University’s priorities have shifted after great progress at Magee

Professor Gerry McKenna, on left, pictured with Sir Martin Harris, a leading British academic.
Professor Gerry McKenna, on left, pictured with Sir Martin Harris, a leading British academic.

The former Vice Chancellor of the University of Ulster, Professor Gerry McKenna, suggests a phase of growth at Magee campus now appears to have given way to a huge commitment to Belfast by the university.

Following its creation in 1984 through the merger of the New University of Ulster and the Ulster Polytechnic, the University of Ulster (UU) went through a necessary ‘establishment phase’. This involved a period of consolidation at its Jordanstown, Coleraine and Belfast campuses, allowing for its different traditions and practices to coalesce, and was accompanied by a determined effort to grow the previously neglected Magee campus.

Magee had just over 500 students when the merger took place and its growth was achieved through some additional places being funded by government, but mostly by transferring places from the perennially over-subscribed Jordanstown campus. The concerted and determined effort to grow Magee was very successful and resulted in its transformation over a 20 year period with annual increases in student numbers, peaking at over 4,000 in 2004. During this period all student number targets at Magee were met and where possible exceeded.

The founders deserve considerable credit for their foresight in recognising that the continued development of the University in the North West was central to its mission, and for effecting the necessary policies to make this possible.

The‘establishment phase’ was followed by a crucial period in the development of the University of Ulster beginning in the mid 1990s and which transformed it from a relatively parochial institution into one with a national and international reputation for innovation and excellence in teaching, research and knowledge transfer. This can be described as the ‘innovation phase’.

During a decade of unprecedented innovation, and while never yielding in its support for the North West, the University developed a range of new undergraduate and postgraduate programmes, many of which were the first of their kind in these islands. This led to the University becoming the largest on the island of Ireland and the 8th most popular for undergraduate programmes in the UK by 2003. It was shortlisted in 2001 for Sunday Times ‘University of the Year’.

The University was a pioneer of online learning through the establishment of its virtual campus, Campus One, such that by 2004 UU was the largest provider of online programmes in the UK, including the first fully online Masters in Biomedical Sciences in the world. It was equally successful in extending access to students from disadvantaged backgrounds, most notably through the pioneering ‘Step-Up Programme’ established in 1999.

Concurrently, UU’s rate of growth in high quality research was unparalleled in the university sector. Starting from a very low base, research excellence was achieved across a range of subject areas, most notably in Biomedical Sciences which by 2004 was the largest and highest ranked research grouping across all subjects in Northern Ireland. It obtained the highest possible 5* rating in the 1996 periodic UK-wide Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) and repeated this feat in the 2001 RAE where it was matched by Celtic Studies. UU was one of only 20 universities to obtain two 5* ratings in 2001.

The University’s research strengths were reinforced through the establishment of a number of world-class centres and institutes located strategically across all four campuses and ranging from Biomedical Sciences to Nursing, Food and Health, Nanotechnology, Sustainable Energy, Intelligent Systems, Fire Safety, Bioengineering, Irish Cultural Heritages, Art and Design, Media and Transitional Justice.

Research income flourished, reaching a peak of over £44 million in 2003.

Influenced by developments in the United States and building on its research strengths in science, engineering and information technology, UU embarked upon an aggressive policy of knowledge transfer through the establishment of UUTECH Ltd. There followed the development of science innovation units at Magee, Coleraine and Jordanstown and science research parks to facilitate fledgling start-up companies (UU was a promoter and co-founder of the Northern Ireland Science Park). By 2005 over 20 ‘spin-out’ companies had been formed and over 250 people were employed in UU Science Research Park facilities.

UU was no less active in the international arena, establishing collaborative linkages in teaching, research and knowledge transfer with leading universities in the US, Hong Kong, China, Australia and India. It was the co-founder (and held the founding chair) of Universities Ireland, bringing the nine universities in Ireland together in co-operation, and subsequently of the US-Ireland R&D Partnership supporting collaborative research projects in health, science and engineering research.

There were many factors involved in the relatively rapid growth of UU’s reputation as a dynamic and innovative institution. Most simply a clear and simple but ambitious vision based on excellence and innovation was developed for the university. This was underpinned by a strategic framework which allowed all key stakeholders to contribute in a meaningful, complementary and non-competing way. Talented individuals were allowed to blossom and ideas contributing to the vision and strategic objectives were welcomed and nourished, irrespective of their source.

In keeping with the priorities established by the University at its inception, the Magee campus benefitted greatly from the ‘innovation phase’ - housing new world leading research centres in intelligent systems, cultural heritages, transitional justice and contributing to a number of others. Other infastructural developments at Magee during this period included: the new library, the innovation centre, research pavilions, the Foyle Arts Centre and new halls of residence.

Universities, like all institutions, go through different phases in their development and evolution. It is perhaps inevitable that priorities shift over time. Over the past few years UU has embarked upon a new and different phase involving inter alia a huge long-term commitment of its future financial and other resources to Belfast.

Whatever the future holds for the University, its two initial phases, of ‘establishment’ and ‘innovation’, placed it in a very strong position to develop further within what is now a global and highly competitive university system.

Professor P G McKenna DL MRIA BSc PhD DSc FSB CBiol FIBMS CSci FRSA Hon LLD