Paul McFadden - Ground war begins at Magee

The Magee campus of the University of Ulster. (050711SML78 Magee)

The Magee campus of the University of Ulster. (050711SML78 Magee)

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The Chinese military strategist, Sun Tzu, suggested that there were five fundamental factors which ought to be considered before committing to war: politics; the weather; terrain; the commander; and doctrine. His advice was laid down for subsequent generations to read in the classic manual, The Art of War.

It must have been sound advice. Among Sun Tzu’s admirers were the hero of El Alamein, Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery, and the Communist leader, Mao Zedong. Their enthusiasm is all the more remarkable when one considers that the book was written around two and a half thousand years ago, while Confucius was alive and before Alexander the Great was even born. Astonishingly, considering its great age, the work is still a staple of military studies the world over.The Art of War comprised thirteen chapters, two of which relate to geography. The first of these deals with ‘Terrain’ and the second examines ‘The Nine Varieties of Ground’. Clearly, Sun Tzu recognized the importance of choosing the ground you fought on carefully.

The Vice-Chancellor of the University of Ulster picked an unusual battlefield, this week, on which to fire a timely salvo in the ongoing campaign for expansion of student numbers at Magee. Professor Richard Barnett selected the Millennium Forum, and his institution’s summer graduation ceremonies, to ‘let loose a round’ in the general direction of Stormont.

These celebratory occasions are usually cheerful, occasionally dull, but rarely controversial. In choosing this ground – and this moment - the don had the advantage not only of terrain but of surprise. Civil servants in the Department of Employment and Learning must have been startled out of their summer torpor on hearing shouts of ‘Incoming!’

Wily character that he is, Professor Barnet packed his shell with the shrapnel of commonsense. The demand for places at Magee is already high and the cap on student numbers there should be lifted. As things stand, the North of Ireland already has the smallest higher education sector in the UK and demand for places will grow dramatically once cross-channel tuition fee increases kick in. Magee looks particularly well placed to accommodate any future expansion. The Vice-Chancellor goes even further: devolution gives our politicians the power to peg fees here at their current level (allowing for inflation) and to offer higher education based on ability rather than affordability.

From our point of view in the North West, the Barnett case is an obvious one, dare I say “a no-brainer”. A significant increase in Magee’s population – allied, of course, to the right mix of courses – could have an energizing effect on our depressed local economy (one only has to look at the benefits which have accrued for Limerick as a result of business spin-offs from its relatively young university).

As the sympathetic – but hard-pressed – Minister of Employment and Learning, Dr Stephen Farry, wrestles with budgetary pressures, he will have to rely upon the generosity and even more the perspicacity of Executive colleagues. Hopefully they will realise that the kind of growth envisaged by Professor Barnett is good not just for Derry but for the whole of Northern Ireland.

Some of these ministers will be required to surrender sizeable chunks of their own budgets to pay for any expansion at Magee. Before the last Assembly election, some politicians indicated that this would be a price worth paying. I would go further; we can’t afford not to pay it. Penny wise, pound foolish.

I will leave you with one sage piece of advice bequeathed to us by Sun Tzu, all those years ago: ‘Know the enemy and know yourself; in a hundred battles you will never be defeated’. By September, at the latest, those fighting for expansion at Magee should at least find out who their friends are. I look forward to that.