22 May 2022

Political Platform: The idea of a university for Derry

Opinion piece by Councillor Anne McCloskey of Derry City and Strabane District Council

Ulster University defers decision on health courses

Ulster University at Magee

The New Decade New Approach document has included a commitment to university expansion in Derry, the North’s second city, and fourth largest city on the island.
The stated commitment is good news, although it’s hard not be cynical. We’ve had promises for decades, while student numbers dwindle and courses disappear.
There is no mention of financial support for a university in Belfast in the document.
Derry has a 1,500 year history of education, since the time of our Donegal-born founder, St Colmcille, whose anniversary we celebrate next year.
The more recent campaign for a University of Derry has its 60th birthday this month.
As our local representatives do today, Eddie McAteer sat in Stormont in 1960, and pleaded for fair play.
But the obvious justice of siting the second university in the second city was overruled by sectarianism and political skullduggery.
Derry has had a third level college since 1865, and a university since 1953. However, our university was 'amalgamated' - some would say swallowed - by the University of Ulster in 1970, following the decision to locate the North’s second university in Coleraine.
Magee was demoted to a campus, while the management, administration and, crucially, decision-making regarding student and course allocation were in Coleraine.
Inevitably, the lion’s share of jobs and investment went east also.
Our university was, in essence, gifted to UU by the most sectarian and unjust decision in the sorry history of Stormont misrule here, an act which was an important catalyst for the decades of subsequent conflict.
Belfast today has some 40,000 students, representing 14% of the city’s total population, compared to Derry’s 4%.
At least in part because of this disparity, measures of economic progress have diverged ever more widely between the two cities.
Incredibly, Derry’s economy has shrunk 7% since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, while Belfast’s economy has grown by 14%.
Incredibly, we were doing better economically before devolution. Derry and Strabane Council area is the only net exporter of our young, who leave in their droves to go to college, and never return.
It’s great that the 'folk on the hill' intend to take a 'new approach', because the old one wasn’t working too well!
It is expected that Derry will have to spend almost half of its City Deal money, intended to promote growth, innovation, skills and digital connectivity, to pay for the Graduate Entry Medical School, first mooted in 2003, and still awaiting financial backing.
None of Belfast’s considerably larger City Deal award is going to be spent paying for university provision there, much less filling the black hole in the finances UU has created by moving Jordanstown eight miles down the road to Belfast city centre, at a cost of £350 million.
Indeed, UU have asked the new Executive for a loan to plug this funding gap, having been refused finance from other sources. A cool £126 million.
As long as Derry’s fortunes are shackled to UU, we’re in perpetual competition with hostile forces. But the next months could be pivotal in the history of this city and region.
The siting of the Faculty of Life and Health Sciences is out to public consultation, until 19th April.
Derry, with a new medical school, is the obvious choice.
There are plans to create 900 new nursing places, to staff our NHS.
Derry has a first class teaching hospital, a new state of the art North West Cancer Centre, and a Centre for Stratified Medicine whichleading research across the world. The location of these specialties here is obvious.
Derry and Strabane District Council (DCSDC), rightly, should take a lead in changing all of this and, indeed, has done so, spending significant resources lobbying and compiling business cases which are rendered obsolete by political inaction.
DCSDC welcome the commitments of UU and the government.
However, the following motion was passed unanimously at council in February.
“If there is not action, in the delivery of the medical school for admission in 2022, the siting of the Faculty of Health Sciences at Magee, and all of the nursing places, and if concrete plans aren’t brought forward to deliver the long promised 10,000 students by the end of the decade, council will, in partnership with other interested groups, explore provision of a University for Derry independently of UU.”
Furthermore, council is expected in the coming months to bring forward resolutions ensuring that the £80m of our City Deal money which will essentially be gifted to UU, will require collateral in the form of the Magee site and other UU assets here.
UU and Stormont must stop giving Derry hot air, and deliver concrete expansion.
Boris’s budget will, of course, make the wish list our leaders haggled over for months impossible to deliver.
But 55 years after Lockwood, Derry deserves and demands justice.

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