Northern Ireland’s universities and colleges open for business

Northern Ireland’s universities and colleges open for business

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Report by Delni

The Northern Ireland universities recently posted a very strong performance in the UK-wide Research Excellence Framework, with over 70% of the research activity submitted by Queen’s University and Ulster University being officially classed as ‘world leading’ or ‘internationally excellent’.

Whilst the Department for Employment and Learning in Northern Ireland (DELNI), which has both policy and funding responsibility for the region’s Higher Education sector, strongly welcomed this achievement as further vindication of its considerable investment in the local research base, DELNI attaches at least as much importance to the successful exploitation of research - for the benefit of local businesses and the wider community, as well as for attracting inward investment.The Northern Ireland Executive’s stated priority remains ‘the economy’ and Higher Education is one of its key drivers. So, as well as providing the core funding for teaching and research, DELNI also provides the underpinning funding for the universities’ business engagement and spin-out activities.

The value attached to this expertise by the universities’ existing business clients, both locally and internationally, is reflected in the Higher Education Statistics Agency’s latest figures which show that Queen’s and Ulster earned over £90 miion of investment from engagement with companies and other organisations in 2012/13. This substantial investment was secured through a wide range of Knowledge Exchange activities, ranging from collaborative research to consultancy, from access to facilities and equipment to licensing of intellectual property, from bespoke training to continuing professional development.However, in spite of this success, there are still companies in Northern Ireland which are not fully engaged with the Higher and Further Education sectors. Many businesses simply don’t know where to start in terms of accessing the right people or are sceptical as to whether the universities or colleges can really make a difference to their bottom line.

It is for this reason that DELNI supports a unique to Northern Ireland programme called ‘Connected’. Originally established in 2007 following close consultation with the Northern Ireland Business Alliance, Connected is the first and only Knowledge Exchange programme in the UK to be delivered across both Higher and Further Education. It enables businesses of all sizes to have coordinated access to the full range of services available from the universities and colleges including research, product development, knowledge exchange, innovation and training.

Connected picAs a ground-breaking initiative involving both Queen’s, Ulster and Northern Ireland’s six further education colleges, Connected enables these institutions to come together to provide a highly effective ‘one-stop-shop’, taking companies through the entire process from problem definition through to solution identification and implementation. Connected’s specialist staff are also well placed to advise companies on possible sources of funding, including the highly sucessful Innovation Voucher and KTP programmes administered by the local economic development agency, Invest NI.

The success of the programme has further underlined both the need and growing appetite from companies for HE and FE collaboration – now a key element of “Graduating to Success”, the Department’s Higher Education Strategy for Northern Ireland.“Graduating to Success” underlines that, if the ambitions of the Northern Ireland Executive’s wider Economic Strategy are to be realised, government must continue to have an important role in supporting the translation of R&D into commercial opportunities and scientific breakthroughs.For the economy to grow in terms of high-value jobs and investment, priority must be given to skills, innovation, R&D and creativity. However, whilst it is recognised that innovation is of key importance to economic competitiveness, it is also recognised that Knowledge Exchange is crucial to innovation and that our universities and FE colleges have a key role to play in that exchange  knowledge.

There are many reasons why DELNI believes Knowledge Exchange is more important than ever: globalisation, increased competition, the pace of developments in information technologies, to name but a few. Knowledge Exchange matters for Northern Ireland because of the benefits it can deliver, both economically and socially. Put simply, if Northern Ireland is to compete in the global marketplace, there is a crucial need to significantly increase Knowledge Exchange activities and the breadth of stakeholder collaboration.It is in this context that DELNI has sought to ensure that the continuation and development of Connected is a key deliverable of the Executive’s newly published Innovation Strategy for Northern Ireland. As an innovative and seamless partnership between Queen’s University, Ulster University and the six Further Education colleges, Connected enables the HE and FE sectors to identify and meet, in a coordinated and holistic fashion, the Knowledge Exchange needs of businesses in particular, and also of the wider community.Connected helps companies f all shapes and sizes gain access to world-class expertise, technology, and research from Northern Ireland’s universities and colleges, thereby assisting them to boost their competitiveness, develop new products and increase market opportunities.

Under the Connected 2 programme, which ran for four years to 2014, the project team generated over 1,700 enquiries from business, resulting in over 600 completed projects encompassing consultancy, contract research, access to specialist facilities and equipment, as well as the provision of continuing professional development and education programmes. Significantly, nearly 270 of these projects were undertaken with companies which had had no previous engagement with the universities or colleges. This reflects one of the key facets of Connected 2, which was a clear focus on reaching out to small companies not already linked to the local research and technology base.

The recently published evaluation of Connected 2 also highlighted the continuing step change in coordinated interaction between the HE and FE sectors which has resulted directly in the delivery of 50 collaborative, sectorally focused, business facing projects. These ground breaking, “Sector Specific Projects” are extremely diverse. Just two examples are:

• the “Competence Centre for Sustainable Energy” which aligns the renewable energy expertise at Queen’s University, Ulster University and the Agri-Food & Biosciences Institute with the research needs of participating companies, supporting projects with clear plans for Knowledge Exchange and commercialisation; and
• the “Innovative Technical Change for the Construction Industry” initiative led by South West Regional College in partnership with the Faculty of the Built Environment at Ulster. This is helping local companies gain competitive advantage in contract procurement and digital technical skills in order to grow in the face of the challenging economic climate which has particularly affected the local construction sector. As well as a local focus, Connected also has a strong international dimension allowing researchers and companies in Northern Ireland to develop important strategic linkages through its ongoing programme of ‘international liaison’ visits. An excellent example of this has been the relationship nurtured by the South Eastern Regional College with Toyama National College of Technology in Japan in the wake of the Japanese earthquake disaster.

After this crisis, a number of Pacific Rim countries shifted their focus to the sustainability sector to provide solutions for some of the most densely populated area of the planet. Northern Ireland has a particular strength in this area. Now also involving Queen’s and Ulster, the strength of this new relationship with Japan led directly to the hosting in Northern Ireland of the “International Symposium on Expertise in Sustainable Society” – the first time this international symposium had ever been held outside the Far East.As well as joint research activities, this well-established relationship has also resulted in a comprehensive suite of staff and student exchanges, including four internship programmes involving some 58 Japanese IT, engineering and international business students coming to Northern Ireland over the last four years.These are just a few examples of the good work undertaken as part of Connected 2. However, DELNI is now looking ahead to Connected 3. The evaluation of Connected 2, as well as highlighting many of the strengths of the programme, also sought to draw out and analyse many of the barriers which still prevent Knowledge Exchange from contributing to inovation and, ultimately, to exploitation and commercial success. Some of these barriers include:

• a lack of awareness of the relevance of new knowledge – companies do not always understand how innovation and R&D activities are relevant to their businesses;
• a lack of understanding of the potential across the universities and colleges to collaborate effectively with businesses;
• a lack of communication between companies, HE and FE Institutions and funders as to the potential benefits of innovation; and
• the lack of a suitable partner in the local area in which a company operates.

In seeking to address these areas, Connected 3 will continue to develop a broad and growing portfolio of industrial support networks spanning both Queen’s and Ulster and all six regional colleges, further developing the programme’s existing links with both the Agri-Food & Biosciences Institute and with the College of Agriculture, Food & Rural Enterprise, whilst also now seeking to build an entirely new relationship with the Open University in Northern Ireland. Together these networks will continue to address real issues of concern and opportunity for local companies right across the region, including:

  • Clean Green Construction
  • Sustainability and Renewable Technologies
  • Food Innovation
  • Advanced Composite Materials
  • Digital Creativity
  • Environmental Skills
  • Cloud Computing
  • Advanced Manufacturing Engineering

The Employment and Learning Minister, Dr Stephen Farry, has also approved additional funding to be made available to Connected to be directed exclusively towards engaging with SMEs which have limited Knowledge Exchange experience, but which have the potential to move further along the so-called “innovation escalator" (Figure 1).

Innovation Escalator

This new funding will enable dedicated HE/FE teams to help these companies make the important transition from very basic, small scale projects, such as those supported under Invest NI’s excellent “Innovation Vouchers” programme, to other more substantive, innovation activities, including product and process development, and near-market R&D. The Minister believes that supporting such highly bespoke, small-scale collaborative HE/FE projects, of upto £40,000 each, will effectively address what is a clearly identified gap in the existing provision. They will also build on the relationships established through the current cadre of sectoral projects, from which it is expected that many of the most competitive proposals will come. Over the past four years, DELNI has seen Connected 2 celebrate many successes in delivering benefits to business and the wider community.It has successfully demonstrated that the combined strengths and capabilities of HE and FE provide an excellent solution to the demand from business and th wider community for integrated Knowledge Exchange services. Under Connected 3, it is expected that the universities and FE colleges will continue to engage effectively with business and the wider community and, by so doing, add real value to the economy, delivering an even greater impact over the next four years.Connected 3 will also continue to complement and support the wider strategy for Further Education in Northern Ireland, which sees colleges as key deliverers of skills at all levels, to meet the needs of employers, individual learners and the communities in which they live and work. Through Connected 3, businesses will now have coordinated access to the full portfolio of expertise represented by all of Northern Ireland’s regional colleges, universities and agricultural institutes - in terms of research, product development, Knowledge Exchange, innovation, skills and training.

For further information on Connected,
please contact Boyd McDowell at: or visit

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