Derry’s university grievance

Derry has been campaigning for a full sized university campus for the last 60 years. The city still holds a grievance over the Lockwood report from 1965, which chose Coleraine for the location of the new university, rather than Derry’s existing Magee College, then a Presbyterian theological college.

I once interviewed Sir Kenneth Bloomfield, the former head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, who told me that some of the unionist politicians of the time wanted to close Magee completely, but he persuaded them not to.

That context continues to influence how the university debate is seen in Derry, where student numbers today are around 5,500, rising in the near term to 6,500. While this is progress, it is still a long way short of the 10,000 aspiration specified in Derry’s regeneration plan, and which the former University for Derry group (which I co-ordinated) aspired to.

It is even further behind the 20,000 student number that John Daly – economist for Ireland’s Northern and Western Regional Assembly – reports would be consistent with those of other Irish cities of similar size. John is one of the interviewees in the latest Holywell Conversations podcast, where he discusses how a larger university campus would benefit Derry and the wider North West region.

But the problem is not only that Derry has too few university students, it is that Northern Ireland also has too few. There are slightly under 70,000 higher education students, spread across Ulster, Queen’s, the further education colleges and the two teacher training university colleges of Stranmillis and St Mary’s. Of these 70, 000 students, 71% are from NI, 4% from GB, 3% from RoI, and 21% are non-EU international students, paying higher fees.

Wales has more than twice the number of students; Scotland has more than four times; while England has over 2.3 million HE students. England’s population is 30 times the size of Northern Ireland’s, so our student population should be about 7,000 greater if it was equivalent to that of England. If it was equivalent to Scotland, we would have nearer to 100,000.

One factor is that Northern Ireland, unlike England, subsidises tuition fees for local students, which in turn limits the number of local students. That is what is called the MaSN cap, or maximum student number.

The Irish Republic has over 250,000 higher education students. So the Republic has slightly fewer university students than Scotland, in keeping with having a smaller population.

Investments from Ireland are going into Derry’s campus. The Irish government has provided €44.5m of capital to improve teaching facilities, which will reportedly enable an additional 1,800 students at the Derry campus. Ireland has also provided €10m to support 250 student nursing and midwifery places, of which 200 will be students from the South and 50 from the North. These numbers are split between Queen’s and Ulster’s Derry campus. Ireland is also subsidising Irish students at Derry’s medical school, training a new generation of doctors.

As well as this, Ireland’s Shared Island Fund has commissioned the Royal Irish Academy to undertake a study into higher education provision in the cross-border North West region. Our latest podcast interviews Gerry McKenna of the Academy to hear what the findings are likely to be. Considerations include whether there should be an additional cross-border body overseeing higher education on the island.

Ulster University provided a statement to us saying it “remains completely committed to growth at our campus in Derry~Londonderry,” adding that “substantial levels of investment, including from the University’s own reserves and surpluses, will be made into the campus in coming years. There are more students on our campus in Derry~Londonderry than ever before and we will continue to expand student numbers so as to, with our partners, continue to grow our already very significant contribution to economic and social impact in the whole of the northwest of the island.”

This podcast, and previous editions of the Holywell Conversations, can be listened to at the Holywell Trust website.

Disclaimer: This project has received support from the Northern Ireland Community Relations Council which aims to promote a pluralist society characterised by equity, respect for diversity, and recognition of interdependence. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the Community Relations Council.

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