The Vice Chancellor at Ulster University (UU) has told Derry councillors that under the current funding model it will not be possible to deliver the long-promised target of 10,000 students at the Magee campus.
This week UU confirmed that the School of Health Sciences undergraduate programmes will relocate to its Magee campus in Derry from September 2022.
The transfer will bring over 800 undergraduate students to the Magee campus.
Postgraduate Health Sciences teaching will move to the University’s Belfast campus at the same time.
The programmes will be delivered alongside the new Paramedic teaching provision, and Graduate Entry School of Medicine, both of which are recruiting students for the start of the 2021 academic year.
Following the announcement Economy Minister Dianne Dodds said that many people in the Coleraine area had expected the courses to move there and they were ‘left disappointed’.
“I was disappointed that I learned about this announcement only late yesterday afternoon.
“While I understand that our universities are autonomous institutions, I would have, nonetheless, welcomed an earlier discussion.
“I will meet with Vice Chancellor Paul Bartholomew shortly and I will be pressing him on his plans for balance across all of the university’s campuses,” she added.
Derry representatives subsequently questioned the Minister’s commitment to the New Decade, New Approach deal which prioritised expanding the Magee campus to 10,000 students.
Speaking at a Council meeting on Tuesday evening, UU Vice Chancellor, Professor Paul Bartholomew, said there are 4,498 students at Magee this year.
He said that was up 85 on five years ago and up 930 compared to 2008/09.
However, he skipped over 2014/15 when student numbers at Magee peaked at 5,098, according to a previous FOI lodged by the Derry News.
Numbers have therefore dropped by 600 since then.
The Professor went on to say that growth to 6,000 students at Magee is achievable by 2022/23 but beyond that will require a ‘different operating environment’.
To be ‘fully transparent’, he said, the maximum student number (MaSN) cap limits the number of young people who can study at NI universities.
The UU chief said that cap needs to be lifted to allow for further expansion
“Lifting the cap would require either more block grant from government to fund more students or for the student contribution to be higher,” he added.
He suggested a national debate needs to take place around university fees and growth because without a change to the system NI ‘won’t be able to afford more students’.
In the absence of change, he said, young people will continue to study in the Republic of Ireland and Great Britain.
He acknowledged that increased student numbers were ‘absolutely skewed towards Belfast’ when exam results had to be amended last year.
If the MaSN cap is lifted it has to be done in a targeted way to ensure regional equality, he said.
The optimum level of growth he pointed to at Magee is 7,000 students by 2029 which is dependent on the MaSN cap being lifted.
It will also be informed by where students want to study, he insisted.
UU will get around £80m from City Deal monies to build a medical school and research centres.
Professor Bartholomew said that isn’t money for UU, it is for the benefit of the city but does have ‘indirect benefits’ for UU and the institution will have to contribute 10 per cent.
SDLP Councillor Rory Farrell welcomed the news of Health Science courses but said the One Plan envisaged 10,000 students by 2020.
At a recent Executive Committee meeting it was revealed that an updated business case was still to be received by the Department for the Economy, he added.
Cllr Farrell asked where the business case is and the timescale for 10,000 students.
In response, the Vice Chancellor said you’ll have heard me ‘dodging’ the question previously, adding that any additional numbers beyond 7,000 would have to come from other universities and post-graduate study.
Sinn Féin Cllr Mickey Cooper said the MaSN places have to be lifted for Derry alone to deliver growth but conceded that the Economy Minister is ‘not interested in ringfencing for Magee’.
He argued that post-graduate health science courses also should’ve moved to encourage people to take up employment in the city afterwards.
And said a message has to ben sent out that Magee is a positive place to study.
Meanwhile, Independent Cllr Paul Gallagher said it was unhelpful for UU in its consultation around Health Science courses to describe Magee as a campus that is ‘not a neutral space’.
He raised suspicions about UU taking City Deal funds and said that Health Science staff are refusing to move to Derry leading to fears that courses could return to Belfast.
Professor Bartholomew said: “There’s absolutely no chance it will return within a year or even longer. It is too expensive for us to do that.”
He explained that it will be difficult for some staff to relocate.
Staff will be able to make the decision about what they want to do, he said, and some may not want to move, while others will teach post-grad in Belfast.
In answer to a question about Magee only getting students when the Belfast campus is full, he said, because there is 20 per cent less floor space in the Belfast campus compared to Jordanstown any strategic growth must take place elsewhere.
In conclusion he made it clear that if the university is asked to grow numbers without a change to the funding model then it will take more time to expand.
“If in that dip it costs us millions of pounds to sustain that then that is clearly a disincentive.
“I don’t need incentivising to grow Magee. I am well motivated to have that better campus balance.
“I’m motivated to grow Ulster across all its campuses but I probably do need something to change to ensure that I’m not perversely disincentivised to do things through the financial model.”
*THIS STORY WAS CORRECTED ON FEBRUARY 8 TO REFLECT THAT ULSTER UNIVERSITY HAD PROVIDED TWO DIFFERENT FIGURES FOR 2014/15.
THE DERRY NEWS HAS NOW CHANGED IT TO THE HIGHER FIGURE OF 5,098 BECAUSE A BREAKDOWN OF FULL-TIME AND PART-TIME NUMBERS WAS INCLUDED.
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