Academic suggests federal university institution centred in Derry, spanning Connacht to Coleraine

A senior academic has suggested a new federal university institution centred in Derry could end the ‘intolerable’ concentration of student places in Belfast.

Professor Gerry McKenna, Senior Vice-President of the Royal Irish Academy, lamented the lack of any co-ordinated strategy for university level education in the north, and called for the maximum student number (MaSN) cap to be lifted.

Prof. McKenna said the cap should have been ‘removed some time ago’ given the north is exporting the equivalent of a full university to Britain annually.

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He made the remarks during a briefing of the Council Governance & Strategic Planning Committee to which he had been invited to speak on the RIA Higher Education (HE) Futures Taskforce’s 2021 discussion paper, 'The role of regions and place in HE across the island of Ireland'.

Professor Gerry McKenna

Prof. McKenna highlighted the abnormal concentration of student places in Belfast as an extreme outlier compared to the rest of Ireland and Britain.

"The most staggering figure...that came out of our work was looking at the percentage of HE students based in capital cities across these islands.

"The figure for Northern Ireland, for Belfast, is 75 per cent and actually growing. If you look at the Republic of Ireland it is 41 per cent in Dublin, 25 per cent in Edinburgh in Scotland, 33 per cent in Cardiff in Wales, and 21 per cent in London. That is a staggering figure and I think it is something that really is intolerable as we go forward,” he told the committee.

He linked the underdevelopment of third level education in the ‘Greater North West’, which he defined as stretching from north of Galway to Coleraine with Derry as a central hub, to the poor economic performance of the north west.

Magee College

Citing research from the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) and Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) he pointed out that DC&SDC was the poorest performing area economically in the poorest performing region of the island.

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“That gap between the performance in Belfast and Derry City and Strabane actually has grown in the last 20 years. So trickling down does not actually happen to any great degree,” he told the committee.

Prof. McKenna listed Ulster University, North West Regional College, the College of Agriculture Food and Rural Enterprise’s (CAFRE), with its Equine campus in Enniskillen, Atlantic Technological University, with eight campuses including Letterkenny, Sligo, Galway, Mayo and Leitrim, and NUI Galway, with the Acadamh na hOllscolaíochta Gaeilge in Gweedore, as ‘autonomous independent institutions charting their own way’ in this region.

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But there is ‘no systematic cross-border planning oversight in support of the efficient use of campuses, promotion of regional strengths and niches in the region as a whole’, he said.

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"If you wanted to find out what the strategy for NI is you would have to take the plans for each of them and staple them together but that is not a strategic plan.

"So there is no NI HE strategy effectively. There is no oversight of HE, which is unique, I have to say across these islands.”

He acknowledged ‘substantial innovations’ at third level including the Medical School, as well as the City Deal projects: Cognitive Analytics Research Laboratory (CARL), Centre for Industry Digitalisation, Robotics & Automation (CIDRA) and the Innovation Centres of Excellence - Personalised Medicine Centre of Excellence – THRIVE.

However, he noted: "These are all things that have happened individually. It is not part of some overall co-ordinated or planned strategy.”

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He observed that both Dublin and Belfast enjoy the presence of parliaments, government departments, banks, financial capital, and the lobbying power that accompanies them, whereas ‘the north west is peripheral in both jurisdictions’.

Prof. McKenna said the Irish Government, the NI Executive, UK Government and European Union need to collaborate to allow the north west realise its potential economically, intellectually and culturally.

"We see a potential north west economic corridor where higher education plays a massively important role, stretching from Galway to Coleraine with Derry/Londonderry as a central hub based on the needs of the region, developed by the region.

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"You need cross-border regional planning and oversight irrespective of jurisdictional constraints. That requires sustained planning, it requires commitment, it requires investment, it requires infrastructure...and most importantly the support and involvement and the development of higher education so it needs to be focused on the region to allow it to develop its natural strengths, its niches as part of an intellectual, economic and cultural corridor separate and distinct from Belfast and from Dublin,” he argued.

The committee was told how there is ‘enormous potential to exploit the academic and research synergies’ across 15-plus third level campuses in the region.

"That requires the efficient use of infrastructure. It doesn’t need more campuses. It doesn’t necessarily need more buildings but it needs oversight,” said Prof. McKenna, who suggested that over a longer-period of time a new cross-border federal third level institution headquartered in Derry might emerge along the lines of existing institutions like the Loughs Agency, Tourism Ireland and Foras na Gaeilge.

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"In the longer-term it would seem logical that a tertiary federation would develop, a federal institution would be an obvious thing which would span the border,” he said.

In he wake of ‘The role of regions’ the Shared Island Unit and Irish Research Council has commissioned a new study on HE strategies and policies in the of north west of Ireland, Scotland, Wales and the north of England.

New Foundations 2022 will be developed by the RIA with the Hume Foundation, the committee heard.

Prof. McKenna identified the MaSN cap on student places as a major impediment to the development of university provision.

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"No region can afford to lose its talent through outward migration of HE...and that is a running sore in the case of NI where about the equivalent of another university actually studies in GB every year and the cap on student numbers is a sore that should have been removed some time ago.”