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Has Derry’s time come? The case for expanding HE in Northern Ireland’s second city

  • 20 March 2019
  • By Jonny Roberts

A guest blog contributed by Jonny Roberts, Associate Editor at Westminster Forum Projects where he previously led the Westminster Higher Education Forum and was involved in the launch of the Policy Forum for Northern Ireland. He writes here in a personal capacity. 

When Lord Adonis recently took his one-man anti-Brexit campaign tour to Derry/Londonderry last summer he soon adopted the cause of a very different and far more long- standing campaign – the case for the city to have its own university.

Whilst Lord Adonis might split opinion in the HE world – he is certainly not popular among Vice-Chancellors that is for sure – I feel he may be right in asserting that Derry hosting its own university is an idea whose time has come or, as some would argue, an idea 50 years overdue its fruition.

‘The most important issue to come before the city this century’

Those were the words of the Mayor of Derry, AW Anderson, speaking to a packed meeting of the campaign group the University for Derry Action Committee in 1964 just before the Lockwood Commission was due to publish its recommendations on the ideal placement of a new university in Northern Ireland.1

That report caused uproar in the city by recommending not only that the new university, today known as Ulster University, be founded in Coleraine but that Derry’s only existing HE provision, at the then century-old Magee University College, should be wound down. As a concession in the face of protest Government ultimately rejected the Magee recommendation but brought the institution under the dominion of the new university as a ‘constituent college’ and to this day it remains a campus of Ulster University.

Magee College, c.1870 By National Library of Ireland on The Commons – “Modern Gothic church or institutional / ecclesiastical building much battlemented, turretted” is Magee College, No restrictions,

Indeed the University has plans to expand Magee. A new teaching facility opened last year, with a new Medical School due next and the recent purchase of Foyle College land premised on the idea of further growth. So with all this happening, is Adonis’ point mute? Not necessarily; but before we seek to redress Lockwood’s decision on locating Northern Ireland’s second university we have to first reprise the more fundamental question which led to that report: does Northern Ireland need a third university?

Lifting the limit
To me, the case for expanding HE provision in Northern Ireland has already made, on this blog no less. Professor Brian Murphy, Director of Access, Digital and Distributed Learning at Ulster University in his piece, The cap that doesn’t fit: student numbers in Northern Ireland, highlights some astonishing statistics derived from UCAS data that are worth repeating. Northern Ireland has:

  1.  the highest application rate by country (48 per cent);
  2.  the highest entry rate by country (35 per cent);
  3. the highest home participation rate (by 90 per cent);
  4. the lowest acceptance rate by country of offers (74 per cent);
  5. the second highest acceptance rate outside the home country (35 per cent).

He neatly characterises these findings as demonstrative of a admissions and funding system in which ‘despite high levels of aspiration (i), eligibility (ii) and participation (iii), many reject offers (iv) and many leave (v).’ With 26% of offers being turned down and with so many of those rejected finding a place elsewhere in the UK, Republic of Ireland or elsewhere clearly there’s an unmet demand for additional places.

Taking the same 2018 UCAS data that Professor Murphy draws on, we can see that the 26% rejected offers equates to 6,243 students. That’s a considerable foundation upon which to start either a new institution or to radically expand Ulster University’s offer in Derry yet Northern Ireland’s HE sector doesn’t have the freedom to expand in response to such demand in the way England-based institutions have been able to do following the lifting of student number controls and instead total HE spending is falling in Northern Ireland.

Time for a deal?

Eager to follow in the footsteps of the £800 million City Deal for Belfast struck in late 2018 between the UK Government, officials in the Northern Ireland Executive and the local councils, Derry politicians and civic leaders have presented the Government in Westminster with their own plans for a City Deal.

As with most of the many of the Government’s programme of City Deals being rolled out across the UK’s major conurbations innovation and developing the R&D-intensive sectors of the local economy is central to the proposals. The plans talk of ‘the growth of our university’ in recognition perhaps of the aforementioned physical expansion of the Magee campus but in stark contradiction to the reality of reductions in funding and subsequently enforced cuts to student numbers.

If they are to achieve their ambitions the leaders behind Derry’s City Deal proposals must come together to reignite the spirit of the University for Derry Action Committee and, in the absence of a government at Stormont, call on the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to commission a new review of the country’s HE provision.

The review should work in reverse to Lockwood, in that it should assume any new provision would be centered in Derry where the City Deal would provide the catalyst for the capital investment required for new research and teaching facilities but it must consider:

– The case for additional public finance to be made available or reform of the funding model to expand student numbers to meet demand
– Understand both the skills needs of the Northern Ireland economy and the preferred courses of those who haven’t had their applications accepted to inform the subject focus of any new teaching provision
– How Northern Ireland’s UK-leading participation rates can be widened further and how international student recruitment can be increased
– Whether any expansion of student numbers and the City Deal’s desired increase in research activity would be best served as additional resource to Ulster University or if there is a case for a distinct new institution to be formed, a University of Derry.

A new Lockwood Review over half a century on from its controversial predecessor could be the opportunity to put right a widely perceived wrong from the original report and at the same time address the very current injustice of so many prospective students in Northern Ireland being turned away. You never know, Brexit differences aside, government could even ask Lord Adonis to write it.

1 comment

  1. Dennis Farrington says:

    NUU 70-72, NIO 73-78. I always thought Stormont Government wanted NUU in a safe Unionist area rather than in Derry/Londonderry or Armagh. Arguments over whether to retain Magee continued. As NUU SU Secretary 71-72 I recall driving from Coleraine to Derry/Londonderry to try to keep Magee students involved. To me it was a surprise to see NUU merged in 84 with an institution in Belfast rather than building up a university campus in Derry/Londonderry. Two universities perhaps, but larger presence in Derry/Londonderry.

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