Magee expansion paramount to North West transformation

Professor Deirdre Heenan, Provost of Magee (Campus) and Dean of Academic Development - Magee
Professor Deirdre Heenan, Provost of Magee (Campus) and Dean of Academic Development - Magee

The old bedraggled and isolated Ebrington of old faded forever on Valentine’s Day as flashing lights and rock music celebrated  its stunning revival and regeneration.

Ebrington Square has been long in the planning and long in the waiting – but now it is a cornerstone of the economic, cultural and social recovery that we all yearn for.

The rebirth of Ebrington is a prime example of what happens when a prized project has tangible encouragement and support from the Northern Ireland Executive.

The University of Ulster’s Magee campus needs that tangible Executive support.

Magee today is bigger than ever. It has more students and more staff than it has ever had and offers a range of degrees, professional courses and research work that would have astounded Martha Magee, the great 19th century philanthropist who gave it her name.

For the first time, the student population is more than 4,000 and rising. Staff numbers including academic, administrative, physical resources, are close to 540.

Northern Ireland has just three university research clusters that are UK top-three rated. All of them are at the University of Ulster.

Two of them, Nursing and Irish and Celtic Studies, are based at Magee.

The third, Biomedical Sciences, is a mainstay of the pioneering work of C-TRIC, the Waterside-based ‘translational medicine’ facility.

Magee’s School of Nursing has 600 students, which will soon increase to 700.  The international stature of the campus in computing technologies research is flourishing and its importance in providing professionally accredited courses is rapidly growing.

Researchers at Magee work in areas as diverse as the healthcare potential of robotic science, how to tackle post-conflict sectarianism, the prevalence of mental health disorders and popularising ‘virtual world’ education in the classroom.

The campus’ profile in the educational, social, economic and cultural life of the city and Northern Ireland has never been higher – and its place in the expectations of Derry~Londonderry and the North-West is also at an all time high.

The University of Ulster regards Magee’s expansion as central to the successful transformation of Derry~Londonderry and the North West.

In February 2009 we unveiled our Strategic Development Plan for Magee. It is already paying dividends because, despite an £11 million cut in central government funding, the University has delivered expansion in the parts of the Plan that are within its control.

Recent University initiatives that stem directly from plan include:

- Allocation of 350 extra undergraduate places to Magee.

- A new School of Irish Language and Literature to be created at Magee.

- Irish courses to relocate from Coleraine, adding to current Magee provision.

- School of Nursing to consolidate studies at Magee, boosting numbers to 700.

- Top-rated Irish and Celtic Studies Research Institute relocated to Magee.

- University exercises option to buy Foyle College land for Magee expansion.

-Expansion in STEM -Science Technology Engineering Mathematics courses.

- Rise in student numbers and courses in ICT and computing - engineering.

- New courses in creative arts and business-oriented creative technologies.

- New Bamford Centre for Mental Health and Wellbeing, with 40 researchers.

- Launch of John Hume-Tip O’Neill Chair in Peace.

- Professional recognition for new accountancy degree, a first for North West.

The University’s aim is to consolidate a robust ‘University quarter’ at the heart of a confident city by building on the £55 million investment in capital projects at Magee since 1984, when it became a campus of the University. Those included the £20 million Intelligent Systems Research Centre, the £3 million Centre for Performing Arts, the Duncreggan Road student village, the establishment of the Graduate School of Professional Legal Education - another first for the north-west - new lecture halls and high-tech library. These laid many of the foundations of the modern Magee. 

Some 25 years ago robotics was still in the realm of science fiction. Software design and computer engineering were in the pre-digital era. Nurses learned their job on the wards. Social work education was largely un-coordinated. 

Solicitor training, product design, digital arts, traditional Irish music, advertising, accountancy,  counselling, conflict resolution, digital animation performing arts and many other activities were virtually unheard of in the university sector. Student work placement and post-graduate ‘knowledge transfer’ were a relative novelty.

‘On the learning menu’

Thanks to the University’s leadership, including the commitment of my four distinguished predecessors as Provost, they are all on the learning menu at Magee.

And the latest University initiatives for Magee will add significantly to its vibrancy and excellence.

However, there are still constraints on the growth of Magee and the achievement of our ambitions for the campus: but they do not come from the University of Ulster.

For three years, the University leadership has lobbied the Northern Ireland Executive for the expansion that Magee needs and deserves.

The Department for Employment and Learning (DEL) caps the number of full time undergraduate students in Northern Ireland.

Ulster’s Strategic Development Plan was premised on the expectation that DEL would raise that cap and allocate, in the first instance, an extra 1,000 full-time undergraduate places to Magee. In addition, the University would recruit a further 1,000 students for courses that do not require the Executive’s permission. 

That would bring Magee’s student population to about 6,000 over five years and, so, complete the first phase of development that would lead to even greater numbers soon after.

When DEL Minister Dr Stephen Farry conceded the case for relaxing the student limit last December, he announced 700 new places. Bizarrely, and with the assent of the Executive, he gave half the places to QUB, which had never at any time even asked for them.

The University of Ulster allocated its share to Magee and would have placed all 700 at the campus had it been given them.

Perversely, if the University were to recruit numbers beyond the limit imposed by Stormont, it would face severe financial penalties from DEL in respect of each student.

The University has given DEL and the Executive a proven business case that substantiates case for expansion.

At present, also, Foyle College awaits a long-delayed green light from the Department of Education to transfer to its new site at Clooney and, so, Magee’s extension into Foyle is also marking time.

The Executive is soon to axe DEL and spread its responsibilities among other Departments.

Need for guarantees

The need for guarantees on extra students for Magee is of paramount importance. The Executive has shown itself willing to respond to other pressing issues in the North-West. I hope that the united voice of the community will make itself heard on Magee expansion and that the Executive will listen and take action.