It has been an argument raging on for 50 years, it briefly united Unionist and Nationalist elected reps in a period of violent division but it has yet to be resolved; a University for our second city.
When the Stormont government attempted to shutdown the Magee University College (as it then was) campus and divert its resources to the New Ulster University in Coleraine which was recommended by the Lockwood Report. The City rose up in unity with Brian McAteer, John Hume and the Unionist Lord Mayor Albert Anderson. The photo of the three men standing at the foot of Stormont in 1965 was a rare glimmer of light in a dark decade of our history.
Roll onto the modern day, a Stormont governance hiatus has meant that a paralysed Department of Education has no ability to direct an unwilling Ulster University to fulfil the promise of a new medical school and the addition of 6,000 extra student places across all subjects. The new Medical Dean (Professor Louise Dubras) has already been appointed; she vented her frustration on BBC radio Foyle:
“It is really frustrating: We are ready to go…We have done amazingly well with what we have had to do with the General Medical Council [approval]…We are ready to roll all we need is a decision [by a minister].”
The above should ring in the ears of those contented with the current stalemate, it should make us all think twice about how we exercise our vote and for what reasons. The Department of Health has made clear that we are around 100 doctors short per year, the medical school is planned to have an intake of 60 doctors and then 120 doctors training per year. Further to this the western trust is plagued with understaffing, research shows that those who train in such professions overwhelmingly stay within the region they trained.
Beyond health, the former vice chair of the UUP Terry Wright penned an opinion in Derry Now that an ‘standalone’ university should become an election ‘priority.’ His thesis is simple, Derry want and need a suitable third sector educational provision. If we diverted resources from what is left of a cut down Coleraine UU campus to Derry, then we could have a sustainable funding model which the Civil Service are currently claiming doesn’t exist.
To kill two birds with one stone Wright has also proposed in his piece that the emergency services training college should be situated in the Coleraine campus. Therefore, we would save on the capital expenditure of building a new emergency services training college at Desertcreat (BBC estimate that it would cost £44m if the preferred fire service only site is pursued), a plan that has been doomed from the beginning. If instead they used a fraction of this to retrofit the Coleraine campus it would surely be better value for taxpayers?
The argument for the university being standalone is multi-layered, it would also be my first preference, but I would settle for a well provisioned Magee campus is Magee University College (or ‘Derry University) does not gain the political support needed – Colum Eastwood nor Elisha McCallion to date have not endorsed the standalone proposal despite efforts from the Derry University group who lobby on the issue, but both do support the medical school.
Belfast will have two world class universities within short distance to each other, the north will have the new UU campus and the south is already served by QUB. It will cause unnecessary cannibalisation in subjects, continued poor provision for the Magee campus and an imbalance in qualifications which are in demand by employers. In short, UU will have its own issues to deal with when the Belfast move is complete and the suspicion in Derry is that it will be effectively asset stripped to meet the running costs of the new Belfast campus. Campaigners have even warned that they could take City Deal money and divert it to Belfast.
Whatever the outcome of the next Assembly election, third sector education will slip into the agenda. Galway is a city of circa 80,000 people with university places numbering 18,000 and Derry is a city of circa 110,000 with university places numbering 4,000. This stark contrast combined with a health crisis based on a failure to plan for the future should push this issue much higher up the agenda.
Jay is a Derry native now living in south Antrim and working in Belfast. His writing spans Law, Economics and International relations.