OPINION - It is past time for Ulster University to hand Magee back

Magee College.
Magee College.

Any meaningful expansion of Magee can and will not happen as long as it remains an outpost of an institution set up and controlled by Belfast and Coleraine interests.

It is disheartening and, frankly, disempowering to see a third generation of Derry representatives head off, caps in hand, to either Stormont or the Ulster University to argue their just case.

There is no doubt that our political and business leaders have been sincere – and that their campaign to develop Magee from within Ulster University’s structures was well intentioned. But they have been delayed, manipulated, deceived and, indeed, cynically abused by those whose interests was never the North-West.

We have had 50 years of attempting to ‘change from within;’ 30 of those with U.U. It is time now for these leaders to accept that this tactic has failed and failed abysmally.

This city’s two main political parties both met with U.U. over the last few weeks to discuss the expansion again. But they were barely out the door, when the university announced the evisceration of INCORE – Magee’s only remaining department of international reach.

That announcement, coupled with last month’s decision to move key Law and Psychology courses to Belfast and Coleraine respectively, is merely the latest in decades of asset stripping by the university authorities.

The Derry college has, for generations, been denied promised expansions, including the post-graduate medical faculty, most of which ended up in Coleraine. Meanwhile, everything from seminal liberal arts courses, such as history and languages, to computing and IT degrees, has been shifted to other campuses.

INSULATED ITSELF FROM

CUTBACKS

The Belfast/Coleraine axis of Ulster University has, however, continually insulated itself from cutbacks, by seizing any opportunity of additional funding or development for itself without a thought for the North’s second city.

The establishment of the new £150m-£250m campus in North Belfast, at the expense of a similar, long-promised build in Derry, is a killer blow.

It raises renewed, serious questions about institutional sectarianism and political favouritism. And, though no-one is saying it, the scale of this investment rules out any meaningful development in Derry for another decade.

Indeed, the way in which the Magee argument has been ‘managed down’ by both U.U. and political gatekeepers throughout this process has decidedly strong echoes of how the ‘new’ university was located in Coleraine 50 years ago.

The plan to increase Magee’s full-time student populace to 9,500 by 2020, from a current base of somewhere between 3,000 and 4,100 (depending on your source), was wheeled out any time the natives got noisy and then quietly shelved again when we were distracted.

At least Stephen Farry had the courage to tell the “Derry Journal” that this proposition is in the bin – and was never really taken seriously to begin with.

Derry’s third level student population is currently at least 50 per cent lower than any town or city in Ireland, and currently stands at just 3.9 per cent (Galway’s is 34.2 per cent). There is little or no student economy in the city – nor student life. There is little or no opportunity for students who wish to stay at home to study in the North-West.

This is an unacceptable situation for the island’s oldest monastic city, a city internationally renowned and celebrated for its cultural heritage.

Any new arrangements at the Stormont talks, whatever shape they take, must not be able to gloss over its repeated failure to support and develop the North-West of this island.

The region ranks among the worst on these islands for unemployment, deprivation and low educational attainment. And, if history has taught us anything, it is that the North-West will remain so as long as resources, and control of these resources, are centralised in Belfast.

For all that, the North-West, with its huge youth population, has tremendous potential. The success of the North-West Regional College and the Letterkenny Institute speaks to that.

And Magee, realistically, should be part of that success. Unfortunately, that’s where the story ends. And the university piece, necessary to complete the jigsaw, continues to vanish out of the North-West into the black hole that is the Ulster University.

Long-term, the North-West and other disadvantaged areas require a full economic stimulus package from both the Executive and the British Government to target education, infrastructure and inward investment – and to help the most vulnerable and poor in society.

Responsibility for administering this cannot be centralised, or left in the hands of strategy consultants. It must be fully devolved to local authorities.

Too much control of our affairs is vested in a handful of Belfast-based apparatchiks.

Short-term, however, our representatives need to move immediately, as part of these current round of talks, to address the glaring inequities that exist here and put in place effective economic measures to address the scale of poverty and socio-economic inequalities that exist here. The North-West’s need for a sustainable, independent third level institution is a pressing issue facing 250,000 people.

This city has spent far too much time in polite negotiations over this issue - to its own huge detriment.

There’s a cartoon doing the rounds of four serious looking men sitting around a conference table, with the guy in charge saying: ‘I’m not convinced we’ve wasted enough time on this.’ Derry has wasted more than enough time talking to U.U., and to talking to Stormont about the U.U.

It is time we demanded our campus back from the university and ran it, successfully, as an independent institution for ourselves.

TOWN AND GOWN 
COMMITTEE

To this end, we propose the establishment of a new ‘Town and Gown’ Committee, to begin negotiations with both UU and Stormont towards ceding authority of Magee, and its budgets, to the Derry & Strabane local authority.

The Town and Gown Committee will be made up of public representatives, with the support of committed academics and opinion formers, who are prepared to put the interests of this city first.

The university speaks to the future of the North-West – and today, that future is being closed down by those who do not care, and have never cared, for our wellbeing.

It is time to put Derry and Strabane’s future in our own hands and return full control of the university to this region where it belongs.