The current “bums on seats” model, where a university received government funding proportionate to the number of students it took on, had resulted in an overreliance on degrees that “didn’t necessarily correlate to the production requirements of industry”, said Harry Hamilton, project facilitator at the Northern Ireland Food & Drink Association (NIFDA).
Tuition fees, which universities now relied on for 44% of their funding, had exacerbated the problem he added.
“Universities offer courses that are attractive to young people. Everybody wants to study psychology, which is an interesting subject – but not everyone can be a psychologist, we need food scientists,” Hamilton claimed.
‘We need all sorts of people’
“We need people who are engineers, we need butchers, we need all sorts of people. On the other hand, we do not need such a wide variety of courses to be available for sectors where there are few jobs.”
Addressing delegates at last month’s Westminster Food & Nutrition Forum keynote seminar on policy priorities for the UK food and drink industry – competitiveness, skills and access to export markets, Hamilton said the skills shortage in Northern Ireland was particularly acute.
“Companies within Northern Ireland have had to send people out to places like Poland to try and recruit more staff. However, recently we’ve found they are coming back empty-handed – partly because of the sterling currency devaluation, and partly because of the uncertainly over their settlement rights in the UK,” he explained.
‘Settlement rights in the UK’
“We’re also in the unfortunate position of having a land border with the Republic of Ireland, which means many overseas workers will end up going there instead.”
Hamilton explained that NIFDA had set up a network group Harvesting Tomorrow’s Skills to look at how the issues he had raised could be addressed.
“Part of my remit, is sector attractiveness and that is about sharing knowledge,” he added.