Derry & Strabane Councillors warn university student numbers cap needs lifted as NUI talks rejected

A proposal that Derry & Strabane Council immediately initiate talks with the National University of Ireland towards securing 10,000 student places has been rejected as local Councillors warned the main hurdle was the current cap on student numbers in the north.

Wednesday, 3rd November 2021, 11:56 am
Ulster University’s Magee campus will welcome an additional 850 students relocating of the School of Health Sciences undergraduate programmes to the city from September 2022.

The proposal was tabled by Independent Councillor Paul Gallagher at the October full Council meeting on Thursday evening.

Colr. Gallagher referenced a recent meeting during which, he said, Ulster University Vice Chancellor Paul Bartholomew said the current aim was to expand student numbers to around 6,000, but Colr Gallagher said that this number was four thousand less than the commitment given by the NI Executive under the New Decade, New Approach programme for government.

The 10,000 target was among several specific commitments for Derry and the north west contained within NDNA, the blueprint for the future which was agreed and signed up to, to pave the way for the restoration of Stormont and the NI Executive in 2020.

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Proposer: Independent Councillor Paul Gallagher.

Professor Bartholomew was repeating what he said back in February this year when he told councillors that under current funding models and without a change of the current structures it will not be possible to deliver the long-promised 10,000 students at Magee as set out in the NDNA document.

Colr Gallagher said it was clear from what was said that the 10,000 target would not be met, and proposed that dialogue with National University of Ireland - the largest higher education body in the south - was taken forward immediately to secure 10,000 students by 2030.

“We need a change of mindset we need to take a proactive approach and this council needs to take a proactive approach in guaranteeing 10,000 students,” he said.

Colr. Gallagher’s proposal was seconded by Independent Councillor Gary Donnelly.

Mayor Graham Warke said Prof. Bartholomew had indicated he was happy to have a meeting with the Council.

Independent Colr. Emmet Doyle supported the proposal but said there were complexities. A former student and employee at Magee, Colr. Doyle said that he was aware of the intricacies. He added that the Department for the Economy - as the body which sets the Maximum Student Numbers (MaSN) cap - the limit on the number of full-time university places that can be created - had a major part to play on the future expansion of Magee but had failed to come before or set before the Council thus far to explain how it intended to progress towards the NDNA target. He also said he didn’t think legislation in the south would allow for what would be asked of NUI.

Colr. Doyle said he welcomed the fact Paul Bartholomew has been very honest about the situation. He added that pledges have to be kept not just those by the University but those signed up to by the Department of the Economy and urged his Council colleagues to make representation.

Sinn Fein Colr. Conor Heaney said his party too wanted to see 10,000 students and that it was achievable at Magee.

Colr. Heaney said it had been clearly articulated that a different operating environment would be needed to go beyond 6,000. “I believe we need to create that different operating environment,” he said, adding that he was confident that if Sinn Fein emerge as the largest party in the Executive at next year’s Assembly election and had first pick of the departments they would chose the Economy portfolio. He also said that at any point over the coming years a general election in the south would be held and that his party was well placed in the polls to lead the next Irish government.

“To abandon Magee university project and all that has been achieved to date and to head off on a pipe dream with an organisation which, as Colr Doyle pointed out, not only can’t deliver but is unable to legally deliver, is a distraction.

“We would never have secured the Medical School if we had just given up at the first hurdle. Allied Sciences is coming next year and the expansion of the campus onto the riverfront next year to service the new City Deal projects will give a massive reputational boost to Magee.

“We obviously need MaSN cap places to expand Magee lifted.”

SDLP Councillor Brian Tierney said Prof. Bartholomew was saying that there are a number of hurdles to overcome but that tht if a number of measures happened there could be 7,000 students at Magee.

The NDNA tasks the NI Executive to bring forward proposals, Colr. Tierney said, not the university. He said that the Council should be seeking a special meeting with the Economy Minister on those proposals.

“Regardless of who is providing university provision in the north west the MaSN cap needs lifted. So whether it is UU, and independent university or NUI the MasN cap needs lifted, the problem is still the same. That’s what people need to understand. It doesn’t matter who comes with university provision they are going to meet the same problems UU are facing.”

Colr. Tierney said that what needed to happen was engagement with the Economy and departments and university to examine “when we get to 7,000 to see how we get to 10,000, then 12,000 and then 15,000 students. Throwing the baby out with the bath water now I don’t think is the right answer.

“We have to make sure we do all we can to get the Economy Minister to come to this council and explain how he intends to expand university provision for everyone across this city and district.”

People Before Profit Councillor Shaun Harkin supported the motion and said he was alarmed after watching the meeting that the target of 10,000 could not be met.

“My fear is we will be here in 10 years time again talking about why we don’t have a vibrant, rejuvenated university along with new infrastructure this city needs and deserves,” he said.

Colr. Harkin said his party had lobbied that the Executive needed to set up a working group to progress delivery on NDNA commitments but that this has been rejected. He warned that failing to deliver was tantamount to parties having “basically ripped up the NDNA”.

DUP Alderman Hilary McClintock said this was a multi-faceted problem and said the Council’s recently set up new NDNA committee to look at implementation could help progress this. She also welcomed the straight talking assessment from Prof. Bartholomew.

The proposal fell with 8 voting for, 24 against, two abstentions.

Speaking back in February after Ulster University confirmed the relocation of the School of Health Sciences undergraduate programmes to the Magee campus from September 2022, Professor Bartholomew explained that the upper limit for students at the campus is 6,000.

As of the 2020-21 academic year, there are 4,498 students, with an additional 70 medical students and 40 Paramedic Practice students having now started their new courses. Next year, 850 Health Sciences students will be coming to the Magee campus for the 2022/23 academic year.

The Vice-Chancellor said at the time that growth to 6,000 students at Magee is ‘broadly achievable’ by 2022/23 but going beyond that will require a ‘different operating environment’ as it has different ‘governmental and political parameters to it’.

He said it was his aim to be ‘fully transparent’ and explained to Members that the maximum student number (MaSN) cap limits the number of young people who can study at NI universities and therefore the cap would need to be lifted to allow for further expansion.

“Lifting the cap would require either more block grant to fund more students or for the student contribution to be higher,” he said.

“Without a change to the system, Northern Ireland won’t be able to afford more students in Northern Irish universities and the percentage of Northern Ireland students going to Northern Ireland institutions will decrease.

“Inevitably those students who still want to get a degree will progressively go south of the border or over the water and given that two thirds of those who go across the water don’t return, Northern Ireland’s access to graduates will diminish as a share of potential graduates.”