There is definite support in Derry for Ulster University’s proposal for a graduate entry medical school at Magee campus. After 53 years of exasperation that the city does not have a full sized university, actual excitement for such ideas is always tempered by fear that it will not happen. But at least the city’s response is definitely positive – unlike the apparent reactions in Belfast and Coleraine.
A medical school in Derry should be a no brainer. There are two strong arguments for it. Firstly, there is a city-wide consensus that the substantial expansion of Magee would be the primary mechanism for getting our economy moving forward. At present it is the weakest sub-region in Northern Ireland, arguably the weakest in the whole of the UK.
As former universities minister David Willetts remarked when he was in post in England, any deprived city that wants to strengthen its economy should get itself a university. Derry has been saying this for more than half a century, but governments in Northern Ireland have been reluctant to listen.
While the number of students at Magee’s medical school would be a long way short of the size of expansion we are all looking for, it is another definite step in the right direction. And the statement of intent by Ulster University in itself is very welcome, as is the appointment of Professor Hugh McKenna as Dean of Medical School Development at Magee – Hugh has shown himself resolutely and determinedly committed to achieving a medical school at the campus.
The second reason is financial. At present, the Western health trust spends £13m a year on locum doctors. It is widely said that university regions benefit from the 60-20-20 rule. Sixty per cent of graduates will still be living within 20 miles of their university 20 years later. Consequently, the best way of addressing the shortage of doctors in the north-west is to train more doctors there. The south west can benefit, too, if much of the work experience takes place in the South West Acute Hospital.
While that is how it is seen in Derry, other places are believed to regard it differently. It has been widely reported that Queen’s University is anything but delighted at the idea of a competitor educating medical students. This is despite the fact that training more doctors in Belfast might do little to increase the supply in other parts of NI. And, as Ulster University Vice Chancellor Paddy Nixon often remarks, at present there is no doctor training taking place in any university above the diagonal line between Belfast and Galway.
It is also rumoured that bioscience academics in Coleraine are pretty miffed about the training taking place in Derry. Competition between Coleraine and Derry for university places is nothing new. It worried many in Derry that when Simon Hamilton was health minister he referred to support for a medical school in the north-west, without specifying that he meant Magee. Despite that, it is reassuring that the DUP has expressed in the Assembly its strong support for the proposal – as have all the major political parties in Northern Ireland.
The other concern, of course, is the attitude of what might be a direct rule administration. Will Westminster ministers avoid taking decisions, because they see themselves as interims? Or will they take the important decisions that will move Northern Ireland on? If so, that must include tackling the strategic challenges facing our NHS, including long-term staff shortages.
Underlying all this is one major dynamic. Brexit. We don’t know what impact Brexit will have on universities and skills. But the voters – damn them – voted to reduce immigration. If (a big if) they get their way, then the UK must do more to grow our own skills. And the skills do not come any more important for our society than producing more doctors.
Paul Gosling is a freelance writer and is also co-ordinator of the University for Derry group, which is lobbying for the substantial expansion of Derry’s Magee campus. Follow him on Twitter…