Fifteen hundred years ago, Derry was a world leader in education. Our city’s founder, Colmcille, was, perhaps, the most influential teacher of his age. His monasteries, books and philosophy set standards for academic learning across Europe.
Since then, the city has generated and supported some of the greatest intellects of humankind: from George Farquhar to George Berkeley; John Hume to Seamus Heaney; and from the writers Kathleen Coyle and Jennifer Johnston to the new Vice Chancellor awt Queen’s University, Belfast, Patrick Johnston.
It is not overstating it to say that this city boasts a heritage second to none and prides itself on being the cultural capital of these islands.
However, new statistics published by Creggan Enterprises (see table on right) paint a stark and desperate picture of the current state of third-level education in Derry.
In terms of Irish cities or towns, which have third-level institutions, Derry has the lowest percentage of third-level students by far – indeed, we have less than half the provision of the next “worst” town on the list.
In percentage terms, we currently have an eighth of Galway’s third-level student places, a seventh of Limerick’s, and a quarter of Cork’s.
Previous U4D studies have shown that the percentage of NI students getting degrees is much lower than in the RoI (31% compared to 45%). So, in real terms, would-be Derry students are at an even greater disadvantage again, given we have just 4,182 third-level places to Belfast’s 42,000-plus.
Significantly, Derry’s third-level student figure, which stands at 4,182, is – as it has always been - lower than Coleraine’s, at 5,236, a town a quarter of our size.
I believe that, if there is to be any chance of improving this situation, it is time to break the stranglehold that the University of Ulster exerts on third-level numbers and courses in this city. This will entail establishing a new independent facility and/or partnering with an existing international third-level institution.
This is not about rehearsing old arguments. Derry’s problems with the University of Ulster are not simply historic ones.
Only twelve years ago, UU guaranteed Derry a new post-graduate medical/science campus. Yet today, all of the university’s new medical, dentistry, veterinary, pharmaceutical and dietetics courses have been located in Coleraine.
Over the past five years, plans to increase numbers at Magee to 10,000 (the bare minimum needed to bring us off the bottom of the table) have been repeatedly stifled, both within UU and without, by process, politics and corporate unwillingness. The university and Stormont have chosen instead to invest in Belfast, to the tune of a quarter of a billion pounds, and Coleraine.
And, yes, there are promises of better days for Magee - indeed, there have been fifty years of promises. But the figures do not lie – investment has not happened here as it has happened elsewhere.
We can no longer wait on the University of Ulster, or Stormont, to deliver for us.
After 50 years, it is time to do it for ourselves. But, I believe that this is possible in a city that has a long and proud tradition of self-help.
Community-led initiatives, like the Credit Union, the Nerve Centre, Ráth Mór, the Foyle Hospice and many more, are now regarded as models of excellence across these islands.
Isn’t it time to consider establishing a city-led university with the appropriate partner or partners? A university that might engage with its hinterland and community in the way UU never did?
I believe the city has the potential to take the university issue into its own hands, given its diverse cultural experiences.
For example, there is real scope to establish an international institute of peace and reconciliation here (thereby resolving the issue over the failed Maze initiative). Equally, why wouldn’t the self-help sector in the city lend its weight to a new Social Economy Institute for the island? Our digital sector, likewise, has never been stronger, given the recent development of the neighbourhood hubs.
And, given our centuries-old links with the US east coast, isn’t there the potential for us to partner with colleges there to develop and deliver new Irish Studies programmes? These – and many other initiatives - could serve as standalone institutions within the city or exist as part of a greater whole.
I accept entirely that not everyone wants to avail of third-level education – I didn’t go to university myself. But that does not mean the issue shouldn’t concern everybody in this city. Ultimately, the university is an economic driver and will pay dividends for all of us – from those involved in the hospitality industry to business owners to property developers.
Research conducted by the University of Limerick in 2012 suggests that the average spend of a visiting student, in the mid-west of Ireland, ranges between 7,000 and 12,000 euro per annum, excluding tuition fees. So a university here, with 10,000 students, could realistically be worth more than £100m sterling a year to the city – and that’s before we start considering staff spending, research income and student fees. Then, just imagine if we started to achieve the same level of third-level provision here as there is in Galway or Limerick.
There is clearly a direct link between Derry’s chronic unemployment problem – as outlined in last week’s Journal – and our failure to provide adequate places at third level.
To resolve this, we need to reimagine how we can develop a university that will service our needs and educate our young people. And our thinking can no longer start and end with Magee. We need to move on this issue – and we need to move quickly. There is no more important issue for the long-term success and prosperity of the city.
There is only one question to ask your local representatives when they land on your doorstep during the coming election, and it is this: what are your plans for university provision in this city?
Conal McFeely, Development Executive of Creggan Enterprises, is a founder member of lobby group, U4D. He’s a director of the Acorn Legacy Fund and the Community Foundation for Northern Ireland, and interim chairperson of Hive Studios.