A Derry MLA has said that if third level institutions in Northern Ireland are to get extra student places this year that Ulster University should allocate those places to its Magee campus.
In a speech made in the Northern Ireland Assembly today, Sinead McLaughlin MLA, the SDLP's economy spokesperson, spoke of the need to lift the cap on student numbers at Northern Ireland universities.
She said: "Northern Ireland has a unique educational disadvantage across the four UK nations – the MaSN cap. The Maximum Student Numbers. This holds back our economy by depriving us of the skills we need. This situation damages our productivity as well as our decision-making. But it also adds momentum to the Northern Irish diaspora, breaking up families as children leave home to study in Great Britain, typically to never return.
"As a mother I have seen my daughters leave Northern Ireland to study. And that is fine when that is what students want to do. But we are forcing our students away because our universities do not have enough places. That splits up families and is heartbreaking. And – as a report from the OECD concluded just a few days ago – it is not providing the next generation of graduate talent that our economy needs for the future. Nor are we doing enough for those students who do not go to university, who need high quality apprenticeships and a future in well paid, emotionally rewarding work.
"But today the ongoing failure around the MaSN cap has become a crisis. That is because the farce around A level grades has forced our two universities to breach the MaSN cap imposed on them by the Department for the Economy. Last week they offered places – which they are bound to honour – to students with the required minimum grades. But this week they are also bound to honour previous conditional offers to students who with the revised grades now meet those conditions. "This mess is not of the universities’ making. Yet it potentially creates a very serious financial situation for the universities. And it is not a one year problem. The universities will be breaching the MaSN cap this year, and each of the next three years – four years for some courses – because that is the length of undergraduate study.
"Are we really expecting the universities to pick up the financial cost of the A level fiasco? Yesterday the British media reported that the education secretary for England, Gavin Williamson, had promised that all UK universities would be released from their student number cap to allow all students with sufficient A level grades to be accepted. That is no doubt a misreport because the British media doesn’t understand the difference between the UK and GB.
"But it does allow us to consider an important point. This mess is not entirely of the making of Peter Weir, our Department of Education and CCEA. It is also a mess of the making of Gavin Williamson and the British government.
"So the answer is clear. We must lift the MaSN cap for Northern Ireland, allowing students with sufficient grades to study at university in Northern Ireland. We must not expect the two universities here to pick up the bill for that. And given the role of the UK government, we expect the education, economy and finance ministers here to very robustly make the case to the UK government that it should pick up the bill for this.
"One final point, as a Foyle MLA. I urge Ulster University to allocate any additional MaSN it gets to the Magee campus. It remains a scandal that Northern Ireland’s second city does not have a full sized university campus. The SDLP will not rest until this achieved – and that is a pledge that we make to the memory of John Hume.
"The minister for the economy and the Executive have an opportunity today not just to deal with the latest result of what Covid-19 has done to our society. They also have an opportunity to reset the future, providing a better future for our children’s generation. Let us not allow this prize to slip from our grasp."
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