“Lockwood and unlocking Magee’s potential”

Mark Durkan.
Mark Durkan.

50 years on from the Lockwood Report and the decision to locate the University of Ulster campus at Coleraine as opposed to Magee College is still a source of ire for many people. As the debate continues about the expansion of the Magee site, today Foyle SDLP MP Mark Durkan voices his opinion on the topic.

“Lockwood and unlocking Magee’s potential”

The potential of Derry and this region continues to be thwarted by the fact that we export too many of our intelligent and innovative young people. During recent debates over corporation tax many people raised the issue of the North’s competitive position compared with the South. Yet, we need to remember that the factors in the South’s drive for inward investment - and growth of indigenous companies - go beyond just the corporation tax regime. They include sustained investment in further and higher education. Infrastructure is another key plank in the platform for growth.

Some are refering to reducing corporation tax as “the game-changer”; but most people and businesses in Derry are clear about the fact that the single biggest game-changer for us would be a strategic expansion in higher education. That is not just needed to enhance the university status of Derry; it is needed in the North, which is, in effect, exporting a university campus every year. The North will continue to lose out if it decides that corporation tax is the only thing on which it needs to compete. Importantly, we are not presently competing as we should (with the South or Britain) on further and higher education.

“That is why we need to see significant advances in tertiary education including the North West Regional College. It is also clear that for Derry to thrive it is essential that Magee grows substantially and pushes the local economy forward to create many more jobs. The biggest single thing we can do for our local economy – to create drive and traction – is to expand the university. Not just in terms of student numbers and the economic multipliers that flow from them. But also the range and future relevance of courses, research capacity and other resources to support regional economic development and grow sustainable employment.

“That is why I have consistently thrown my support behind ambitious plans to substantially increase the size of the Magee campus, with a big increase in student numbers and many new courses in subjects that are relevant to the new economy industries – including the so-called STEM subjects of science, technology, engineering and maths.

“It is also why I support this week’s burgeoning social media campaign in pursuit of this important goal for the city and region.

“Just as 50 years ago when John Hume and others led a ‘motor cavalcade’ of 2,000 vehicles to protest at Stormont over the publication of the Lockwood report (which rejected Derry as a site for the North’s second university) it is great to see a strong ‘online cavalcade’ demanding the immediate expansion of Magee.

“It is important to sustain the commitment in the City’s One Plan around the compelling priority for Magee expansion. That spirit of purposeful partnership needs to also extend to Stephen Farry and his department, and also to marshalling the policy and budgetary priority needed from the Executive.

“We need to see the higher education budget uplifted because we need not just an expansion of Magee within the existing student numbers in the region but in the context of a strategic expansion of higher education in the North. Our FE colleges need to be, and be seen as, part of that too.

“Expansion of Magee is the best way of delivering and sharing the benefits of higher education growth in the North so that we don’t continue to export a university every year.

“Competing as a region cannot simply be based on the headline rate for corporation tax but must build skills and capacity through further and higher education as we have seen in the South and as we are seeing in ‘city regions’ in Britain.

“Stephen Farry told us last August that if the Executive had a strategic policy commitment to expanding higher education at Magee and framed this in its budget then he and his department would do all that they could to deliver it.

“We all have to do everything to hold the Minister to his word about that willingness, to hold the University of Ulster to the commitments it has voiced and to encourage and assist the Executive and Assembly in developing the policy and delivering the budget support it needs.

“Expansion of Magee must be treated with purpose and urgency by the Minister and his department, and we also need stronger form and a better outcome from the Executive when it comes to policy priorities and funding extra student places.

In that context we should explore and develop options and opportunities for recruiting European funds, deploying some of this region’s borrowing power and forming strategic university expansion and related developments as part of a new “city deal” or “growth deal” package building on examples elsewhere.