Sinn Fein councillor, Mickey Cooper, explains why he thinks the University of Ulster Magee campus must act quickly if they are to fulfill their planned expansion on Foyle College lands..
As most Journal readers will be aware my party colleague, Education Minister John O’Dowd, recently announced that Foyle College would receive funding to develop a new-build site in the Waterside. This funding will release the land at the current location for the proposed long-term development of the Magee University campus.
From Sinn Fein’s perspective, it is now absolutely vital that the Magee management re-visit its development plans which were launched with much fanfare several years ago. At that time the University of Ulster (UU) authorities stated that the plan’s success was contingent on being able to secure the lands at Foyle. Subsequently, the UU and Foyle College signed a deal which gave Magee preferred bidder status for the Foyle sites. The UU claimed that the only obstacle to proceeding with expansion was the delay, due to budgetary pressures, in the Department of Education making funding available to Foyle College to complete its move to the Waterside.
Thankfully this obstacle has now been removed and we look forward to hearing the UU’s proposals on how the expansion plans can now move forward. From Sinn Fein’s perspective we would expect the University to address a number of issues as part of its expansion plans.
Firstly, we would expect them to seriously look at the variety and relevance of the courses that they will offer at the expanded site. We are aware that Magee is currently developing STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) subjects as well as a new School of Irish Literature. Although we are of the view that Magee needs to offer appropriate and high-level STEM subjects to accommodate the new technology companies which we hope to attract, we remain concerned at the limited way in which these courses are being developed and promoted. We believe that a much more focussed approach needs to be applied to selection of the STEM courses offered, given the emphasis which Council, ILEX and other agencies are placing on the development of the digital economy and Research & Development sectors in Derry.
We also note the recent decision by Magee to transfer the popular Irish History and Politics course from Magee to Coleraine. It is particularly strange that they have dropped a heritage-related course in the run-up to Derry becoming the City of Culture in 2013, which should naturally provide Magee with a massive platform to promote history-related courses. This seems to be a clear example of Magee not promoting itself appropriately and to full effect. Sinn Féin submitted a very detailed questionnaire to the UU authorities recently requesting answers to a wide range of questions, including how Magee has been promoted both in Ireland and internationally over the last five years. To date we still have not received a response to many of these questions. The lack of response until now from our perspective is worrying, especially given the university’s obligation to work with political representatives in the city to assist in the development of the ‘One Plan’, which places a key focus on the development of third-level education as a key economic driver for the city and district.
We have also been approached by a number of people who have expressed concerns about the future of some courses and projects currently on offer at Magee and by employees of the Business Development Unit, who have been informed of plans to transfer the majority of their posts to the Jordanstown campus, despite it being earmarked for closure once the new £250m Belfast campus is completed. Although we have no issue with the UU offering a 21st century facility to its Belfast-based students, this should not be done at the expense of inhibiting the expansion of Magee campus.
The transfer of the Business Development Unit positions is just one element of wider cost-cutting proposals being put forward by the University of Ulster management. My party colleague Maeve McLaughlin recently asked a question in the assembly raising the point that many of these redundancies could be avoided if the Magee management instead considered taking a cut to their extremely generous salaries. Additionally, we have concerns about the apparent eagerness of the University of Ulster to privatise some of its in-house services over the next few years, which will have a further effect on jobs.
Clearly other issues such as the MasN cap (the regulations which dictate how many students Magee can enrol each year) need to be examined and Sinn Fein will not be found wanting in pushing the case for Magee to get priority when it comes to the allocation of new student places. Nevertheless, it is imperative that the issues which I have raised above need to be addressed as a matter of urgency by the university management if we are to ensure that Magee is in the best possible position to move forward with its expansion plans once Foyle moves to the Waterside.