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Minister Harris Speech at Queen’s University Belfast: Building a shared island and shared future through education

Good evening, All.


It’s good to be back in Belfast and I am very grateful for the invitation to be here. I want to start by extending huge thanks to Professor Ian Greer and his team for inviting me here to speak with you. I also want to extend my thanks too to Professor Len O’Hagan, Vice-Chancellor. I have the pleasure of working with Len over a number of years. His work on Congenital Heart Disease demonstrated to me the best of what this island can do when people forge future pathways together.



I am here to talk about the future but it is hard not to remember that we gather here this evening on the sixth anniversary of the Brexit referendum, sending shockwaves across both islands, and beyond. It posed massive challenge and continues to do so and it would be wrong to ignore that reality. For our sector, it has had profound challenges. The strength of education is collaboration. Brexit deprived the next generation in Northern Ireland of the opportunity to engage in one of the most successful European programmes - Erasmus. Thankfully, we have worked together to resolve that, we will shortly be working with the HEIs in Northern Ireland to have this in place for September 2023. The bottom line is that through collaboration, and our work with the Commission, students from Northern Ireland can continue to access Erasmus. The Irish Government will never leave the young people of Northern Ireland behind.


Today is not a day for politics though. Today is a day where I am reminded of remarks by former US President, Bill Clinton. During his visit in 1995 to Northern Ireland, President Clinton remarked about how sometimes it is easier to focus on difference, rather than what we have in common. It is much easier, but it is fundamentally wrong. There will always be those who define us not by who we are but who we are not; not by what we are for but what we are against.


Over the past two years, Covid-19, gave us a sharp lesson in the essential value of united action. How much we truly depend on each other. How well we can line up on the same side against a common challenge. And, to look at the flip-side, how much common ground and passionate ideals we share. Education and its ability to shape our future is undoubtedly among those. It has been my great honour to become the first Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science in an Irish Government.


From the outset, my vision has been island-wide. I believe we can become an Innovation Island. An Island of Talent and an International Island, a leader in Higher Education and Research. And an Island of Inclusion & Engagement, driving equity of educational outcomes, social cohesion and the contribution of our education and research institutions to tackling the great public policy and societal challenges of our day. Because we share an island, we share a future. This means many things to many people. A shared island and shared future can be built through education. Education can and must be the firm foundations on which we build our shared future. Just like we came together on Erasmus, we can join together again to progress opportunity for prosperity and we have already started.


4 ways forward

I want to share with you some of the ways we intend to do this.


  1. Cross border apprenticeships

On the island of Ireland, we have skills needs that are unmet particularly in the area of construction and climate. One of the first actions I took as Minister was to publish our Apprenticeship Action Plan with a target of an additional 10,000 new apprentices every year by 2025. We are well on track to meet and exceed this target, including through increasing public sector apprenticeships. A cross-border apprenticeship programme is also a commitment under the Action Plan. Shortly, we will launch a new funding call for PEACE PLUS and collaboration on cross-border apprenticeships will be a part of that. Working together we have already identified at least one area – construction - where we can collaborate and across 2023, we will proceed with policies to ensure our apprenticeship programmes align.


  1. Atlantic Technological University

I want to thank you for the welcome and support you have provided to your neighbouring TU, the Atlantic Technological University (ATU). These new technological universities with their own mission are different to traditional universities. They are, I believe, one of the most transformative developments taking place in Ireland today. On foot of these TUs, watch our regions grow. See the students who previously were compelled to think only of a large city, now staying, settling and thriving in their home town. Follow the skills development and the employers seeking to grow businesses adjacent to our TUs. Now the ATU will work to develop links with the University of Ulster campus in Derry and we will advance our commitments under New Decade, New Approach. My Department has been working with the University of Ulster on this and we hope to make significant progress this year. And here in Queen’s, we want to discuss opportunities to collaborate too.

  1. Medical training

The third is an area close to my heart. We all know the pressures both our health systems are under and we know we need more people working in our health services. An island where we meet the health needs of all our people is essential to our successes. From next year, we will work with universities like Queen’s and others to help train more doctors across the island of Ireland. We will work to secure places for Irish students in two Medical schools in Northern Ireland with the eligibility to apply for an internship in the HSE on graduation. This will solidify the great links our health services and our education systems have.


  1. All-island research centres

And the fourth is an area I am really excited about too. We all know many of the challenges we are facing on this island are challenges we faced across the globe. If anybody ever doubted the power of science and research, we only have to look at how our vaccine programme developed and implemented at unprecedented speed has saved us from the worst ravages of a novel virus. As occurred with Covid, I believe that the higher education sector must play a key role in meeting the biggest challenges facing the world – especially in relation to climate action. As we look to rebuild after the pandemic and addressing critical challenges, education and research are more important than ever. Through the Shared Island Fund, the Irish Government has already delivered a major, new €40 million North South Research Programme, which is now underway. Not only did the volume of applications surpass our expectations, the quality was outstanding. Researcher to researcher, university to university, partnering to find the solutions for our changing world. Here in Queen’s, you will work with colleagues in UCD to examine the area of precision cancer medicine. You will work with UCC on the impacts of prison-university partnerships north and south.Together, we are building this island’s reputation for innovation and research excellence. We are also building capacity in areas of common priority for both jurisdictions. Soon, we will seek to establish new all-island research centres- North, South, East and West -  where our best and brightest will work together to come up with solutions to some of the biggest challenges we face on this island and the world.  


Reform programme


We believe higher education and research are absolutely fundamental foundations for developing and sustaining social, economic, cultural and environmental progress. We are preparing the building blocks for a new era of third level education. One with a truly connected education, training and research ecosystem. With opportunities and options for students and learners at all stages of life. With a pipeline of talent to meet current and future skills needs. Our system must be willing to adapt and deliver that same attitude for people looking to access education. It must have both front doors and back doors, and pathways and alleyways, where people can plug into the learning they need, at any stage of life. Because education is a public good. It has the ability to level the playing field, to transform an individual and a community. That is why last month I published Funding our Future, a landmark policy paper for our country. This sets out the level of investment our higher education institutions need to produce impact and secure quality. We will deliver this investment over the lifetime of the Government. But it is about more than that. It is about access and ensuring everyone has the same opportunity to access higher education. And we always have to look beyond Higher Education too and aggressively abandon what may have been snobby attitudes in the past to alternative paths.

The potential for this 21st Century reform agenda can be seen through what has already been achieved when we have, as a country, taken higher education and research seriously. I am lucky to lead a Department for Further & Higher Education in a country has one of the most highly educated workforces in the world. Around two-thirds of our population attend higher education and the vast majority of our population finish second level and obtain a third level education. Our second level education system is firmly established as a common good. As a driver of social and economic progress. Now the time has come for the third level system to take its place as a bedrock of our future prosperity. But we cannot do it alone. Many of the priorities and challenges we face are shared. That is why collaboration and partnership across the island on the big issues makes sense. These challenges are confronting us every single day and we here today are in a unique position to address them. We cannot do it in silos.  We must do it together. We are so well placed to work together with the scale and structure of education, deep professional and societal connections, and a strong tradition of cooperation in the sector. It is in the interests of all of us – North and South - to ensure that every young person on island of Ireland has access to the best possible educational opportunity. This is vital not only to our shared economic prosperity but to the underpinning of peace on this island.


Closing Remarks


What is coming our way, we can’t even imagine yet. We can be certain though that changes to how the world is organised, new models for our economies and societies are already in train. This room is well placed to respond to those changes. And change can and must mean hope too. Together, we have weathered change before. We have triumphed in the face of change. How we respond to this age of transformation will define our futures. Obviously, this matters most to our young people. Over 1 million people in Northern Ireland have been born since the Good Friday Agreement was signed. I myself was eleven but it is a clear and vivid memory for me. The political leaders of the Good Friday Agreement showed courage, vision and determination to build a better future for all people across the island of Ireland. We cannot ever forget that nor can we ever take peace for granted. And my generation of political leaders must build on that courage and never shirk it, by taking on massive challenges we are facing. As Hilary Rodham Clinton set out at her inauguration as Chancellor of your university, divisiveness, disinformation, and disintegration pose a real and present danger to the future. These are the dangers our generation face. Our education system has an ability to overcome all three – to unify, to inform, and to integrate. To look forward, not backwards. To inspire, not offend, to find solutions, not just diagnose problems. To energise, not paralyse. These are the ingredients, the values my generation yearns for. They are the elements that will ensure a positive, solution based future. They are the manifesto that will ensure your students can enter a world with confidence and hope. We only pass through this world and we are duty bound to safeguard and enhance it for the next generation. Those of us working in and advocating for higher education have the most precious gift in our hands – the future.


That’s why I have embarked on a significant programme of reform to grow talent, develop a skills pipeline and support research. That is why the focus of my reforms and Government investment is to empower every person to reach their full potential. The relationships between our higher education institutions through Universities Ireland and bi-lateral collaborations is strong but we must keep going. Let’s work together to enhance co-operation. Let’s deliver together on the four items I have outlined and more. Because if we can make this happen, this small island will be a remarkable beacon of talent and opportunity. We have a responsibility to do this. Only by working together can we ensure the new generations you are educating in these halls, and those in similar rooms across this island, can face the future, with confidence and hope. Hope isn’t a vague concept. It’s a belief system. It’s a way of living. It’s a way of leading. As Heaney said it is “something rooted in the conviction that there is good worth working for.”