Colum Eastwood is an SDLP MLA for Foyle.
Next Tuesday marks the 50th anniversary of a report which condemned Derry to decades of economic stagnation.
The Lockwood Report recommended the siting of a second university in Northern Ireland at Coleraine instead of Derry. The publication of the report was the catalyst for a mass, cross-community, campaign by the people of Derry. The effects of the Stormont government’s subsequent decision not to support a new university in Derry are still acutely felt in our city today.
It was recognised by the people of Derry in 1965 that the decision would have a detrimental impact on the city’s ability to develop economically. They were right.
When it comes to economic indicators Derry is at the wrong end of all the league tables. Economic activity in the Derry City Council area is the lowest in the North at just 55%, compared to the Northern Ireland average of 67%. The city has the highest percentage of Job Seekers Allowance claimants not only in the North, but across England, Scotland and Wales too. Derry also has the highest rate of claimants across all categories – male, female and young people, while the city is second only to its new council partner Strabane when it comes to the percentage of long term claimants.
Only by increasing the skills base of the labour market in Derry and the wider North West will we combat our unacceptably high rate of unemployment. The substantial expansion of university provision will play a pivotal role in turning our economy around.
The arguments for an expanded university in Derry are clear. What is also clear is that Northern Ireland as a whole is underperforming hugely in terms of keeping up with the pace of expansion in both Britain and the Republic. The North produces the highest proportion of school leavers going to university of any area in Britain or Ireland, with more than half doing so. However, we have the smallest university sector.
The increased rate of school leavers going to university from here has only been achieved by a growing proportion of them taking up places in Britain. In fact, despite the higher fees regime across the water, there has been a steady increase in students from the North choosing to study in Britain. This increase has coincided with the abolition of the MaSN cap in England. Meanwhile, Northern Ireland has retained its MaSN, forcing more students to leave these shores to attend university in Britain. Most of them never return. The loss of Northern Ireland students to Britain is seriously damaging to our productivity and wealth generation as well as the ability to grow our own businesses and attract inward investment.
A recent report by the University for Derry campaign (U4D) reveals that Northern Ireland requires an additional 15,400 places at its universities just to match the levels of university provision in England. Provision in England is actually increasing by 30,000 places this year, precisely because the British Government realises the connection between the skills generated by university education and the long-term health of an economy.
According to the same report, Northern Ireland’s two universities have a combined income of almost £500m and generate an additional £675m in economic activity. By extrapolation the opportunity presented by bringing Northern Ireland higher education provision to a par with the UK average can be measured in hundreds of millions of pounds in additional income and economic activity – which would far outstrip the cost to government.
The decision by the old Stormont government to ignore Derry and site the new university at Coleraine is one that has created a legacy of economic inactivity and joblessness. Today’s Executive has the opportunity to right that wrong. There have been many warm words and supportive messages about Magee’s expansion from Martin McGuinness, Ulster University and others. However at every opportunity the Executive has failed to make a Programme for Government or budgetary commitment to major expansion. Fifty years on, now is the time for action.