Figures from UCAS (the University and Colleges’ Admissions Service) show a four per cent fall this year in university applications - the first such decline in five years. All parts of the UK are reflecting this drop and the figures also show a continuing decline in applications from mature students - particularly in N.I. The increasing cost of a university education is the most likely cause behind this development. Typical student fees are now £9,250 per year, whilst the interest rate on the loans to fund them has soared to 6.1 per cent. With the average graduate leaving university £58,000 in debt, it is little surprise some are thinking twice about higher education at all. And it’s not just domestic students thinking twice about studying in the UK. There has also been a five per cent post-Brexit fall in the number of applications from EU students, whilst new visa restrictions have caused applicants from non-EU countries such as India and Nigeria to plummet.
Those who do want to go to university in the UK also have an unprecedented choice of 128 universities, with new institutions continuing to open (the latest last year in Suffolk). There are, therefore, more universities chasing a shrinking pool of students, all of which makes the UK’s Higher Education sector extremely competitive.
It was doubtless with this in mind that Ulster University announced a plan recently to offer discounts to English, Welsh and Scottish students who choose to study with them. If you’re an NI or EU student at a Northern Irish university you are charged a reduced fee of £4,030 per year, courtesy of Stormont. Your counterparts from Britain, however, have to pay the full fee price of £9,250 for Queen’s and £9,000 for Ulster. In return for its subsidy, Stormont limits the number of NI and EU students Universities here can take. Hence Ulster is seeking to entice more students from Britain by offering them a £2,000 fee discount, or £1,000 off fees plus money towards accommodation and travel. With only six per cent of current students in NI originating from across the Irish Sea and universities in Britain not restricted by any cap on their student numbers, it remains to be seen how successful Ulster’s incentives will be.
New £300m Campus for Belfast
Against this backdrop of heightened competition Ulster University is building a new £300m, 15,000 student campus in Belfast. With some of the 1970s buildings at their Jordanstown base nearing the end of their life, the University considered it more economical to move the majority of staff and students from there to a brand new campus next to its existing Art College in central Belfast. Ulster University’s presence in Belfast will, therefore, soar from 1,200 students to 15,000 over the coming years.
The creation of this new Belfast campus reveals two uncomfortable truths about the long-awaited expansion of Magee. Firstly, it confirms that Derry is simply not a priority for Ulster University. There is no reason why their Jordanstown facility couldn’t have been relocated to Derry - instantly giving the city the size of university it has long demanded. And if the decision to leave Jordanstown was, indeed, made on economic grounds, Derry’s significantly lower land costs would have reduced the relocation bill to a fraction of the £300m they’re spending on Belfast. The Jordanstown move was a golden opportunity for Ulster University to prove that they are serious about creating a proper campus in Derry. Yet there is no evidence that the city was even considered as a potential location. Ulster’s failure to move even a handful of courses and staff from Jordanstown to Derry is a clear admission that they do not take the expansion of Magee seriously. Instead they have spent the last five years cutting their courses in Derry and their staff numbers by over 100.
Secondly – relocating Jordanstown to Belfast makes any major expansion of Magee unlikely for the foreseeable future. Ulster is a middle-ranking university (68th in the 2017 table), so has to work hard at the best of times to attract students. And since they announced their Jordanstown relocation plan in 2009, 20 more universities have opened in the UK. With a brand new £300m campus to fill and competition getting stiffer all the time, Ulster’s main strategic, academic and financial focus will be on making that new Belfast facility a success. It is inconceivable that they would allow Magee to be a distraction from that task. And with student numbers falling, it would be a big risk for them to add room for another 5,000 in Derry anyway.
All of which leaves Magee languishing at the bottom of Ulster University’s priority list. The good news is that we’ve been promised a new Medical School facility, but it is a proposal that falls short on three counts. Firstly - in the absence of any additional expansion proposals for Magee, it feels like a sop to distract Derry whilst the champagne corks are popped on Ulster’s new Belfast campus next year. Secondly - although a Medical School would be welcome, it won’t create the kind of incremental economic growth and employment that locating courses like engineering or software development here would help achieve. After all, there is a limit to how many graduate doctors we can employ locally. Finally – with only one year left before this Medical School is due to open, Ulster have yet to confirm either its funding or its location.
The decision to move Ulster University’s Jordanstown campus to Belfast marks the second time in 50 years that Derry has been over-looked for a significant University presence. Though unlike the 1960s, this one has happened without the city even realising it. Questions must be asked of our politicians as to why none of them challenged this decision - particularly when Ulster secured £17m from Stormont to help fund their Belfast move. And where were the internal voices to fight Derry’s corner - such as the Magee Provost, or the former Mayor of Derry who sits on the university’s top decision-making body ? Derry has been asleep at the wheel whilst Belfast got handed a £300m campus it didn’t even campaign for.
Time to Look Elsewhere
It is no longer acceptable for Ulster University to claim it is committed to doubling the Magee campus whilst acting otherwise. A Medical School is a positive start, but must not become an isolated sop. Next year is the 50th anniversary of the foundation of Ulster University in Coleraine – a decision that still rankles in Derry. Ulster must be challenged to mark that occasion by finally publishing a comprehensive plan for the expansion of Magee - complete with student numbers, timings and funding. If they are unwilling to do so, that would amount to a public acknowledgement that they are simply not committed to Derry. In which case, the local council should actively seek and incentivise an alternative university provider to establish a base here, e.g. at Fort George. That is not a fanciful proposal, as many British and international universities have off-shoots in other locations. This would hopefully shake Ulster Uni out of the complacent belief that it can treat Magee as the problem child it never wanted in the first place. And it would use the free market that now exists in UK higher education to Derry’s advantage. It’s time for Ulster University to publicly explain how and when they will grow the Magee campus and if they don’t, it’s time for this city to look elsewhere.
Steve Bradley is a native of Derry who works as a regeneration consultant in England. He can be followed on Twitter at @bradley_steve