Learning Minister Dr. Stephen Farry says it wasn’t realisitc to allocate all 500 STEM places to Derry....
These 500 STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) places follow 700 places confirmed last year. Together, this is the biggest increase for the university sector since 2000.
While we already have the highest participation rates of any UK region, we are still exporting too many of our young people. There is a good case for expanding higher education provision.
When I assumed office in May 2011, no budget allocation for the expansion of the higher education existed. Indeed, there was a real danger that the freeze of tuition fees would have been funded through cuts to university spending, resulting in fewer places.
The first tranche of additional places was negotiated as part of proper financial settlement around tuition fees. This was secured to manage the expected displacement of demand as proportionately more students would wish to study locally to avoid higher fees elsewhere.
This autumn as part of the Executive’s Jobs and Economy package, I secured 500 more places to assist in rebalancing our economy through investing in the higher level skills necessary for this region to be competitive.
I understand the strong desire across Derry and the North-West for all of the additional places to be allocated to the University of Ulster at Magee, and the local economic challenges. However concentrating all of the additional places in one location is not realistic. The new places are regional-wide investments, both in managing student displacement and the investment in skills.
In particular, while what UU Magee does, and could in the future, offer is highly relevant to our current and future economy, the range of courses would inevitably remain more narrow than the wider potential areas of high-level skills that could be demanded in the future.
Therefore, in order to meet my overarching goal to help rebalance the economy, it is necessary to invest in a broader range of STEM subjects across different institutions and to give those bodies sufficient flexibility to adjust to changing skill projections.
It is alleged that only the University of Ulster asked for additional places. This is absolutely not the case.
Furthermore, it is argued that a business case for expansion only exists in relation to Magee. In fact, there is only at this stage a Strategic Outline Case and any future decisions on an exclusive award of places would need a full business case for any allocation of places.
However, creating this could be counter-productive for Magee. While it may reinforce the case for development there, it could equally make the case for the further consolidation of higher education in other locations. A business case is not required for the general allocation of places across institutions.
Nevertheless, given the Executive’s commitment to the One Plan, I did top-slice 10% of the new 500 places, before distributing the remaining places on a pro rata basis.
At present, my actions are benefitting Magee and Derry. A rising tide is lifting all boats.
Plans that only previously existed on paper are now becoming a reality. The Magee campus will have been awarded almost 600 new places, and is now well on the path to the 1,000 target in the One Plan.
Furthermore, if it wishes, the University of Ulster has the freedom to redirect some of its existing places to the North-West.
With the support of my colleagues on the Executive and a solid evidence base, I remain committed to seeking to expand higher education provision in Northern Ireland, and I look forward to Magee expanding further.