Fort George site identified as ideal location for independent university
A group which has been lobbying for an independent university in the North West has shared its ambitious vision for a new third level institution in Derry.
In a briefing document exclusively seen by the Derry News, the Derry University Group (DUG) outlines its proposals for a “university of the region, for the region”.
It plans to transform the city into a campus by making use of the Fort George site with Letterkenny IT and the NW Regional College also affording a new university space.
“Other venues across the North West will include the main community cultural hubs in Derry (Ráth Mór, the Shantallow Forge and St Columb’s Park House), and larger venues such as St Columb’s Cathedral, the Alley Centre in Strabane, the Waterside Theatre, the Nerve Centre and St Columb’s Hall in Derry city-centre.”
Derry could be a hub for international students, it suggests, as the closest European city to America, and its advantageous geographical position next to Dublin, Britain and mainland Europe.
It recognises the challenges Brexit poses for an already marginalised North West and that there is "understandable concern" a hard border with the South could further destabilise the region.
DUG states: “University provision is necessary to transform this. In the past three decades, Ireland’s other ‘Atlantic Coast’ cities - Cork, Galway and Limerick – have seen their student numbers soar in tandem with their local economies.
“Derry/Strabane has a total population of 150,000, with a third-level student population of, at best, 4,000.
“Cork (Metropolitan Area) has a population of 210,000 and, with the opening of a new campus in 2021, will have a third-level student population of approximately 40,000 – ten times that of the North West. It has an outstanding reputation for its cultural, tourism and recreational facilities.”
It says that Derry & Strabane Council’s Strategic Growth Plan is “entirely dependent” on university expansion which doesn’t seem to be forthcoming, with Derry’s student numbers, “already the worst on the island”, dropping again.
Cold water has also been poured on Magee expansion by Head of the NI Civil Service, David Sterling, when he cast doubt over the long-promised Medical School build.
Meanwhile, figures published by the Department for the Economy (DfE) show 17,440 NI students were in higher education in England, Scotland or Wales in 2018 - a ten-year high.
And according to the latest statistics, Derry/Strabane is the only region of the North that is a net exporter of its young people.
“UU has categorically failed to make any progress on its 2010 promise to have 10,000 students at Magee by 2020,” the DUG says.
Courses at a new independent university must, the group says, offer as broad an academic programme as is practical, reflecting the traditions, strengths and specialisms of the region within its curricula.
Therefore, it envisages a full syllabus boasting courses in Medicine, Law, IT, Engineering, Arts, Commerce, but also specialise in and promote courses which are unique to Derry.
Long-standing engineering traditions, evident in the City Walls and homegrown engineering companies such as E&I, Seagate and InVista (formerly DuPont) should be reflected.
In terms of innovation, Derry currently houses two science parks, conducting research in Artificial Intelligence, robotics, virtual/augmented reality.
“It was the first Irish city to partner with MIT (Boston) to pursue research into 3D printing, currently running a number of Fab-Labs in schools and communities.
“Thousands of people work in IT business support in the North West, with Pramerica employing 1,800 people in North Donegal.”
There would also be courses in Irish History with Derry being Ireland’s longest continuously inhabited Christian settlement, and the region once home to a number of High Kings in the Middle Ages. These would be complemented by courses in Marine/Military History.
As a region “bursting with creative talent” Arts, Drama and Music courses are also high on the agenda.
The document cites Derry’s reputation as an international leader in modern literature and conflict resolution - with Nobel laureates in both disciplines.
Literature & Philosophy, Conflict Resolution & Trauma Relief, Conflict Journalism and Tourism & Heritage are amongst a plethora of subjects synonymous with the city which could be taught at an independent university.
Bridging the border
The DUG believes there is an urgent need to mitigate against Brexit by ‘bridging the border’ with a new independent university in the North West, recognised and supported by both the Irish/EU and British governments, which would have “the freedom and autonomy to serve, and function in, both jurisdictions.
“Such a facility, centred in Derry, would immediately establish a partnership with the existing Letterkenny Institute of Technology, less than 20 miles away. The parent university could apply to become a constituent member of both the National University of Ireland and Universities UK.
“This would allow it to benefit from both organisations’ administrative expertise. Formal links with southern institutions would, moreover, solidify the European identity of Northern students and, post Brexit, would help protect the rights of Irish citizens in the North as per the Good Friday Agreement.
“It is time to renew and regenerate our powerful scholastic legacy. It is time to repudiate the Lockwood Report and correct this historical travesty by immediately establishing a new, independent university.”
The Derry University Group has lobbied London, Dublin and US government officials calling for the establishment of a new city-region university.
It has made presentations to the Irish government calling for the new university to become a constituent of the National University of Ireland.
The group has received official recognition from Derry City and Strabane District Council and the international Derry-Donegal diaspora association Futureproof North West.
In 2019, following visits to the North West by the British Labour peer Andrew Adonis and frontbench MPs Mike Amesbury and Mike Kane, Lord Adonis told the Upper House that the decision to deny Derry a standalone university was a “scandal”. He also called for a review of Higher Education provision in the North which has since been published.
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