Adult learning and the election (5): the Democratic Unionist Party

Judging by my Twitter feed, everyone in Britain is suddenly an expert on the Democratic Unionist Party. Theresa May’s decision to invite the DUP to support a minority Conservative government has got everyone interested in Northern Ireland politics – or at least in finding out enough to pour scorn on May’s new partners. But beyond the parody and fluff of social media, what does the DUP stand for?

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I’m going to focus on one area and one area only: its policies for adult learning. I know all about the DUP’s social conservatism, its links with the Orange Order, and its support for Brexit. None of these concerns me in this post.

The DUP manifesto outlines plans for what it calls ‘An Industrial Renaissance for Northern Ireland’, which includes an industrial strategy aligned to the wider UK strategy.  One of the five core pillars of the DUP industrial strategy is given as ‘Enhancing Educattion, Skills and Employability’. This section of the manifesto offers quite a lot of detail about growth of tourism (unlikely to be a high skills sector) and maximising trade exports.

On skills, the manifesto outlines continued funding for the Assured Skills and Future Skills programmes, continuity for the apprenticeship system, a focus on digital skills in further and higher education, a closer alignment of degree courses with ‘the strong and emerging sectors of our economy’, and ‘increased involvement of industry in shaping the skills agenda’. What the latter means is unclear, but otherwise the focus is largely on tweaking existing activities.

The manifesto also includes the DUP’s proposals for education, but these are almost entirely concerned with schools and teaching. The most controversial is likely to be the  ‘removal of discrimination in teacher employment’, or in other words reshaping recruitment policy in Catholic schools. There is nothing more about adult learning, which is unsurprising given than the Northern Ireland Assembly Government has worked hard to dismantle the public adult education system.

Then the manifesto sets out 30 DUP demands for the Brexit settlement. These include a relaxed border with the Irish Republic, a renewed system of agricultural subsidies, and a ‘successful, outward-looking, knowledge-based economy for Northern Ireland’.

There are also three proposals for continued partnerships with the EU that are relevant to further and higher education:

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It is pretty obvious that the first of these is vague in the extreme; the second is vague and qualified; and the only example offered of the third is participation in the EC research programmes, which are almost certain to be uncontroversial in the final Brexit settlement. Oddly, and in contrast to the Conservatives, there appears to be no mention of the EU Structural Funds.

So Conservative ministers are unlikely to find themselves inspired by the DUP’s radical thinking on adult learning. On the other hand, the DUP are highly unlikely to find anything objectionable in the Conservative plans for adult learning, of which I take a reasonably positive view.

 

Evaluating proposals for European research

h2020Funding for research is tight and getting tighter, at least if you listen to researchers. Mind you, academics’ complaints are not much of an indicator: many of my colleagues moaned endlessly during the early years of this century, when public funding for academic research reached unprecedented heights.

Budgets have been tightened or cut since then, yet the institutional and sytem wide pressures for external funding are greater than ever. Competition for research funding is particularly fierce at the European level. I’m currently in Brussels, along with a couple of hundred other social scientists who are helping to evaluate proposals under the European Commission’s Horizon 2020 programme.

Overall, the Commission is making €80 billion of funding available over 7 years (2014 to 2020), with a strong focus on research that will promote technological, economic or social innovation. Like all EC programmes, the funding is drawn from member states’ budgets, in this case the budgets for publicly funded science and research.

Of the total, just under €10m was set aside for 2015 to support research and innovation on the theme: Young Generation in an Innovative, Inclusive & Sustainable Europe. I’m currently in Brussels helping to evaluate the 145 proposals that were submitted, which it’s likely that five will be selected.

Putting together a proposal is a lengthy and painstaking business. It involves bringing together partners of different kinds and from different European countries, as well as securing the formal commitment of each of the participants, and getting them all agreeing on a detailed plan of work. At the end of all that, the odds of your getting funded are one in thirty.

We’re going to have a tough week making the decisions, but the process is much, much toughter on those who have produced the proposals.