Padraig Canavan, chair of the University for Derry group U4D, says both politicians and the University of Ulster must show commiment to the ambition to double university student numbers here by 2020.
Derry’s One Plan was a real step forward for the city, creating a united voice for an economic strategy that could create thousands of jobs and significantly raise average pay. But progress in the last three years in implementation has been frustrating – and, to be frank, leaves many of us wondering just how much commitment there really is to the One Plan amongst those who have the power to implement it.
It is, of course, wonderful that 2013 is Derry’s year as City of Culture. But we must not let this year of celebration, events and a spurt of tourists distract us from the necessity to get our long-term economy into shape. After this year is over we will still be faced by the same underlying problems. Unemployment and economic inactivity are too high. Average pay is too low. Poverty is too high. Too many of our best people leave the city to make a new start elsewhere.
The One Plan created a package of measures to address these weaknesses. At the heart of them - the single most important element of the plan - was the substantial expansion of university education in the city. Derry is the only significant city in Ireland not to have a substantial university presence.
Universities attract students and their families who spend money. Universities create skills, which spin-off into new businesses and inward investment. They enrich the local society. They sustain all sorts of local businesses – from the retailers to the taxi drivers, from the hotels to the cafes, from the tv production companies to the software writing businesses.
These are the arguments that put university expansion at the centre of the One Plan. And when we talk about university expansion, we do not refer to a hundred extra students here or there – which has been the argument in recent months. Nor do we limit ourselves to the extra thousand students that the University of Ulster had already been requesting.
Our sights are much higher. Today there are around 4,000 students at Magee. The One Plan aspires to more than double this number to 9,400 students by the end of the decade. Yes, we know this is ambitious – but anyone who looks at the state of our economy will recognise that only ambitious steps can turn things around. Derry is the poorest city in the UK, with the highest unemployment in Northern Ireland. We need radical action.
Yet there are no signs that the 9,400 student target is being taken seriously. Too often politicians talk as if the One Plan is only trying to raise student numbers by a few hundred. And there is a circle of confusion as ministers and the University blame each other, with one side asking for a business plan and the other side demanding a commitment to raise student numbers.
What is needed now is action on both sides to create a momentum. We call on the University of Ulster to publish, unambiguously, its plan and strategy for increasing student numbers at Magee to 9400 by 2020. We want all its strategic plans, its property development plans and its business plans to include that target. We want the University to produce a full business plan, with costings, to achieve this, including the opening of the proposed Institute of Sustainable Technologies and the Institute of Health and Wellbeing.
And we want the Executive and the Department for Employment and Learning to equally unambiguously endorse the 9400 student numbers target for 2020. And, to give this the necessary impetus, we call on the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister to gift land at Ebrington to the University of Ulster to assist with the expansion.
Enabling Magee’s expansion within the footprint of Ebrington would produce several benefits. It would bind the role of the University’s expansion more firmly into the city’s regeneration. It would demonstrate that the expansion would create benefits for all the city. It would spread the economic benefits wider. It would increase political buy-in. It would address the problem that demand for land at Ebrington is worryingly low.
In short, Magee’s expansion into Ebrington, along with reaching the 9400 student target, would be a game changer – for Ebrington, for Magee and for the city.