Professor Gillian Armstrong, Ulster University
Thirty minutes in conversation with Gillian Armstrong is a revelation. You come away feeling clearer about what lies ahead. The very definition of modern leadership.
We start with the role of Ulster University (and its Business school where she works) in helping Belfast take its place on the world stage.
Does Ulster University help make Belfast more international?
“The job that I do is all about enhancing business engagement for the business school. I would describe us as a bridge or a brokerage role while also supporting academic departments in that interface. In terms of the international perspective, probably like a lot of universities, the number of students coming from overseas has increased steadily.
“Before I went into this role, I was Head of an Accounting, Finance & Economics department, and traditionally it attracted a lot of Chinese students that came in for Ministry of Education partnership programmes. These students love the experience in Northern Ireland, and the Belfast City Centre experience was an excellent one and supported long standing relationships.
“That’s been growing very well for us now, we’ve moved into a broader range of programmes, particularly postgraduate programmes and new partnership models. And that, for any city, gives you a great international pipeline. The cultural profile of the city changes when you start to change the profile of the students.
“I suppose things are changing now. The biggest change I’ve noticed, at least in my career, is that you now have a high number of international employers in Belfast. You have these global centres of excellence on our doorstep, which changes some of the profile of the city for the university, for international students, for graduates and for school leavers.
“You’ve now got an international employment market on your doorstep, and you can work for a global employer. You can gain some incredible work experience, or a graduate job with an international employer, interacting with a global team – mainly from Belfast. That’s such a difference from when I graduated in the mid 90s. Before, to get that global experience you often had to leave Northern Ireland.”
There aren’t as many young people moving away after finishing their degrees than there were a few years ago. Why do you think that is?
“Those that choose to stay at home and go to university in Northern Ireland have entered the local job market now, and the graduate market has been very buoyant in the last few years. There’s a lot of fantastic opportunities here. I think we might see a change after this last year, where fewer school leavers will go away and will look at Northern Ireland differently.
“We’re also getting better at bringing back the talent that left Northern Ireland for Great Britain. When they come back home immediately after University, they sometimes haven’t secured a graduate job. We run intensive Academy and conversion programmes to convert those individuals into areas that need graduates, such as financial or business services. So that’s been a great way of harnessing the experience of the talent that left Northern Ireland, to bring them back and upskill them quickly into a job. And a lot of that to date has been Belfast-based.”
Do we think that that stay near home trend will continue?
“The footprint of global institutions now in Belfast means there’s so much opportunity right on your doorstep – be that in professional services and digital consulting, cybersecurity, fintech, food tech or any other sector – that there isn’t such a drive for students to head abroad quite so quickly.
Ulster University’s new innovative Belfast campus demonstrates a commitment to Belfast that stretches back many decades. It will be a catalyst for the city, delivering a creative, innovative, transformative and vibrant environment to inspire staff, students, local communities and wider society. The City Centre location will connect local people, businesses, academics and students to each other, and open up new possibilities for all, particularly for students choosing to study locally.”