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Europe and The Final Countdown: university life in the border zone

  • 18 October 2019
  • By Malachy Ó Néill

This guest blog was kindly contributed by Malachy Ó Néill, Provost of Ulster’s Magee campus and widely recognised for his excellence in both teaching and research.

Ulster University’s Magee campus, located in the UK’s most western and historic walled city of Derry~Londonderry, has its origins in 1865 with the inception of Magee College, then as a Presbyterian theology college and now one of the four campuses that constitute our young and progressive University, shortlisted for THE University of the Year 2019.

This spirited city, originally named Doire Cholm Cille (or ‘the oakgrove of Saint Columba’) has evolved through the ages, taking on a unique association with the City of London through the post-plantation relationships with London companies and the subsequent amalgam of ‘Londonderry’. Currently, the city region is preparing to mark 1,500 years since the birth of the city’s patron, Columba, appropriately a scholar himself.

Currently the city is preparing for its annual Halloween festivities, something it does with now legendary flair, community participation, and creativity in what was the inaugural UK City of Culture in 2013. The spooky reality of 31st October 2019 places this trans-jurisdictional university city and region at the forefront of what has become for many the spectre of Brexit.

Daily life in Derry~Londonderry involves an amount of cross-border movement; with the freedom to live and work across the border becoming a feature of the area, particularly since the Good Friday Agreement 1998. People live on one side of the border and move to jobs, education providers and services on the other, including staff and students at Ulster University.

Just a few weeks ago, we welcomed new and returning students to the campus. Amidst their hope and optimism, the challenging dynamics of Brexit are perhaps felt most keenly at Magee, located just three miles from potentially the official EU/UK land border.

With 91% overall campus satisfaction in the 2019 National Student Survey (NSS), our students are benefiting from significant campus investments, including an £11 million state-of-the-art teaching and learning centre. These enhancements are also valuable civic assets for our local community. Our participation in the UK Government’s City Deal for the Derry City region will see us apply our expertise to help maximise the city’s potential in an unparalleled opportunity to boost economic growth and prosperity.

Students joining us this year are largely those who commenced their A-Level studies and pathway to university in the shadow of Brexit. We are committed to safeguarding, as much as will be possible, the many valuable partnerships and staff and student opportunities enjoyed across the EU.

With ‘No Deal’ still a possibility, uncertainty remains for prospective students and staff from across the EU, and for those hoping to participate in EU research or mobility programmes in the longer-term. At risk is life-altering research that could be left underfunded or disrupted, with a heavy cost to society as a whole, as well as the study abroad opportunities so vital to our students in a global marketplace.

To the border and backstop considerations locally, add yet another layer of uncertainty. At the time of writing, we have been without devolved government for over 1,000 days: an ignominious record to hold, and at such a pivotal moment. As Northern Ireland’s civic university, we remain firmly of the view that the civic dividends are potentially rich in a devolved region. To put it another way, the “prize” for a civic university informing policy-making, forecasting market supply, opportunity and demand and enriching the social fabric of our community, can and should be truly lucrative for our region.

However, continued underfunding, stalled political decision making and uncertainty over Brexit, represent a disinvestment in the Higher Education sector that puts at risk the individual futures of our young people and the NI economy; a disinvestment from which it becomes ever more challenging to recover.

Ulster University continues to work closely with Government Departments in the Northern Ireland Executive. In Northern Ireland, the Programme for Government (PFG) sets out the strategic context for budget, policy and investment priorities for the following five years. Our civic leadership extends to aligning PhD research to a number of the PFG’s priorities to harness the skills of early career researchers in informing policy development required for our place and it’s people. For example, Magee-based researchers are supporting the challenges of an ageing community and tackling conditions such as childhood cancer, Motor Neurone Disease and locked-in syndrome.

The absence of our devolved Assembly and essential political decision-making body at such a critical and changeable time for the UK and Ireland is a source of deep frustration across all sectors. With the UK’s deadline for leaving the EU (31st October) fast approaching, my colleagues, Professor Duncan Morrow and Professor Rory O’Connell among them, continue to explore the political and legislative impacts for Northern Ireland. Our Economic Policy Centre analysed the risks, opportunities and issues for the border corridor across trade, agri-food and fisheries, inward investment, movement of people, funding, tourism and border management.

Sectoral and industry partnerships are central to our role in this border corridor. Whilst Brexit remains a dynamic and complex process, we confidently maintain our relationships with EU higher education institutions and partners, to create the strongest basis from which to navigate the challenges of Brexit and sustain our many European collaborations into the future; including those closest to home.

Last year, we joined forces with North West Regional College, where I am also a Governor, alongside other education providers located over the border in County Donegal – Letterkenny Institute of Technology and Donegal Education and Training Board – in a new education, training and innovation agreement for the North West City region. Led by the North West Strategic Growth Partnership, Derry City and Strabane District Council and Donegal County Council and supported by The Executive Office and The Irish Government, this partnership is the result of years of successful collaboration amongst the cross border education providers for the North West City region, and will respond to the challenges posed by Brexit through strong regional collaboration.

Cross-border, EU funded research collaborations range from a €6.7 million project to develop consumer-owned energy storage resources to meet current and future electricity market needs, to the €8.6 million Centre for Personalised Medicine Clinical Decision Making and Patient Safety following an award from Special EU Programmes Body, with match funding from Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation in Ireland and the Department for the Economy in Northern Ireland). Research collaborations with agencies such as Genomics Medicine Ireland are central to our research at The Clinical Translational Research and Innovation Centre (C-TRIC) at Altnagelvin Hospital, an Ulster University collaboration with the Western Health and the Social Care Trust, Derry City and Strabane District Council, leading the way in research and teaching for data-informed medical care.

Through the lens of our Magee campus, the needs of these important cross border partnerships, our students and our staff come into sharp focus. EU national students, midway through their higher education courses, or starting a full-time undergraduate course in the 2020/21 academic year have guaranteed ‘home status’ for fees for the duration of their course in Northern Ireland.

For our Magee based staff there are additional considerations such as currency devaluation for employees living in the Republic of Ireland (ROI) and whose main expenditure is in Euro. Recognising that career opportunities arising in ROI may appeal to staff, we are committed to developing the careers of academic and professional colleagues and positively encouraging them to continue their working life within Ulster University. As history unfolds over the weeks and months ahead, we continue to nurture student learning potential, and put our research expertise to work in and for our community, locally and on the world stage.

The often-quoted words of Nobel laureate Séamus Heaney, himself an alumnus of Saint Columb’s College in this city, spell out the resilient wonder and mythical fortitude which marks a city ready for its next chapter:

Oak grove shelter us,
Stone walls strengthen us
Shining River Foyle
Make our future bright.

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