SDLP Foyle MP Mark Durkan has said the strength of “one civic voice” over the expansion of the University of Ulster’s Magee campus in Derry was not lost on the Employment and Learning Minister Dr Stephen Farry at a specially convened meeting in Stormont yesterday.
Mr Durkan, who joined a delegation from the city to Parliament Buildings which included the Mayor of Derry Brenda Stevenson, said: “There was purposeful consensus at the special Strategy Board meeting (held in Derry yesterday) on Magee expansion convened by the Mayor following Minister Farry’s comments last week.
“When the delegation met the Minister in Belfast later the strength of one civic voice was not lost on him.
“Our aim in the meeting was not recrimination but reassurance around the treatment of the business case to be submitted for Magee expansion and bids in the remainder of the current spending cycle.
“There was a welcome difference in the Minister’s tone as he didn’t repeat phrases like “off the table”, “out of the question” or “it will sit on a shelf”. Instead, he said that he and his department will receive the business case and would give it their best consideration – and depending on its robustness would want to be in a position to be making a strategic bid for higher education expansion.
“He also said that if the Executive framed a policy priority and budget commitment for expansion at Magee that he and his department would do everything to deliver it.
“However, he reflected his observation that the overall budgetary picture seemed to be deteriorating further, when existing budgets and commitments are under increasing pressure rather than significant new investment in prospect.
“He also stressed that the extra student places granted to Magee so far in the current budget cycle were still being protected.
“He observed that the capital project for the new teaching and learning block which has planning permission could be carried as a monitoring round bid because the picture on capital spending is different from resource spend – but again he qualified that with the usual health warnings about Executive bidding rounds.
“It is important that we don’t get deflected or distracted by renewed noises about the budget fallout from welfare reform stances.
“We have to maintain and sustain a marshalled city purpose to deliver the objective of the One Plan for university expansion.
“We have to optimise the business case and maximise the partnership around it, which will include having the best possible working access with the university, the Minister and his department.”