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Draft Plan response

Derry needs new university partners

The Derry University Group argues that Derry/Strabane’s draft regeneration strategy is perilously reliant on Ulster University – and calls for new partnerships with other third level institutions

Derry & Strabane Council’s new Strategic Growth Plan (Draft), published last month, is a comprehensive and ambitious visualisation of how our region could develop and prosper over the next decade and a half. It foresees an investment of £3.8bn in capital expenditure, 15,000 new jobs and £200m in additional wages. The plan is, however, critically dependent on Ulster University. Indeed, just like Derry’s last regeneration strategy, Ilex’s 2011 One Plan, it regards UU as a lead partner and driver (pages 30-31). The One Plan, for those who have not read it, was contingent on UU increasing its student numbers in Derry to 9,400 by 2020. But with just three years left to go, UU looks highly unlikely to meet even half of this target.

The financial projections in the One Plan were very telling. The strategy depended on a capital investment of £200m in Magee, along with a ‘recurrent requirement’ of £250m. To put this in context, the entire capital requirement needed to service the One Plan (and Derry’s entire redevelopment) was £401.9m, while the entire recurrent requirement was £257.8m. (See One Plan, page 73). Thus, almost exactly half of the city’s capital requirement, and virtually all of its recurrent requirements, hinged on the promised expansion of UU. But instead, UU exhausted its entire resources (plus its future borrowing power) in building a new £300-£500m campus in Belfast, offering Derry a solitary £10m teaching block which, six years on, is still not operational. The One Plan failed, in large part, because UU committed itself to Belfast and not Derry.

Derry: UU’s fourth choice
The issue six years ago, as it is today, is that UU, because of the way it is structured, is unable to act in Derry’s best interests, or indeed sole interests. UU is an East of the Bann institution, which for decades has consistently categorised Magee as its ‘Priority Four’ campus after Coleraine, Jordanstown and Belfast. Magee has no autonomy to make decisions for itself; it has no independence. So for it to be a cornerstone of the region’s regeneration plan is effectively handing over the reins of the Derry economy to Belfast. Again.

More than 100 courses – including law, history and psychology – have closed at Magee since 2010. There has been no discernable growth in any discipline whatsover. The campus is a wasteland, bereft of any footfall after 4pm, devoid of any student life. The promises of a 100-seater medical school in Derry ring hollow when you realise that all biomedical and science courses are now centred at Coleraine, which is also to be the site of the new veterinary department. Coleraine is further building two new teaching blocks, a PE centre and the new IT hub for the entire university. Crucially, on top of all of the above, UU has no money left. Anything it gets, it must use to service the spiraling debts accrued by its Belfast development.

And not only is Magee not a priority for UU, it is also very low down on Stormont’s to-do list. There was no mention whatsoever of Magee expansion in the recent £1bn infrastructure package agreed by Theresa May and the DUP.
So, to repeat: there will be no significant expansion of UU in Derry over the next decade. The money is not there.
It is time we stopped trying to reimagine UU Magee into the institution we think it should be and recognise instead the stark reality of what actually exists. We are in danger of putting all our eggs in a busted basket.

Plan spells out dangers
In fairness to the new Derry/Strabane draft plan, it does openly identify lack of progress at UU Magee as the most significant risk to our region’s development. The ‘Interdependencies and Risks’ section of the plan (pages 48-49) reads:

The scale of the ambition is of course challenging, requiring a rate of growth comparable to that experienced by some of the world’s most dynamic and successful cities in the last 20 years or so and is critically dependent on the urgent and rapid progress of a number of key catalyst projects including:
• The expansion of the University of Ulster Magee Campus
• The completion of the A5 Western Transport Corridor
• The delivery of the A6 Derry to Belfast road
• The upgrade of the A2 Buncrana Road including its junction with Strand Road

One of the principal risks in the successful delivery of the plan is if one or more of the above key catalyst projects does not progress or proceed on time with the potential to negatively and significantly impact on the other projects and the achievement of outcomes within this plan…

…In particular, the university expansion is fundamentally critical in improving the economic attractiveness of the City and Region – given its positive impact upon the labour market and skills, through the provision of skilled graduates and the increased availability of training opportunities.

In other words, if UU does not pitch in fully, the entire plan will fail.
Significantly, however, within this draft regeneration plan, there is as yet no suggestion of any other university partnership – or potential partnership. The number one threat to economic growth in this region is staring us in the face. Council cannot afford to ignore it. It must provide us with a viable alternative. The Derry University Group has suggested on numerous occasions it is time to begin talks with other third level institutions with a view to them locating in the region. We have also proposed that UU hand back the Magee lands to Derry/Strabane Council to allow us develop our own regionally-controlled third-level offer – as happened when Trinity passed on the Magee campus to the New University of Ulster in the 1960s. Because, despite rafts of good intentions and ostensible commitments, UU is clearly not working – and has never worked as it should – for Derry.

For this region to continue to bet its future on another round of promises – despite overwhelming evidence that UU cannot deliver what this region needs – is reckless. Given the risks to the region acknowledged in its new draft plan, it is essential that Council immediately begin exploring other options.

Region’s wide academic connections
Derry has long-standing links with scores of universities and university cities across the globe. Our proud tradition of scholarship dates back 1,500 years to the time of our patron saint and city founder, Colmcille. The former Dean of Derry, the philosopher George Berkeley, was an early sponsor of Yale University in the 1700s, and a college there is named in his honour. The University of California, Berkeley, was named after the Dean as well. Our region’s formal associations with Trinity College, Dublin go back more than a century. Magee was a Trinity campus up until the 1960s, at which time it was subsumed into the New University of Ulster (Coleraine). The city also has long-standing connections with Queen’s University, Belfast – thousands of Derry students have graduated from the institution since the 1940s. And, indeed, the last vice-chancellor there, the late Professor Patrick Johnston, was from Derry and a proud champion of our region.

For decades, if not centuries, Derry academics have lectured (and administered) in universities all over the world. Our diaspora have served, and continue to serve, virtually all of the US Ivy League colleges and also the leading universities in Ireland, England and Scotland. There are university buildings named after Derry’s Nobel Laureates, John Hume and Seamus Heaney, in both Maynooth and Belfast. In recent years, US colleges have begun to extend their reach into Ireland. Dublin is now home to Boston College and the American College, while Notre Dame is opening a campus in Galway. Derry is also growing in popularity as a summer school venue for US colleges. This year alone, Rath Mor in Creggan has hosted lectures for Temple University (Pennsylvania) and John Madison University (Virginia). Magee’s Irish Studies Department is currently running a school for US college students. And there are regular academic visits to the city from Boston College.

Building an independent Education City
In 1997, oil-rich Qatar established its own Education City, on the outskirts of the capital Doha. The 14 square km super-campus development, which was formally inaugurated in 2003, today houses eight of the world’s leading universities; six from the US, UCL (London) and HEC Paris. These colleges share research and work with businesses and institutions in the public and private sector.

While Derry could never match the spending power of Doha – it has many considerable advantages over the Middle East:
• It is the closest European city to America and is the former US Navy HQ for the North Atlantic
• It is geographically near Britain, Dublin and mainland Europe
• It is politically stable and safe for US travellers
• Its currency is secure
• It is English speaking
• It has centuries-old historic and familial connections with the US
• It has long-standing, preexisting connections with many American universities
• It is an international academic leader in modern literature and conflict resolution studies (with Nobel laureates in both disciplines)
• It has an outstanding reputation for its cultural, tourism and recreational facilities

Importantly, a number of US colleges have already expressed an interest in partnering with Derry. Over the past five years, North West educationalists have engaged with the authorities of Berkeley, Yale and Boston College to discuss potential alliances. There are also ongoing affiliations with several universities in Pennsylvania. These connections, and those fostered over recent years by city statesmen and women such as the late Martin McGuinness, himself a committed educationalist, must be fully developed. To this end, the Derry University Group offers the following amendments to the Draft Plan:

• Council, in conjunction with wider North West civic society, will establish its own Higher Education Department. The HE Department will have specific responsibility for developing independent partnerships with leading third-level institutions, both in Ireland and internationally, with a view to establishing an Education City in the North West.
• The HE Department will be responsible for attracting resources from governments, philanthropic institutes, trusts, educational partners and the private sector for the development of the region’s third-level sector/‘Education City’.
• The HE Department will be responsible for identifying, zoning and developing specific landbanks within the North-West region for the purposes of third-level education.
• The HE Department will be responsible for administering and managing the region’s third-level landbanks/‘Education City’.
• The HE Department will be supported by its own full Council committee, development budgets, marketing budgets and staff. It will be headed by a specific HE Strategic Director.
• The HE Department will ensure a minimum of 10,000 full-time HE students are enrolled in the Derry/Strabane ‘Education City’ by 2027.

Council has a responsibility to the citizens of the North West to pursue the development of its third-level sector itself – independent of UU. UU may, of course, choose to retain its interest in Derry but it can no longer be the region’s sole, or leading, HE interest. Obviously, it would expedite the region’s drive towards developing an independent HE sector if UU, via government, would hand over the lands at Magee, its courses and its running costs, to the Council in the short term. Council would then have full autonomy to source the third-level partners necessary to deliver a full range of courses to make the region’s third-level offer comparable with other Atlantic coast university cities like Galway, Cork and Limerick.

To be the Priority Four campus of the North’s second university is not enough for Derry, and it was never enough.
We deserve a first-class Education City, and we believe we are capable of delivering it for ourselves.

Conal McFeely
Diane Greer
Garbhan Downey