Ulster Uni’s new Belfast Campus Shows it isn’t Serious About Magee Expansion. So it’s time for Derry to Look Elsewhere

Last week’s A’Level results not only signalled the start of the annual scramble to secure a place at University. They also pointed to a worrying development for the long-promised expansion of Magee campus in Derry.

Student Numbers Falling

Figures from UCAS (the University and Colleges Admissions Service) show a 4% fall this year in applications to go to University – the first such decline in five years.  All parts of the UK are reflecting this drop, and the figures also show a continuing decline in applications from mature students – particularly in NI. The increasing cost of a university education is the most likely cause behind this development. Typical student fees are now £9,250 per year, whilst the interest rate on the loans to fund them has soared to 6.1%. With the average graduate leaving university with £58,000 of debt, it is little surprise some are thinking twice about higher education at all. And it’s not just domestic students. There has also been a 5% post-Brexit fall in the number of applications from EU students to study in the UK, whilst new visa restrictions have caused applicants from non-EU countries like India and Nigeria to plummet.

Greater Competition

Those who do want to go to university in the UK also have an unprecedented choice of 128 universities, with new institutions continuing to open (the latest last year in Suffolk). There are therefore more universities chasing a shrinking pool of students, all of which makes the UK’s Higher Education sector extremely competitive.

It was doubtless with this in mind that Ulster University announced a plan recently to offer discounts to English, Welsh and Scottish students who choose to study with them. If you’re an NI or EU student at a Northern Irish university you are charged a reduced fee of £4,030 per year, courtesy of Stormont. Your counterparts from Britain, however, have to pay the full fee price of £9,250 for Queens and £9,000 for Ulster. In return for its subsidy, Stormont limits the number of NI and EU students Universities here can take. Hence Ulster is seeking to entice more students from Britain by offering them a £2,000 fee discount, or £1,000 off fees plus money towards accommodation and travel. With only 6% of current students in NI originating from across the Irish Sea, and universities in Britain not restricted by any cap on their recruitment numbers, it remains to be seen how successful Ulster’s incentives will be.

New £300m Campus for Belfast

Against this backdrop of heightened competition Ulster University is building a new £300m, 15,000 student campus in Belfast. With some of the 1970s buildings at their Jordanstown base nearing the end of their life, the University considered it more economical to move the majority of staff and students from there to a brand new campus next to its existing Art College in central Belfast. Ulster University’s presence in Belfast will therefore soar from 1,200 students to 15,000 in the coming years.

The creation of this new Belfast campus reveals two uncomfortable truths about the long-promised expansion of Magee. Firstly, it reconfirms Derry’s standing as the fourth priority within Ulster University’s four campuses. There is no reason why their Jordanstown facility couldn’t have been relocated to Derry – instantly giving the city the size of university it has long demanded. And if the decision to leave Jordanstown was indeed made on economic grounds, Derry’s significantly lower land costs would have reduced their relocation bill to a fraction of the £300m they’re spending on Belfast. The Jordanstown move was a golden opportunity for Ulster University to prove that they are indeed serious about creating a proper campus in Derry. Yet there is no evidence that the city was even considered as a potential location. Ulster’s failure to move even a handful of courses and staff from Jordanstown to Derry is a clear admission that they do not take the expansion of Magee seriously. Instead since 2010 they have reduced both the courses they offer in Derry and their staff numbers by over a hundred.

Secondly – relocating Jordanstown to Belfast makes any major expansion of Magee unlikely for the foreseeable future. Ulster is a middle-ranking university (68th in the 2017 table), so has to work hard to attract students. And since they announced their Jordanstown relocation plan in 2009, twenty more universities have opened in the UK. With a brand new £300m campus to fill and competition getting stiffer all the time, Ulster’s main strategic, academic and financial focus will be on making their new Belfast facility a success. It is inconceivable that they would allow Magee to be a distraction from that task. And with student demand falling, it would be a big risk for them to add room for another 5,000 in Derry anyway.

Medical School Sop for Derry

All of which leaves Magee still languishing at the bottom of Ulster University’s priority list. The good news is that it’s been promised a new Medical School facility. But it’s a proposal that falls short on three counts. Firstly – in the absence of any additional expansion proposals for Magee, it feels like a sop to distract Derry whilst the champagne corks are popped on Ulster’s new Belfast campus next year. Secondly – although a Medical School is welcome, it won’t create the kind of incremental economic growth & employment that locating courses like engineering or software development there would help deliver. Derry has the UK’s highest unemployment, and there is a limit to how many graduate doctors it can employ locally. Finally – with only one year left before this Medical School is due to open, Ulster have yet to confirm either its funding or its location.

The decision to move Ulster University’s Jordanstown campus to Belfast marks the second time in fifty years that Derry has been over-looked for a significant University presence. Though unlike the 1960s, this one has happened without the city even realising it. Questions must be asked of the city’s politicians as to why none of them challenged this decision – particularly when Ulster secured £17m from Stormont to help finance their Belfast move. And where were the internal voices to fight Derry’s corner – such as the Magee Provost, or the former Mayor of Derry who sits on the university’s top decision-making body ? Derry has been asleep at the wheel whilst Belfast got handed a £300m campus it didn’t even campaign for.

Time to Look Elsewhere

Ulster University is and always has been an institution focused upon the eastern half of Northern Ireland. It had never wanted Magee campus in the first place, but was lumbered with it when the backlash to selecting Coleraine as NI’s second University location in 1965 rendered closure of Magee politically toxic (the Lockwood Report had recommended it be shut). Ever since then Ulster has treated Magee as a distraction at best, and a nuisance at worst. It is their unwanted inheritance.

Derry is the UK’s unemployment blackspot. Significant University expansion has long been identified as the quickest and easiest route to improving its economy and skills. The council’s various strategic development plans over the decades – including the Local Development Plan currently being drafted –  have made the city’s economic development part-dependent upon University expansion. Ulster’s complete failure to meet its long-standing promises on doubling Magee carries real economic and social consequences for NI’s second city. It is a damaging charade that must be brought to an end.

Next year is the 50th anniversary of the foundation of Ulster University in Coleraine (a decision that still rankles in Derry). Ulster must be challenged to mark that occasion by finally publishing a comprehensive plan for the expansion of Magee – complete with student numbers, timings and funding details. If they are unwilling to do so, that would amount to a public acknowledgement that they are simply not committed to Derry. In which case, the local Council should actively seek and incentivise an alternative university provider to establish a base in the city. It’s time for Derry to look elsewhere.

That is not as fanciful a proposal as it may at first sound. Firstly – many British and international universities have off-shoots in other locations. Ulster University itself has branch campuses in London and Birmingham, whilst Boston College and American College operate in Dublin and Notre Dame is opening a campus in Galway. Ironically, Magee college was a campus of Trinity College Dubin for 60yrs until it was given to the New University of Ulster in 1969.

Secondly – suitable land is available in Derry. The Council has ownership of the 15 acre former Fort George barracks, and has been tasked with redeveloping it for the city’s benefit. No concrete proposals currently exist for that space. Ulster Uni could also be asked to hand over the land that it currently uses in the city to a new provider, in the same way that Trinity donated its land there in 1969.

This move would hopefully shake Ulster Uni out of the complacent belief that they can treat Magee as the problem child they never wanted in the first place. And it would use the free market that now exists in UK higher education to Derry’s advantage. Derry shouldn’t have to meekly accept a University that has no genuine commitment to it, who’s priorities lie elsewhere, and who seeks to buy its silence with the occasional sop. It’s time for Ulster University to publicly explain how and when they will grow the Magee campus. And if they don’t, it’s time for Derry to aggressively pursue the development of its third level sector by looking elsewhere.

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