Derry councillors have raged at the ongoing lack of investment in Magee and demanded cross-border policy changes to address the regional imbalance of student numbers.
Senior Economist at Derry City and Strabane District Council (DC&SDC), Michael Gallagher, presented stark statistics following intensive research.
It follows a motion proposed by People Before Profit Councillor Eamonn McCann to explore all options for university expansion, including an independent North West institution.
Mr Gallagher outlined a decline in university places in Northern Ireland overall, particularly in Derry. There are areas of high economic deprivation in Derry and barriers placed in the way of people from those areas are two-fold - Queen’s University sets the bar high which forces them to British universities, and Britain has higher tuition fees. “It is discriminatory against low-income households,” he added.
There are just 5 enrolments per 100,000 of the population in Derry, it is drastically lower than Coleraine where it sits at 18, in Belfast 14, Limerick 16 and Galway 23.
DC&SDC Chief Executive, John Kelpie, said the detailed presentation pinpointed why university provision is “so vitally important” and reminded councillors of the disparities that exist. “We have to advance university provision, regardless of the provider.”
It is the only city region straddling the border yet “no students” cross the border to study at Magee because Irish funding doesn’t follow them. Therefore, zero students come from the South to study in Derry which is combined with a mass exodus of young people to Belfast and Britain, Mr Kelpie explained.
Four options were put on the table, expansion of UU, a new university at the existing site, a new site with an independent university or a collegiate model in which a university’s functions are divided between a central administration and a number of constituent colleges.
Universities are economic engines, Mr Gallagher said, using Lincoln as a prime example of a place that has reaped the rewards of proper university expansion. The University of Lincoln has invested nearly £200m in its Brayford Pool Campus which was, less than 20 years ago, derelict railway sidings.
This development has had a profound effect on the city, making it one of the UK’s fastest growing cities with a thriving engineering sector. The University now has an annual income of £130million, 14,000 students (from just 2,000 15 years ago), is estimated to contribute at least £300million to the regional economy each year and has created more than 3,000 jobs.
One of the primary issues in NI, but felt more acutely in Derry, is the cap on student numbers which was only introduced in Northern Ireland. At present, the higher education system’s capacity is managed through the maximum student number (MaSN) control mechanism, under which the number of full-time undergraduate students at each institution is restricted.
MaSN does not apply to part-time students, and it applies only to Northern Ireland universities and colleges.
Commenting on the presentation, Mr Kelpie said the figures were “incredibly stark”, particularly the fact that 77% of third level students leave to be educated elsewhere and never return.
He said the student cap must be lifted, but for Derry alone, because if it is removed nationwide then students will once again be “gobbled up” by Queen’s and UU Belfast.
Speaking at the meeting, SDLP Cllr Sinead McLaughlin, described the student cap as an act of “economic self-harm” by the Executive. It was “short-sighted” to save money by not educating people and “no other part of the UK would even contemplate it.”
Barriers were put in the way of Derry, she explained, and when 1,000 places were finally released, Magee got 500 and the other 500 were endowed to Queen’s without so much as a business case. Cllr McLaughlin added that most of Magee’s MaSN places have now been transferred out of Derry.
“UU has to be held to account, this decade has to be the one for delivery in this city. It requires UK and ROI policy change. Simon Coveney is supportive, he has to put his money where his mouth is.”
In her view, the university can show its commitment by moving 1,500 students from health science courses in Jordanstown to Derry. She requested that council arrange an urgent meeting with UU’s interim Vice-Chancellor to see the “whites of the eyes” of the university’s decision makers.
Image: Artist's impression of an expanded Magee Campus along the riverfront (story continues below)
Independent Councillor Paul Gallagher said the policy issues will exist for UU and an independent university, but a strategy is needed to “counter the brain drain”. Ulster University has however “notoriously” invested outside the city, he said, and the Strabane cllr was concerned that the same conversations will be taking place in 10-15 years’ time.
He said money given to UU could be “redirected to a big black hole” in Belfast – in reference to UU’s £110m overspend on its Belfast campus.
For perspective, a 10-year business plan to expand Magee from its current student total of 4,435 to 9,400 by 2028 amounted to a capital cost of £135 in 2017, with an average MaSN cost of £12.7m over ten years.
Addressing the meeting, Aontú Councillor Anne McCloskey said “strenuous objections” have been ongoing for 60 years based on “absolute discrimination” and UU’s pro-Belfast/Coleraine bias. There is a moral case for improved university provision due to the “financial hardship” meted out to people in this city.
She was sceptical of the cap being lifted for Derry alone, believing it will be at the behest of UU management. She criticised whoever gifted Magee to UU in the first instance for handing over a “beautiful asset” to a “crowd of charlatans”.
People Before Profit councillor Eamonn McCann said the £110m wasted in Belfast could have been put to good use in Derry. “It isn’t as if money is being spent well. We have to be a bit more aggressive about it.”
The university has also paid out millions to workers over failures to consult staff around redundancies. He added: “The level of discontent amongst UU workers makes the university almost unsustainable.
“The time for arguing politely about this is gone, it is a 60-year-scandal. More assurances, more complaints. We need to move towards a formal policy to break away or we’ll get nowhere.”
Sinn Féin Cllr Michael Cooper said that if the Executive is restored there needs to be a review of a cross-border approach. He raised concerns that if an independent university is pursued that the gap has to be filled somehow and ties cannot be entirely cut with UU.
As a Magee graduate, Cllr Cooper said he is “fed up” and “frustrated” with the situation but sees “no easy answer”. The university now has to make a “substantial commitment”.
Independent Cllr Gary Donnelly told the meeting that unlike other representatives he was not at all shocked by the figures as they have been previously reflected in polls in which over 80% of young people envisaged themselves leaving the city.
Derry will also get “nothing” from Stormont, he believes, unless the entire system is overhauled. “It’s like rearranging chairs on the Titanic.”
Alderman Hilary McClintock of the DUP observed that the presentation had “fired everyone up”, she described as “horrific” knowing that so many students leave the area and asked what can be done to stem the tide.
Concluding, Mr Kelpie made clear that a milestone moment has been reached. The initial ambition is for 10,000 but that number should seem “unambitious” in a few years’ time, he insisted.
Cllr McLaughlin’s proposal to invite interim VC Professor Bartholomew was supported and a meeting with the Derry University Group was also arranged.
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