As debate continues over the future of university provision in Derry, three well-known figures in Derry’s community sector, Conal McFeely (Creggan Enterprises), Garbhan Downey (Hive Studios) and Diane Greer (Community Trainer), put forward a six-point plan which they say would allow Derry to create its own university.

Stormont will never deliver a university for Derry.

Let us repeat that in case anyone should misunderstand. Stormont will never deliver a university for Derry.

We know this for certain because we are currently marking the 50th anniversary of the Northern Ireland state’s refusal to locate a new university in the city.

And our third-level provision is, in real terms, worse now than it was then.

We have made all the arguments and business cases countless times before.

We have shown need – Derry currently has 50 percent fewer third level students per capita than the next worst-serviced town or city in Ireland.

Community education services in the city, such as the Workers Educational Association, have been cut to the bone.

The Northwest has the highest deprivation and unemployment levels on these islands, coupled with ever-rising emigration figures.
 
Conversely, the Northwest has also acquired an international reputation as a region of cultural excellence, has produced two Nobel laureates and is home to the best-performing secondary school in NI.

We tick all the need boxes, and all the merit boxes, and then some.

The much-trumpeted One Plan – which envisaged 9,500 third-level places here by 2020 – is so low a priority on the Stormont agenda, it could be competing for funding with the Northern Ireland Space Programme.

Government ministers are openly saying the plan is ‘not realistic’ – so just exactly what are they saying in private?

Virtually all development has stopped on our road, air and rail infrastructure. And 20 years after the ceasefires, the huge land banks at Fort George and Ebrington are all but empty.

But it’s not just Stormont.

The University of Ulster has no long-term commitment to Derry either. And again, let us repeat that in case anyone should misunderstand. The University of Ulster has no long-term commitment to Derry.

We know this for certain because UU has consistently refused to increase numbers here above those of Coleraine.

It moves successful courses out of Derry, and it repeatedly holds out the promise of Magee (pictured above) expansion, before switching its money to its campuses east of the Bann.

Derry’s much-vaunted, post-graduate medical and veterinary campus has now been established in Coleraine.

In October 2009, UU made a bid for a £250m funding package for Magee – and while a similar bid in Belfast has borne fruit, Derry’s is apparently nowhere.

Our entire relationship with UU has been that of a minor adjunct negotiating with a monolith, or a loyal subject with a monarch – we have never been partners.

There is no mileage in apportioning blame. Stormont will continue to blame UU, which will continue to blame Stormont.

The real truth, however, is that, we, as a city, have failed - and failed consistently.

You can point towards economics, the Troubles or even the civic leadership – but ultimately, we failed because we continually placed our trust in agencies outside this city’s control, be it Stormont, Westminster or the University of Ulster.

We looked to others to give us a solution instead of providing our own.

Creggan Enterprises, as one of the Northwest’s leading community-owned ventures, has for many years been a leading campaigner for third-level provision, and in recent months – via a series of articles in this newspaper - we have been attempting to bring this debate back into the public conscious as a matter of urgency.

We believe Derry must have the university it deserves – and that we must start developing it immediately.

No-one else is going to do it for us.

We must decide on the kind of university we need and want, and develop it ourselves.

To that end, we are now proposing a six-point plan which will lead to the establishment of the new, independent University of Derry in two years’ time – i.e. for the beginning of the 2016/2017 academic year.

In developing this plan, we have studied other community-based university models – which allow for full community ownership and participation, and for organic growth.

1 - The city will conduct a comprehensive survey of all the second-level schools in the Derry/Strabane area, and the NW Institute, to establish the third-level needs, and ambitions, of students here. We will also perform a complete audit of all existing adult education provision, and non-curricular courses in the Northwest.

2 - OFMDFM will grant, in perpetuity, all unused lands and buildings at the Ebrington site for the new University of Derry – with immediate effect. OFMDFM will also grant all remaining, unused land at Fort George for third-level provision – with immediate effect. The new university will be permitted to borrow on the lands and buildings.

3 - Every ratepayer in the new Derry & Strabane Council area should be asked to become a shareholder in the new University of Derry and, in turn, permit the university to borrow £200 in her/his name towards the development, at the beginning of the new council’s first term in April 2015. This would allow for community ownership of the university. The money will be collected, during the final year of first council term, i.e. 2019, alongside the rates – but only if the university is still operating on a shortfall. The university’s finances will be managed according to long-standing, transparent co-operative practices.

4 - Following completion of its research, the University of Derry will devise a short prospectus of at least four degree courses. This can include homegrown courses and, in keeping with Derry’s standing as a premier digital city, virtual link-ups with prestigious international universities. The prospectus will be published by June 2015, in time to invite applications for the university’s 2016/2017 intake.

5 - Work will begin immediately to have sufficient teaching accommodation for at least 100 new students, split across at least four courses, by summer 2016. Existing facilities, and the region’s cultural hubs (including the Nerve Centre, the Playhouse, the Rath Mor Hive, the Verbal Arts Centre, the new Waterside Hub and the Alley Arts Centre, Strabane), will also be used for course delivery. Recruitment of teaching and management staff will begin in the autumn of 2015.

6 - On the first day of its term in April 2015, the new Derry & Strabane Council will write to the NI Minister for Education and Learning, and to the Westminster Universities and Science Minister, on behalf of the region, and instruct them that the Magee Campus is to secede from University of Ulster immediately to become a core part of the new University of Derry. All Magee’s funding, buildings, lands, and courses (where applicable) will become the property of the new University of Derry. The development of the University of Derry will become the new council’s number one priority.

* Funding applications (for capital development and core university running costs) and the campaign for official university recognition, by charter or other, will run concurrently with 1-6.

To continue to wait for others to deliver a university for us is no longer an option.

There will always be another political or financial crisis to knock the development of Magee off the Stormont, or University of Ulster, agenda.

We have had fifty years of delays. We can no longer be afraid to upset the status quo.

This region is world-renowned for its ethos of self-help, within the financial, community, housing, health, arts and environmental sectors.
It is time we applied the same commitment and spirit to our education sector.

The development of a university is essential to the development of this city and region – if not its survival.

It must thus be the Northwest region’s number one priority.

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