Straight talk needed on Magee expansion plans

The argy-bargy about expansion of Magee involving Sinn Fein, Education and Learning Minister Stephen Farry and college Provost Deirdre Heenan has been a source of confusion rather than clarity.

Prof. Heenan hit the target last week in pointing out that SF is the second-largest party in the Executive: if lack of funding for Higher Education is the problem, the remedy is in its own hands.

But if SF’s record on the issue is nothing to write home about, the Magee administration doesn’t emerge aglow with credit either.

And Farry hasn’t helped with statements wide open to interpretation.

The target of 9,400 students at Magee by 2020 was set down in the One Plan in 2010. The plan was incorporated into the Executive’s Programme for Government. In theory, then, all Executive parties are committed to the objective - and Farry is the relevant Minister.

For him to weigh into the argument now on the side of a university management which appears lethargic at best in pursuing the target suggests that he is more interested in wrong-footing SF than in delivering on the Executive’s pledge.

Farry said last Wednesday that he didn’t need a business plan before giving the go-ahead for a significant increase in Magee student numbers. The implication was that SF had gotten hold of the wrong end of the stick in complaining about the absence of a business plan.

Let’s go back to November 2012. A thousand new student places were coming on-stream. Farry had allocated 500 each to Queen’s and the University of Ulster, the UU places to go to Magee. But why, if the Executive was committed to reaching the One Plan target, weren’t all 1,000 places coming to Magee? Farry explained in the Assembly: “There is only at this stage a Strategic Outline Case and any future decisions on an exclusive award of places would need a full business case.”

So Farry and Heenan are not on solid ground now when they slap SF down for suggesting that the absence of a “robust business case” is an impediment to delivery of the promised increase in student numbers.

Straighter talk on these matters from university spokespersons would not go amiss. Perhaps Prof. Heenan will tell us what efforts were made by her Magee administration to bring to Derry any of the six UU faculties currently being transferred from Jordanstown to Belfast - art design or social science, for example?

Was the matter even raised?