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Speech made by Minister Farry at the 2011 Aisling Bursary awards on 13th September.

Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, and, in particular, tonight’s recipients of this year’s Aisling Bursary awards.

I am delighted to be here tonight and I would like to thank the Chairman and Chief Executive of the West Belfast Partnership Board for inviting me to speak at this year’s awards ceremony.

I would also like to thank each of you for taking time out of your busy schedules to be here to share in the celebration of these successful bursary award-winning students.

Since this initiative began in 2000, it has been hugely successful. It has established strong links with local businesses and the community, as well as the education sector. Private sector bursary support has provided local businesses with the opportunity to put financial resources back into the community, which in turn has assisted local students in West Belfast.

The continued support of local businesses and individuals in assisting people from the local community to progress to further and higher education has been invaluable. I would like to commend their strong sense of social responsibility and recognition of the importance of education to community development.  To  date, local businesses and individuals have contributed over £400,000. This is an exemplar of community partnership at its best. Indeed, by academic year 2011/12 over 440 students from West Belfast will have benefitted from this initiative.

This has been yet another outstanding year for the Aisling Bursary initiative with a further 32 students about to be presented with bursaries to a total value of around £25k.

Aisling Bursaries have assisted individuals to continue their chosen career pathways. Past recipients include law, music and environmental planning graduates. Indeed, I note that one of tonight’s guest speakers, who was a past recipient of a bursary, is here to talk to us about the value of the programme.

Feedback on Aisling Bursaries from the students’ families, colleges and the wider community is also very positive, which is a clear endorsement of its value and success. My department recognised the value of the Aisling Bursary scheme when it commissioned the West Belfast Partnership Board to carry out a capacity-building programme with other Belfast Partnership Boards with the aim of replicating the scheme in other areas of Belfast

Encouraging and enabling students to overcome barriers and realise their full potential by continuing their education sits well with DEL’s Widening  Participation agenda

While we should be proud of our efforts to widen participation in HE, there remain some stubborn pockets of under-representation and we cannot become complacent. Government clearly needs to reach out to groups which have not traditionally benefited from higher education.

The Widening Participation vision is that any suitably qualified individual in Northern Ireland should be able to benefit from higher education, irrespective of their personal or social background. Our education system should allow all learners to progress to a level which fulfils their potential. Those individuals who are most able but least likely to participate in higher education should be given every encouragement and support.

To achieve this vision, DEL is currently leading in the development of a Northern Ireland Regional Strategy for Widening Participation in Higher Education. It is being supported in this by a range of stakeholders including other government departments, the higher education institutions and the further education regional colleges. This is the first cross-departmental/stakeholder approach to addressing this important issue.

A public consultation exercise played a major part in the development of the strategy and I am aware that the West Belfast Partnership Board met with my officials and also provided a written response to the consultation. I would like to thank the Partnership Board for their valued input.

I believe that the development of a regional strategy for widening participation represents a major step forward in delivering a new approach and I am committed to developing this.

The benefits derived from education extend beyond the individual and contribute to the economy and society as a whole in Northern Ireland.

In the future, Northern Ireland must secure a sustainable and  globally competitive economy. Improving workforce skills and, in particular, increasing the proportion of the workforce with high and intermediate level skills is key to achieving this objective.  The success of the Aisling Bursary programme to date helps in progress toward this objective.

Indeed, we intend to build on the Aisling Bursary concept and a major element of the Widening Participation regional strategy will be the development and piloting of philanthropic bursary/scholarship programmes across Northern Ireland.

Of course, the success of the bursary programme would not be possible without the efforts of all concerned.

To all of you in the local business community and individuals who have provided financial support, I would like to express my thanks. Your support helps students to realise their full potential by continuing their education. Your investment and contribution to local people is valued within the community.

To the Belfast Media Group, you have also played an integral and key role since the Aisling Bursary scheme started back in March 2000. Over the years you have continued to support and promote the programme, as well as sponsoring bursaries.

I would also like to thank the West Belfast Partnership Board, who set high goals for the initiative and have worked extremely hard to ensure its continued success. You deserve much praise for your vision and foresight. Your dedication and hard work has been vital in helping the students achieve their potential and making the Aisling Bursary programme the success it is today.

And finally to you the award recipients: I know that you will wish to extend your thanks to your sponsors, your parents, family members and friends who are here tonight and who have given you support and encouragement.

I am sure your parents, family members and friends take great pride in your bursary awards and I hope you all enjoy this evening. You are very privileged to be the latest recipients of the Aisling Bursaries. I hope that you will make the most of the opportunities before you and wish you every success in your forthcoming studies.

In closing, I want to congratulate all of you. You can rightly take pride in making a difference and I wish you and the Aisling Bursary scheme continued success in the future.

Thank you.