Eamonn McCann - Who is fighting for Magee?

The Magee campus of the University of Ulster
The Magee campus of the University of Ulster

When it comes to expansion of student numbers, you get what you haven’t asked for. If you are Belfast-based, that is.

After persistent pressure over a lengthy period, the Department of Education and Learning increased the maximum student numbers (masm) across the North by 600. Given the amount of ground it had to make up, it was expected around Magee that the long-neglected Derry campus would be allocated the lion’s share of the new places. But not, it seems, no.

Optimism has been ebbing away as it becomes clear that, of 600 new places, 250 will come to the University of Ulster – the same number as to Queens. The other 100 are earmarked for courses in Further Education. And there is no guarantee that the 250 UU places will come, as fairness and common sense would dictate, to Magee.

The main focus of planning across the four UU campuses in recent years has been on the transfer of functions from Jordanstown into Belfast. Recent and not so recent history gives ground for fearing that Coleraine will do better than Derry in the divvy-up of the remainder - even though application statistics leave no doubt that Derry is a more attractive location for students than Coleraine.

This is not said in any spirit of whingeing.

It is to suggest that Derry representatives should be pushing Minister Stephen Farry more strongly and publicly for proper treatment at last for Magee. Perhaps there’s a hubbub of lobbying behind the scenes. If so, it is hard to understand why it’s happening out of earshot of the Derry public.

It seems assumed in some quarters that the future of university education is not a major issue for the majority of citizens. I am not sure. The betrayal of Magee when it came to the location of the main campus of the new University of Ulster almost 50 years ago isn’t ancient history.

The part the decision played in generating anger which seethed beneath the surface until it exploded at the end of the decade can be cited by thousands who hadn’t been born at the time.

If local politicians need to step up to the mark, so does the leadership at Magee itself. They need to butt heads with UU bosses - and with Minister Farry. Has there even been a delegation to the Minister’s office to let him know that to put resource-starved Magee on a par with (relatively) resource-rich Queen’s makes no sense in academic terms and even less in relation to the development of UU as a regional university.

What fight has been put up within UU? Personal ambition should not stand in the way of fair play for Derry and Magee.

And consider this: that Queen’s didn’t apply for the new places. Didn’t have to. Being in Belfast. Which is to say, not in Derry.

And another thing. Any campaign for justice for Magee should be supported by a push on the issue of student fees.

Overall, the number of applications is decreasing, as young people look at the burden of debt they would have to shoulder after graduation and decide to pass on third level.

The long-term implication of this are depressing.