The British Government has just endorsed the argument put forward by U4D over the past several years - that Derry must have a substantially expanded university in order to turn around our city’s economy. The One Plan, Derry City Council, the University of Ulster and the Londonderry Chamber of Commerce have all, of course, given explicit backing to the more than doubling in the size of the Magee campus, to 9,400 students.
True, universities minister David Willetts did not actually mention the names of U4D or Derry – or even Londonderry – but he might as well have done given the message he expressed.
“Obvious cold spots” in the economy should create university campuses as the centrepiece of their regeneration, with government support, said the minister. “A university can be the heart that pumps new life into a town or city.” Well that is exactly U4D’s argument. There can be no colder spot in the economy than Derry, with the highest unemployment rate in the UK.
What is more, David Willetts gave the shining example of where this has worked – Lincoln. This is just as obvious to U4D as it is to the Government, which is why U4D engaged the founding, Vice Chancellor of the University of Lincoln, David Chiddick to advise us.
We saw Lincoln as a shining light because of its relevance to our situation. The city was run-down, with high unemployment, a skill base that no longer fitted the modern economy and that was geographically marginalised. That description could fit Derry just as well as Lincoln.
Since the creation of the new University of Lincoln in 1996, the local economy has doubled in size. The project has generated 3,000 new jobs – many of them very well paid. It is set to expand even further.
“Now there are new hotels, restaurants, bars, and cinemas,” explained the minister. “One side of the university was built on derelict railway land, which they’ve literally brought back to life, and they are still putting up a new building a year... their ethos is that it is all about turning out graduates with the skills employers really want.”
U4D’s argument has consistently been that university expansion would create the skills necessary to expand local businesses, create new local businesses, including those spun-off from the university, and attract inward investment.
Building new provision would create jobs in the construction industry.
The spend from students, staff and families visiting students would substantially strengthen the local retail and hospitality sectors. There would be a major positive ‘ripple’ effect across all local commerce.
Expansion of Derry’s university campus is wholly in the gift of the Northern Ireland executive, as it is an entirely devolved matter. Our government can very easily make this a reality once it chooses to do so.
Why do cities crave universities? Because they are the keys to the high wage economies of the future, without them you are designed to compete and fail against the vast, dynamic and rapidly growing resources of south east Asia and South America.
Local businesses recognise the opportunities presented by university expansion.
The President of the Londonderry Chamber of Commerce, Philip Gilliland, put it well. “An expanded university presence in Derry would be a game changer for our city,” he said.
“We are delighted that the UK Government recognises these arguments and we hope the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive will do the same.”
It is all in the hands of our elected politicians. If they are committed to the expansion of university provision in Derry, it will happen. There is no other route to achieving the major improvement required in our city’s economy.
n Padraig Canavan is chair of U4D and is a former Chamber of Commerce President