A modest proposal regarding a university for Derry

Dave Duggan.
Dave Duggan.

Dave Duggan

A wit quipped that there were more people on the panel than there were in the audience. A number of speakers, as well as audience members, remarked that the hall was far from full.

As ever with our historic city, executive rests power elsewhere and leaves us all - the Regional Council, the Trades Council, the Chamber of Commerce, the Churches and other religious groupings, the business community, the industrialists, the sports people, the educators, the community and voluntary sector, the medics and the artists - presenting our open palms eastwards in a gesture of pleading. When we add the phrase ‘we deserve it’ to this gesture we are easily fobbed off with ‘there is no money’ (arguably the greatest lie thus far in the 21st century) and told, by the powerful, to stop whingeing.

All the speakers spoke well, offering a range of insights and opinions. To a man and one woman they advocated continuing to lobby the government in Stormont for money and resources to expand the Magee Campus of the University of Ulster (UU) and to support a new university. They counselled vigilance in the face of moves by UU to downgrade the Magee Campus by course closures and staff losses.

Afterwards I wondered just how hot an issue this is for people in the city. If people really wanted a university would it not be made to happen? I support the efforts and actions proposed by the panel at the meeting and, in various forms, by others. Perhaps there is indeed a link between a full-on city university and a boost to the local economy that will mean jobs for local people. So, while efforts in that direction continue, I make this modest proposal for the University of Derry.

I propose we open a university, to be called The University of Derry, as soon as possible, say September 2015. I take a lead from another major institution in the city, The Apprentice Boys of Derry, in the naming.

Questions arise immediately. ‘Where will it be?’ for starters. The University of Derry will be everywhere, across the city and region. Estate agents will reveal where they hold empty offices and make them available to the University of Derry, as, being such a good idea, it is worth the support of local landlords. The community and voluntary sector has premises, already well used, that will, where possible, be available.

Seminars will be held in training rooms at Du Pont and other industrial sites. There are many empty shops that will accommodate students and faculty. The Health Trust, and other government bodies, have premises, some underused, that will be available.

The current third level institutions, the University of Ulster at Magee and the North West Regional College will support the University of Derry with teaching and learning accommodation and expertise. The University of the Third Age (U3A) will co-operate with and support the new University of Derry. Who will teach in this new University of Derry? Where will the faculty be found?

Right here in the city and region. A law course will be taught by practicing lawyers and solicitors. There are many in the city. Engineers and technicians from Du Pont, Seagate, Perfecseal, Diamond Corrugated, the Civil Service and other industrial settings will run STEM courses. GPs and nurses will lead courses in their specialisms. The same model will apply to other areas of the university’s curriculum.

That curriculum will be student-focussed and deliver life-long learning, emphasising values current in contemporary educational practice. Courses will run on demand and be as theoretical or vocational as students determine and faculty wish to deliver.

Much of the learning and teaching will occur in focussed, seminar-type tutorials. Initially, course validation will be by certificates of attendance, which, over time, will develop into awards of vocational and professional merit. This is how the awarding bodies we now know as the Oxford and Cambridge colleges began their work. And how a body such as City and Guilds set up its activities. Who will oversee and run it?

We will, with a form of Steering Group that represents, in the main, people who have children coming to university entry age.

Who will pay for all this? We will, and not by cash but in kind. The assertion that a university for the city is good can be brought to life by the resolve of people to bring their knowledge and experience to bear and to make them available in pro bono efforts. This will, of course, be a small endeavour, initially. The ‘little acorns’ model will apply.

The people who run the courses will do so on a small scale, over short periods of time in the first instance, to be replaced by others with knowledge and skills in the same specialism. The city and region is full of engineers, accountants, teachers, nurses, doctors, architects, builders, graphic designers, solicitors, animators, educators, digital games’ developers, social workers, child-care specialists, entrepreneurs, community activists, agriculturalists, artists and others who will form faculties and deliver courses in the new University of Derry.

If such a university is to be the boon to the local economy, as many assert, then everybody will win. The University of Derry will be self-sustaining and self-perpetuating. Within a period of time, courses from The University of Derry will find recognition as access and foundation courses, satisfying entry-level requirements in other institutions with which The University of Derry will build relationships.

Students will go on to other institutions if they wish and/or become seminar leaders and tutors in The University of Derry.

We will not be alone in developing a university in this way. Have a look at Temple University in Philadelphia and the work of Ralph Young and others.



The great European universities that emerged following the so-called Dark Ages, very often inspired by scholars from this island, in places such as Bologna, Freiburg and Leuven are rooted in this style of university. Each one, as described by Stefan Collini, is “a corporation for the cultivation and care of the communities’ highest aspirations and ideals.” (What are Universities for?, Penguin, 2012).

I throw my own hat into the university ring. I have some expertise and experience of playwrighting, novel writing and theatre making. I have delivered workshops in The University of Ulster at Magee and at The North West Regional College. I look forward to contributing to The University of Derry. I will gladly lead seminars in such a new institution.

So let’s keep lobbying and advocating, yes. And maybe simply start? Roll on September?