EDUCATING ULSTER : Northern Ireland has a chronic shortage of students, whilst Belfast has too many and the west of the province has too few. The solution is obvious.

September marked the annual return of students to their term-time accommodation. And within two days residents of the Holylands had lodged over 150 complaints of anti-social behaviour with Belfast City Council. That university neighbourhood’s term-time population comprises over 90% of students/young people, amounting to an estimated 7,000 in just one square kilometre.

It will probably provide little comfort to residents of the Holylands to learn that Northern Ireland (NI) has the lowest provision of university places in the UK. And the cause is certainly not a shortage of demand. NI consistently tops the UK A’Level league tables, and our percentage of school-leavers going to University is a third higher than the UK  average. With over 30% of NI University-goers leaving the province every year, and a tiny proportion of students coming here to study from elsewhere, the issue is therefore very much a lack of supply. It’s a brain drain that sees us lose some of our brightest young people every year, many of whom will never live here again.

This under-provision of third level opportunities in Northern Ireland was highlighted as long ago as the 1997 Dearing Report into the UK’s Higher Education (HE) sector. Little has been done since then to address the issue, with the Stormont Executive seemingly more interested in building economic prosperity through third-party subsidies. Evidence of the positive impact Universities have on the economic health of their locations abounds. They spend money, create skills and jobs, and increase incomes. And with a close correlation between the proportion of graduates in a population and its rate of economic activity and GDP per-capita, they also sow a long-term economic legacy. The case is therefore clear. Northern Ireland needs increased University provision, and it would be one of the shrewdest economic investments Stormont could make.

If thousands of new University places were created here, where should they be based ? The short answer is ‘not Belfast’ – as data shows that the province’s HE provision is already excessively concentrated there. Despite containing only a quarter of the north’s population, more than 80% of all Higher Education places in Northern Ireland are located in Greater Belfast (2014/5 student figures used here and throughout). By comparison, only 43% of the Republic’s HE provision is based in Dublin. That means over 9% of the population of Greater Belfast is currently in full-time higher education – and when Ulster University relocates its Jordanstown campus to inner-Belfast in 2018, HE provision will approach 14% of the population within the city proper.

So if not Belfast, where should any new student places be located ? Of the 15 towns and cities across Ireland with Higher Education institutions (i.e. Universities and Institutes of Technology), Northern Ireland’s second city (Derry) has by far the lowest provision – less than 4% of its population (4,182 students). For perspective – in 2014/5 Coleraine had 5,236 full-time students (21% of population), Limerick 27,000 (30%) and Galway over 26,000 (34%). Derry’s student population also pales in comparison to similar regional cities elsewhere in the UK. Yet Derry is a very youthful city, with 24% of its population aged under 16 (vs 21% in NI and 19% UK-wide). So whilst a staggeringly high proportion of Northern Ireland’s students are educated in Belfast every year, Derry’s higher education provision is derisory. It should come as no surprise, therefore, to find the city constantly languishing at the top of the UK’s unemployment tables.

Derry does have a small Ulster University campus at Magee – established in 1865, and recommended for closure by the 1965 Lockwood Report. That report was commissioned by the old Government of Northern Ireland to address capacity constraints at Queens by recommending a new university. Lockwood provoked outrage when it recommended locating that new university in Coleraine – a decision viewed then and since as evidence of a deliberate policy to isolate nationalist Derry. Magee was eventually kept open as a sop to the city, but Derry’s battle for adequate University provision has continued for the last 50 years. In more recent years the council’s economic strategy has identified Magee expansion as the single most important development for the city’s regeneration. And the Chamber of Commerce, Irish Congress of Trade Unions, and every political party in the north-west also support it. Yet when Ulster University revealed in 2009 that most of the 16,000 staff and students at their Jordanstown campus were relocating, they opted to build a new £300m campus in inner-Belfast. With Belfast already over-stocked with students and Derry suffering from their absence, there is only one place Jordanstown should credibly have moved. And with sufficient land available near Magee, and property prices there a fraction of those in Belfast, it would have made financial sense too. As private entities, universities can locate wherever they like – though Stormont has gifted £17m of public money to assist Ulster’s move. Doubtless expecting criticism for that, news of the grant was accompanied by a statement that “Ulster continues to work with the Department for Employment and Learning to develop its plan to expand Magee”. Yet the reality since then has been the opposite. Over 100 staff have been lost from Magee in the last five years, a number of its courses have been closed or transferred to Coleraine, and a ‘first option’ to purchase 30 acres of land next to the college was signed in 2009, only to be relinquished last year. Amidst the building of a new £300m campus in Belfast, Stormont and Ulster University now claim that financial constraints are preventing the expansion of Magee. Derry seems further from securing proper university provision than at any time since the late Sixties.

It is therefore time for the Stormont Executive to exhibit leadership, vision and regionalism over the future capacity and location of Higher Education in Northern Ireland. In short, it’s time for a 21st century Lockwood Report (though one that does the job properly this time). To address the historical under-provision of university places that the Executive inherited from direct rule, and with Brexit likely to impact NI more than any other region, a robust case must be made to Westminster for one-off capital funding to enable NI’s student numbers to be increased to at least the UK average. Within that it is essential to recognise that Belfast and Coleraine already have more than their fair share of students, whilst the rest of the province has too few. The funding should therefore be primarily focused on giving Derry the independent and expanded University it has waited over 50 years for – with its own charter, and a minimum of 10,000 student places (9% of the city’s current population). The rest of the province should also benefit directly from this funding, through the creation of new HE college courses in towns like Omagh, Enniskillen and Armagh. In this way a long-standing disadvantage borne by Northern Ireland as a whole (and the city of Derry in particular) can be tackled, and our population better equipped to weather Brexit’s impact. An historical injustice to the people of the North-west can finally be corrected. And the residents of the Holylands can gain some succour in the fact that ever-higher number of students are unlikely to be poured into their neighbourhood.


– The figures re student numbers in each town appeared in a Derry Journal article on 9th October last year, and are credited as having been amalgamated from the college’s websites and Wikipedia. I’ve also cross-checked them with the figures for NI Unis given in last month’s Times Universities Guide, and they seem on track (obviously the student numbers will have changed a bit over the last 2yrs)..

– The figures for the total populations of the various towns – expressed as a percentage being students – come from the census and/or Wikipedia. I know Wikipedia isn’t always right, but it usually is in my experience – especially on statistical and factual matters. The figures also feel intuitively about right as well.

– The percentages given for youthfulness of population in Derry/NI/UK come from the 2011 census.

– The figure of 100 staff losses at Magee over 5yrs came via an FOI request reported on the front page of the Derry Journal on 4th August 2015.

– All the figures for Jordanstown’s move to York Street are from newspaper reports – from December 2008, when the Telegraph leaked the story ; the January 2009 official announcements re the move ; and later announcements re the Stormont grant.

– The figures re the 90% student density of the Holylands come from a Times Higher Education article in February 2005. The figure of 7,000 students there comes from Wikipedia. I don’t have an alternative source for this – I’m not sure where that level of micro-data is captured tbh.

Steve Bradley is a native of Derry who moved to England for university 25 years ago, and has yet to return permanently. He works as a consultant on urban regeneration and environmental sustainability. He also writes on sport, politics, history, heritage and the environment for a number of publications – including a regular page in football magazine ‘When Saturday Comes’. In his spare time he is a social entrepreneur – specialising in turning neglected corners of cities into cultural, arts or heritage-based projects. And earlier this year he led the campaign to have Derry included as a venue in Ireland’s bid to host the 2023 Rugby World Cup.

You can follow him on Twitter @Bradley_Steve

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