​​Derry and the NW - Will university expansion finally be delivered?

Magee campus of Ulster UniversityMagee campus of Ulster University
Magee campus of Ulster University
​​​One way or another, officially and unofficially, work continues in the bid to deliver the higher level education provision that Derry has long campaigned for and which it deserves.

​The hot topic came to prominence again recently, first with the establishment of a taskforce by the Economy Minister Conor Murphy, and then again last week with a discussion paper being published by the Royal Irish Academy.

Expansion of the campus to 10,000 students was a commitment in the New Decade New Approach deal that led to the restoration of Stormont. The taskforce is expected to deliver an action plan to achieve that within nine months of appointment and it will initially be in place for a three-year term.

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The latest observations made by the RIA do not differ that much from official work that has gone on behind the scenes; that isn’t a coincidence, it has made previous contributions to the argument for this region to get what it deserves.

Pictured at the launch of the Ulster University Magee Taskforce are (l-r) Taskforce Vice Chair  Nicola Skelly; Taskforce Chair Stephen Kelly; Economy Minister Conor Murphy; and Vice-Chancellor of Ulster University Prof Paul Bartholomew.Photo Lorcan DohertyPictured at the launch of the Ulster University Magee Taskforce are (l-r) Taskforce Vice Chair  Nicola Skelly; Taskforce Chair Stephen Kelly; Economy Minister Conor Murphy; and Vice-Chancellor of Ulster University Prof Paul Bartholomew.Photo Lorcan Doherty
Pictured at the launch of the Ulster University Magee Taskforce are (l-r) Taskforce Vice Chair Nicola Skelly; Taskforce Chair Stephen Kelly; Economy Minister Conor Murphy; and Vice-Chancellor of Ulster University Prof Paul Bartholomew.Photo Lorcan Doherty

What stands out most is that both official and RIA documents place strong emphasis on the need for cross-border collaboration and governance so it would appear there is agreement on that course of action.

The RIA notes: "A federal cross-border tertiary education institution would be made up of existing constituent institutions but with an overall governance structure involving coordinated oversight of planning across the region, promoting collaboration and eliminating wasteful and unnecessary duplication.

"In such a scenario, each jurisdiction would continue to be responsible for the funding of its colleges and campuses,” the paper concludes.

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Funded by the Government of Ireland-Irish Research Council New Foundations scheme and the Shared Island Unit this builds upon previous work by the RIA’s Higher Education Futures Taskforce.

Just before Christmas, the North West Tertiary Education Cluster’s Memorandum of Understanding was launched, showcasing the important vision of further and higher level education provision in the North West. This unique and innovative partnership between Atlantic Technological University (ATU), Ulster University (UU), the NWRC and Donegal ETB assists with the growth of third level education places across the region. It emanates from the strong cross border working relationship over the years and the work done to develop each institution’s capacities to achieve their respective missions through enhanced cooperation.

Strong foundations have been laid on which the new taskforce can build.

Of course, there have been many false dawns, leading to cynicism and a reluctance to believe that the next dawn will be anything but disappointing too.

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But a major difference this time is that there is a time-scale – set both by the Minister for the Economy and the fixed term of the Northern Ireland Assembly - and apparently broad agreement on what is needed.

The new taskforce will have a mountain of documentation to sift through, but there are common themes, most notably that success must involve a cross-border dimension.

In 2021, Derry City and Strabane District Council and Donegal County Council produced a plan that noted: "Historic under-investment, since partition, across various enabling infrastructure, in comparison to similar areas on the island, is evident and has severely curtailed the development of the North West region.

"Our specific history and location offers substantial opportunities for supports under Shared Island initiatives, Brexit adjustment reserve fund, Peace +, Interreg, in addition to normal funding sources. Facilitated engagement with the relevant Government Departments is essential to progressing these proposals.”

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That ‘North West Strategic Growth Partnership’ report specifically mentioned “education associated investments for ATU/UU in personalised health care, FinTech learning lab and Ocean innovation centre”.

Notes released recently to the ‘Journal’ by Stormont under the Freedom of Information Act – created ahead of a meeting of a ‘senior officials group on North/ South Infrastructure and Investment Project’ on November 23, 2023 - make interesting reading.

One of the items was headlined ‘Investment in Higher Education Provision in the NW region’, with the lead departments being Dept of Further and Higher Education, Research Innovation and Science, and Department for the Economy. Other project stakeholders were named as Atlantic Technological University and Ulster University.

The document noted: “The Irish Government has signalled its willingness in principle to contribute to capital investment to support expanded provision at Ulster University Magee Campus, alongside the commitment made as part of the NDNA agreement by the UK Government. The Irish Government has also indicated that it would be in favour of supporting the involvement of the UU Coleraine Campus as part of any strategically meaningful North-West proposal.”

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Unionists have insisted that Coleraine must not be impacted by anything done to expand Ulster University in Derry, so the Irish government’s indication that it would support the involvement of Coleraine in a new arrangement might be especially significant.

Under the heading, ‘Progress on delivery to date’, the November 2023 document adds: “Department of the Economy and Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science convened a number of meetings (the most recent being late January 2022) involving University of Ulster (including Derry Campus) and Atlantic TU (Donegal) to discuss areas of existing co-operation and potential for future collaboration, skills provision, and research and innovation.

“Work has been ongoing since these meetings. There has been a particular focus on the key drivers of human capital and innovation in driving strong economic development in the region. The potential for future funding streams, including PEACE PLUS was noted in developing coherent skills provision across higher education and further education and training providers in the region.

“The two departments endorsed the strong collaborative approach in the wider region, with the emergence of Atlantic Technological University. Officials from DFHERIS and D Economy have continued to work closely with ATU and UU senior management to develop a substantial proposal to address the commitments of NDNA.”

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Under ‘Obstacles to be overcome, the document noted: “These include: Development of proposals which align with skills and research needs in the wider north west (i.e. across both jurisdictions) and which are consistent with other policy imperatives including financial sustainability, capacity, higher education policy and appropriate cross-border collaboration and service delivery; Costed proposals which meet the necessary criteria from a capital investment perspective; Appropriate governance structures for managing the project, including how funding from the Irish Government would be managed. Availability of funding from NI and other jurisdictions which may include a combination of Capital and baselined Resource funding Buy-in from key stakeholders.”

It added under the heading ‘Decisions required’:

“To be agreed, but these include:

• Overall assessment of needs in the north-west across both jurisdictions and alignment of any project in Magee with these needs;• Nature of the capital project, including how it would contribute to the identified skills, human capital and research needs;• Commissioning of the capital appraisal projects process, North and South;• Alignment with NI policy requirements in respect of such developments;• Appropriate governance and monitoring structures.”

The paper prepared for the November meeting continued: "This project requires a substantial capital investment and both Departments will be engaging in the prioritisation of projects within the proposed programme. DfE and DFHERIS are working together with the view to complete a paper around governance structures. Due to a number of factors, it has not yet been possible to develop this paper. The two Departments have recently discussed how to move this forward.“Furthermore, while acknowledging the potential positive impact of the Transition Gateways, more detail is being sought on this dimension of the proposal from the proposed delivery partners. Furthermore, it is considered that the research element should be more focussed, and detailed engagement is currently taking place between all stakeholders, with a view to bringing forward a more focussed proposal. These discussions will provide a clear path to identifying how this commitment can be delivered.”

What are Transmission Gateways?

A Shared Island Proposal document was developed by Ulster University and Atlantic Technologies University in April 2022, but which will also involve other third-tier education providers including North West Regional College.

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​Its aim was to respond to the Shared Island Unit’s commitment to “invest in developing the third-level infrastructure of the North West City Region and builds on existing areas of strength. In line with the remit of the Shared Island Unit, the proposal encapsulates a shared and collaborative approach to infrastructure investment and research programme funding”.

The document says the proposal involves two elements “that together have the potential to aid the transformation of the North West to a learning region and a knowledge economy”.

The first element is Transition Gateways, “which will focus on developing all elements of an Innovation and Skills Escalator to address generational educational under achievement and also help potential learners navigate the two education systems that operate back-to-back in this the most connected Cross-Border region on this island of Ireland".

The document explains: "Progress on this element will be achieved by leveraging the strong relationships formed by the partners in the Cross-Border Tertiary Education Cluster. The Innovation and Skills Escalator not only builds on existing and developing strengths at UU/ATU but also complements pathways from specialist vocational pathways offered by Donegal ETB and centres of excellence in innovation at NWRC which include Foodovation, Design Innovation and Assisted Living (DIAL), Product Design Centre and XR Centre. In adopting an interdisciplinary approach across the Tertiary Cluster we can catalyse new research collaborations and joint learning opportunities in key innovation and skills areas.”The second element addresses “Linked Research Centres under four thematic pillars that will provide a structure that tackles global challenges and embraces new opportunities through building on existing areas of strength and collaboration between Ulster University and Letterkenny Institute of Technology”.

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These pillars are Health Innovation; Data Futures; Advanced Engineering and Renewaable Energy; Creativity Industries.

The Cross-Border Tertiary Education Cluster comprises Ulster University (UU), Letterkenny Institute of Technology (LYIT), North West Regional College (NWRC), and Donegal Education and Training Board (ETB).

Joint professorships?

​An email to the Department for the Economy, sent in May 2023, proposed that joint professorships would be needed to maximise the potential of cross border teaching.

​The sender’s name was redacted when released under the Freedom of Information Act. The email was sent to Mark Lee; documents show that he was involved in high level cross border meetings as one of a number of key people from the Department for the Economy.

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It too stresses the need for cross border collaboration on delivery of third level education.

It says: “On the PhDs...I don’t think it’s a runner. We do have joint PhDs but through funded research projects. I don’t see that changing. We have been pushing the joint professor to drive cross border collaboration with ATU, but that’s gotten stuck with DfHERIS...Indeed if this is to work and we are to prime cross border teaching, innovation and research, we will need joint professorships.”