16 May 2022

10,000 students must be our goal - not 100

Conal McFeely of the Derry University Group says the North West's growth is being badly hampered by our political and civic leaders' poverty of ambition


Ulster University’s attempt to establish a medical school is a worthy aspiration. Indeed, it is fair to say that our group have been strong supporters of the initiative long before many of the current UU administration ever heard of it.

Unfortunately, our city-region has so focused its attentions on this new school – which, if UU ever gets its necessary permissions and finance, will have 110 students by 2029 – that we have completely lost sight of the much bigger picture.

Higher Education provision North West is at a catastrophically low level, it has been this way for 60 years, and our failure to address this crisis is resulting in lasting generational damage.

Moreover, the minimal university provision that is located here is controlled and taxed by Belfast and of no economic benefit to our region. Things have gotten so bad that our own Council was recently caught inflating student numbers on a trade mission in a bid to put a gloss on a very bad picture.

UU, meanwhile, have spent the past decade playing a bizarre game of push-halfpenny, moving courses in and out of Magee in rapid succession in a bid to create the façade of expansion. But the figures published by the Derry News last month show their manoeuvring to be nothing but a cynical exercise – we had fewer than 3500 full-time university students in 2009 and we still have fewer than 3500 today. 

And forget any meaningful UU expansion over the next 20 years.  After spending, and borrowing, £300m-plus for the new white elephant campus in North Belfast, there is no money left for Derry. Not a doily.

UU will predictably move a few life sciences courses here from Coleraine, for the short-term, to support their case for the medical school. Expect an announcement on this in the New Year to take the heat off the fact that the medical school is in limbo.

But what they won’t mention is that within the last few years they emptied the campus of Psychology and Sociology courses – to the tune of 600 students.

Now they’ve discovered they need numbers back in Derry. But what will be the next to go when our backs are turned? God knows, the priority is to fill Belfast at all costs.

They even had the temerity to remove INCORE, an institution developed and rooted in the North West. So don’t ever think anything is sacred – and particularly not the new medical school.


A three-line business case

As campaigners we are often challenged by well-meaning supporters and patronising critics to put our money where our mouth is and produce a business case for a new university. And in our previous incarnation we did that, wasting tens of thousands of pounds, and several years, preparing a meticulous (and eminently-deliverable) proposal that politicians, civil servants and UU blithely ignored in favour of a series of empty promises from each other.

Let’s not mince words, the business case is blindingly obvious – and anyone asking for it is really just asking to stall. It can be delivered in just three lines:

a)     The North West has some of the worst social indices on these islands as regards health, education and employment, and our need for HE provision has been established since 1960.

b)     A standalone university of 10,000 students, delivering accredited courses from the National University of Ireland’s ten faculties (Agriculture, Arts, Celtic Studies, Commerce, Engineering & Architecture, Food Science & Technology, Law, Medicine & Health, Philosphy & Sociology, Science, and Veterinary Medicine will generate an annual income of £100 million  (for the university) before research earnings are taken into account. On top of this, each student will then spend somewhere between £6000 and £11000 to the North West economy per year, bringing in additional annual revenue of between £60m and £110m to the region.

c)      If we don’t move immediately on a standalone university, or if we sit back and expect delivery from UU, Stormont and the NI Civil Service – all of which have failed us and bled our city-region dry for decades – we will inflict decades more of poverty and emigration on the generations to come. We can’t NOT do this.

The difficulty is not and has never been, the business case. The difficulty is political will and fear that if we ‘rock the boat’ we will get nothing.

It shows the poverty of ambition in the North West that the election debate in Foyle has been dominated by discussion over who will get credit for a 100-seat faculty we were first promised almost two decades ago.

Every single one of our representatives, political or civil, is too frightened to speak out and demand the wholesale changes we need in case they get blamed for delaying the medical school. It is nothing less than Stockholm Syndrome.

It is as if we have talked so long without response about how shockingly discriminatory the situation is, and has always been, that we doubt our own case. 

Despite that, there is huge support from outside the region from those who can see clearly that the North West’s claim to have its own university is unassailable.

Local government in the North West, in partnership with civic society, must take responsibility for the development and scrutiny of all existing and future university development. We cannot allow others, whose interests are not those of the North West, to take the lead.

It is reckless of us not to look elsewhere for university partners. We are putting the futures of our children at risk. We have American partners, Irish partners and British partners who are interested now in helping us develop a standalone institution. It is time to pull them together and build.

We have been led by the nose for too long.

Our new MP to be elected this week has a big job ahead of her/him. If Derry is to undergo the revival it needs, s/he must start by demonstrating the political will to deliver us the new university we deserve.

Next week talks will begin to re-establish Stormont. Again, our agenda should be blindingly obvious here. Except, this time, it can be summed up in one line: if you want us to have faith in the Belfast institutions, build us a standalone, regional university that puts an end to a century of discrimination; respects and reflects our Irish, British and European identity; and marks the beginning of a new equal society in northwest Ireland.

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