr Jim Shannon 
Mr Jimmy Spratt

Witnesses:

Mr Trevor Newsom ) Queen’s University Belfast

The Chairperson (Mr Kennedy):

I welcome Mr Newsom from Queen’s University Belfast to provide evidence for the Committee’s EU inquiry. You can make an opening statement, after which members will ask questions.

Mr Trevor Newsom (Queen’s University Belfast):

I am the director of research and regional services at Queen’s University Belfast. I understand that one my colleagues referred to me in his evidence and that the Committee would appreciate some enlightenment on my role in European matters at the university.

I have responsibility for supporting the strategic development of our research. Part of the strategic development is that of high-quality collaborative programmes with other universities and industry in other countries. In that context, we have an active interest in the seventh framework programme. I am also responsible for postgraduate students, and we are keen to develop European links to ensure that postgraduate students gain additional experience of the global economy, interact with other countries, and learn different cultures and approaches. That is important and will prepare them better for their future career.

I am responsible for the university’s work in the region with the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI), the Department for Employment and Learning (DEL), Invest NI and its work with local companies on the regional innovation strategy. In that context, we consider how to develop European regional partnerships that involve local companies, Queen’s University, European universities and other European companies.

Furthermore, my role extends to the exploitation of our intellectual property. In that context, we work closely with companies in Europe with a view to exploiting and improving our technology. Given the nature of my involvement in European matters through my job, the university has established a European activities co-ordinating group, which is chaired by pro-vice chancellor Gerry McCormack. My directorate services that group.

Mr Shannon:

Could any opportunities be offered that are not already being offered? The Committee has received fairly good feedback about the educational exchanges and about the options, opportunities and possibilities for people. There seems to be high uptake of those opportunities. When the Committee visited Brussels, we learned how student exchanges could widen horizons. Is there an opportunity to enhance existing provision?

Mr Newsom:

We have links to the Erasmus programme at undergraduate level. However, a greater number of European students want to come to Queen’s than the number of Queen’s students who want to go abroad. That is partly due to the lower of levels of expertise in European languages. Northern Ireland needs to consider a modern-languages strategy, and DEL is in the process of doing that. We tend to expect everyone to speak English.

Moreover, given the strong links with the US, we tend to consider exchanges there at the expense of those in Europe. We should consider that matter further and should recognise that universities are capable actors in developing European strategies. Government Departments tend to see themselves as the links and the co-ordinators, rather than cutting out the middleman and letting the universities take a greater lead. Universities in GB that have used European funding have been much closer to Europe than the universities in Northern Ireland, and part of the reason for that is the buffer that Government provides.

Mr Molloy:

As regards the failure of students to take up the opportunity to transfer to Europe, does Queen’s University provide backup to support students from Queen’s while they are in Brussels or elsewhere?

Mr Newsom:

We have a very strong support service, both for our students who go out and for students who come to Queen’s. As part of the Erasmus scheme, universities that accept our students in other countries are obliged to provide facilities for them. It is a question of confidence and competence. Students must have the confidence to leave Northern Ireland, and they must have competence in the language of the country to which they go, and that is the problem.

Mr Molloy:

A number of courses have outreach programmes or exchanges to the United States and other countries. Is it possible to include a one-year placement to work in the European structures in Brussels and elsewhere in more courses at Queen’s?

Mr Newsom:

Yes. I notice that the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister action programme report refers to the young staff from the Northern Ireland Civil Service going to Europe on placements. Some of those opportunities could also be opened up to some of the undergraduates, postgraduates and staff from the university.

Ms Anderson:

Thank you for your presentation. I am being parochial and thinking about Magee campus in Derry. You said that universities should be viewed as capable actors in developing European strategies. With whom should they engage and network in Europe? Earlier, we heard a presentation that mentioned the seventh framework programme. What is the most appropriate programme for a university to tap in to, and how should a university make that intervention?

Mr Newsom:

It depends on the area in which the university seeks assistance. For research, there are three areas in which they should act. The most important is the European Research Council, which provides straightforward research funding for fundamental, blue-sky research. It is a new body that was established between 18 months and two years ago, and there have been two or three calls for proposals.

The next important area is the seventh framework programme, which is a whole portfolio of research programmes that require collaboration across Europe and between universities and companies. The essence of that research programme is on meeting the future needs of the economy in Europe. It is a focused applied research programme.

The other area is the new European Institute of Innovation and Technology, which has just launched a call for three knowledge/innovation communities. That is a big programme. The UK is not playing its full role, and, with the support of DEL, we are keeping in close touch with the developments. I hope that we will be involved in two proposals. I cannot answer for the University of Ulster, but I am confident that it has a person with a role similar to mine to drive the same process ahead.

Some of the European regional development fund (ERDF) proposals for territoriality provide opportunities for the business communities in regions to work with the universities and with higher education in general to establish links into other regions. We have talked about making visits to Finland and about people from Basse-Normandie coming here. Those are opportunities to think about how we can link with chambers of commerce and training groups to develop trans-national collaborations to support training, research, development and, ultimately, trading.

Ms Anderson:

Does medical research fit in to any of the three bands that you mentioned?

Mr Newsom:

Yes, absolutely. The work that the University of Ulster has done at Altnagelvin Hospital in its Academic Business and Clinical Research and Innovation Facility (ABC-RIF) is ideally suited for cross-collaboration into other regions. That strengthens the work, because it means that any of the small companies that might develop as part of that collaboration have automatic access to other potential export markets.

Mr Spratt:

Thanks for your presentation, Mr Newsom. It is often suggested that it is Government’s job to obtain funding. However, on a recent visit to Europe, the Committee talked to universities from the South of Ireland and from Scotland, and they have people who permanently network. They said that networking was required in Europe in order to attract that sort of money. I have a particular interest in Queen’s University, which is in my own constituency. What has Queen’s done? Given that some universities in the South, in Scotland and elsewhere have people permanently employed in networking, what networking does Queen’s University do regularly?

Mr Newsom:

We do not have anybody permanently networking in Europe, but we have academic staff who network all the time. An example is the knowledge innovation community work — two staff from the department of chemistry and chemical engineering have been to all of the Brussels meetings related to that initiative. They have met other people there and started to work on trying to put together proposals.

Invest NI provides networking grants, which our academic staff use in order to create networks linked to the development of framework seven and other proposals. An organisation such as Questor has European members as part of a consortium. Therefore, although we do not have anybody out there permanently, we have sufficient contact at an academic level to enable us to know who we might work with and how to get in touch with them, and financial systems are available that enable us to do that.

Mr Spratt:

The groups told us that regularly pressing the flesh was terribly important in order to access some of the funding that is now grouped into alliances with other regions, some of them outside these islands. The indication is that there is quite a bit of money available for research work, particularly in medicine, which I know is an area of expertise for Queen’s University.

Mr Newsom:

There are lots of opportunities. One of the reasons for my role in the university is that several years ago I ran a European consultancy company that found funding.

Before the European Commission enlarged as much as it has, there was more of an opportunity to press the flesh and to find pockets of money. Some of the changes, and the reduction in the structural funds available to Northern Ireland and the UK, have made that less possible. We mainly use established networks rather than create new ones.

It must be borne in mind that Queen’s University has been in programmes such as Socrates for 15 to 20 years. Consequently, our students go to other institutions and have partnerships with other institutions. We also have a number of Marie Curie fellowship schemes, which attract postgraduates and postdoctoral staff from other universities to us in search of particular expertise. If that sounds defensive and seems that I am saying that we are doing enough, I do not think that that is the case. We can always do more.

Mr Spratt:

Ask Gerry to give you a few airline tickets then, ahead of the budget. [Laughter.]

Mr Newsom:

I suspect that the nature of some of my recent tasks means that asking for that would lead to my passport being taken away.

The Chairperson:

The Committee session is being recorded by Hansard. [Laughter.]

Mr McElduff:

Is it?

Does Queen’s University know of the Executive bureau or office in Brussels?

Mr Newsom:

Yes, we do: we know and use it. When the task force report was in preparation we had extensive discussions with the colleagues preparing it and, subsequently, we have tried to include in our strategic programmes elements that would feed into it. Within the task force report, the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister placed a great emphasis on exporting the expertise that Northern Ireland has built up through the development of reconciliation and conflict resolution. Earlier this year, we sought funding from the Department for Employment and Learning under an all-Ireland programme to work more closely with University College Dublin to develop the academic base for such work, because the Irish Government, through the Department of Foreign Affairs, had indicated that they were looking for an academic base that would enable them to contribute to the development in that area.

One or two members who are sitting round the table may recall that, last year, we held a Mitchell Conference on reconciliation, which, I think, the First Minister and the deputy First Minister attended. The year after next, we will be having another Mitchell Conference at Georgetown University, which, again, will pick up issues of reconciliation.

The Chairperson:

Thank you very much indeed, Mr Newsom. If you wish to provide any additional information to the Committee, or if the Committee has any queries that it wishes you to respond to, we will be in touch. Thank you.

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