First Minister Arlene Foster has today said that 'risks' will have to be examined before any opening date for a Magee Medical School is confirmed.
At a Stormont sitting this afternoon questions were put to the First Minister including one from Foyle MLA Mark H Durkan about the Magee project.
Arlene Foster said The Executive Office (TEO) has reaffirmed the commitment set out in the New Decade New Approach document to establish a graduate entry medical school in Derry.
Its objective now is to progress the project to secure a ‘sustainable outcome on the fastest feasible timetable’.
“This is a complex project involving a number of departments and external agencies,” the First Minister said, “and TEO is currently working with the departments of health, economy and finance to prepare further advice to the Executive on the issues which need to be addressed to secure that sustainability.”
On May 7 Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill announced that TEO would assume responsibility for the medical school project and on May 18 that it had been approved.
Mark H Durkan asked if a ‘cast iron guarantee’ could be given that it will be ready to accept admissions in September 2021 and, if so, what specific dates and deadlines must be met.
He was told the Executive received an update from the head of the civil service yesterday.
The strategic investment board are involved to ensure that any ‘risks are minimised’ around the delivery of this project, she continued.
The First Minister stated: “We do not intend to make any announcement about the date of first intake until all the necessary preparation work has been completed and we very much hope that will continue at pace in TEO.
“Because as I said this is a cross-departmental issue which is why TEO stepped in to try and assist to make sure that things move smoothly.”
UUP leader Steve Aiken said one of the key strategic partners for Magee is Ulster University and UU has been involved in ‘very significant cost over-runs’ at its Belfast campus.
“I think there are some investigations ongoing as to whether UU are actually capable of managing projects.
“Therefore, can I ask the minister what confidence she has that UU are actually a suitable partner for delivering this vital project for Londonderry.”
Arlene Foster responded: “Capacity and finance are clearly issues that will have to be examined as a wider look at risk management in relation to this scheme and that’s why the head of the civil service was able to give us an update yesterday.”
Independent East Derry MLA Claire Sugden said she understands there has been ‘considerable capital monies committed to the Magee project’.
But she queried whether the department for the economy required additional finances to resource the running and day to day costs ‘or is that something they’ll have to find within their own budget’.
DUP leader Mrs Foster said the ‘financial and governance challenges’ currently facing UU will be overseen by the strategic investment board.
It’s important to have that body ‘looking in at what we’re trying to achieve’ she said, ‘to give us the confidence that any risks that are identified can be managed and mitigated.’
Those matters will be taken forward but with oversight from TEO.
The Derry News has also learned of a letter circulated to UU staff this afternoon.
Professor Paul Bartholomew, Interim Vice-Chancellor at Ulster University informed colleagues about the ‘financial sustainability’ of the institution.
In the correspondence he cites a different Higher Education funding model in NI and the Coronavirus pandemic as major obstacles.
He says ‘the immediate economic damage is now becoming clear’ and ‘we need to consider the implications for us within the context of our already stretched financial position.’
“In that context, and as you would expect, we continue to closely monitor the financial trends and outlook to build a sustainable financial strategy that must address not only the financial impacts of COVID, but also the pre-existing challenge of a cost base that has grown, whilst income from government block grant and fees from capped student numbers have remained largely flat.”
He makes it clear that its financial strategy is likely to necessitate staff cuts.
Prof Bartholomew said: “That sustainable financial strategy has identified a number of options that may, in the near future, be put forward for decision. Representing nearly 60% of our total cost base, those options necessarily include staff cost reduction measures.
“A full strategic review is also proposed to enable clarity around strategic priorities and associated resource allocation; we understand that across the institution staff are already operating at full stretch and any decision made to achieve sustainability must, in parallel, address issues of workload and prioritisation.”
He adds: “With the full support of SLT and Council, we have been engaging with the Department for the Economy and our own Trade Union colleagues, to ensure there is a full understanding of the position, this has been in advance of considering formally any possible options that offer the best solutions for staff.”
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