University for Derry: time for leaders to be ambitious, brave, decisive

In this article, STEVE BRADLEY argues that Ulster University cannot now deliver what has been long-promised for the city

Tuesday, 28th January 2020, 10:33 am
Updated Tuesday, 28th January 2020, 10:34 am
HIGHER EDUCATION... Hope alone, says Steve Bradley, will not deliver a proper university for Derry.

The return of Stormont has brought with it renewed optimism regarding a medical school for Derry.

The ‘New Decade’ agreement remains silent, however, on Ulster University’s long-standing promise of major Magee expansion beyond just this few hundred medical students. With Derry now being required to pay for that medical school itself, and Ulster Uni facing financial constraints, questions must be asked as to whether desperation for a proper university here is leading to us being short-changed. And, whether UU will realistically ever be in a position to deliver on its long-standing promises.

Ulster University (UU) has been promising to deliver 10,000 full-time students in Derry for over 20 years, but recent revelations make it clear that they are no longer in any position to do so financially.

Derry has been demanding a proper university for over half a century. Had Jordanstown been relocated to Derry instead, it would have saved UU a fortune in land acquisition costs whilst also fulfilling their overdue pledge to significantly expand in our city. Yet the idea doesn’t appear to have even been contemplated by them.

Given UU’s predicament, there is simply no realistic prospect of its pledge to double student numbers in Derry being delivered for at leastanother decade - if ever at all. Getting the Belfast campus completed and opened will be UU’s all-consuming priority - after which its focus will shift to ensuring the high cost facility becomes a success. They simply have no other choice - because if their new Belfast campus fails, Ulster University itself will fail. So, the harsh reality is that UU simply cannot now deliver what it has long-promised to do for our city.

So, where does that leave Derry? For over two decades now, our entire civic infrastructure and vision has been built around Ulster’s promise to provide 10,000 full-time students here.

It has underpinned every local development plan, marketing pitch and political career this century. Rather than deliver that major expansion, however, UU has, instead, pursued a strategy of incrementalism - providing a slow drip of occasional improvements to Magee. All very welcome additions, but nothing like the major expansion that was promised. Meanwhile, over the same period, UU have devised the relocation of Jordanstown students to Belfast - in one single leap.

To add insult to injury, the medical school that UU first promised us back in 2003 is now only being delivered through Derry writing the cheque itself. Of the facility’s £60m price tag, £45m is coming from our City Deal money.

Despite all the evidence and disappointments, Derry’s civic leaders continue to view UU as the only show in town for university expansion. The last twenty years has seen so much hope, time and energy invested locally in the notion that UU will deliver a 10,000 student campus that our leaders now appear captive to that idea.

Unable or unwilling to accept that it has been a fruitless endeavour, and uninterested in exploring alternative options, they, instead, pour yet more time, energy and now funding into the fallacy in the hope it will eventually turn good.

Hope alone will not deliver a proper university for our city. The time has come to progress with a Plan B.

Significant momentum has been building recently behind the idea of a new, independent, cross-border university here - championed by the Derry University Group, with support from Labour politicians at Westminster.

Even the Taoiseach commented recently on the need for Derry and Letterkenny to work together on higher education provision.

An independent university would enable Derry to create an institution that was responsive, first and foremost, to the needs of local people and employers.

If our civic leaders are determined to continue their unwavering belief that UU is the only route to 10,000 full-time students here, they must start to do so with conditions.

The £45m of Derry’s own money for the medical school must include covenants to enable Derry to detach the facility from UU should it feel the need to do so at any future point – along with a stipulation that the money will only be handed over upon delivery of a detailed and credible plan for fulfilment of the rest of the 10,000 full-time places.

If UU dissents, let them fund the facility themselves or step aside for an alternative provider.

Alongside these, the council must also create a new Scrutiny Committee to oversee the development of higher education within Derry. It’s time that a degree of control over our own university destiny was held locally.

This month marks the start of the seventh decade in which Derry has been struggling to secure a university fit for our city.

We must ensure it is the last in which this saga remains unresolved. The facts now suggest the need for a significant change in direction, with the economic and social cost of refusing to do so increasing with every year.

Now is the time for local leaders to be ambitious, decisive and brave on this vital issue.