Parties can now unite to build the North West University

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In this article, Garbhán Downey and Conal McFeely, of the Derry University Group, urge the Northern Ireland Executive to adopt experts’ report proposing new Derry-centred university.

The North West’s agenda has been sidelined for too long. A 60-year campaign for our own university is too long.

The island’s fourth largest city cannot afford to wait another minute. This is a civil rights issue - the last of the 1960s’ demands, still unresolved.

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A Derry wage is less than half a Belfast one and our economy is continuing to shrink.

Lobby group says an independent cross-border university for the NW can
boost Derry’s economy.Lobby group says an independent cross-border university for the NW can
boost Derry’s economy.
Lobby group says an independent cross-border university for the NW can boost Derry’s economy.

If we want to educate our young people to help us turn around and regenerate our failing region, we need to get moving today.

For the first time in generations, there is a real opportunity. We have increasing support in London and Dublin.

Crucially, we also have a blueprint, published by an all-island panel of experts convened by the Royal Irish Academy, outlining how university provision can and should be delivered in the North West.

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This paper, ‘The role of regions and place in higher education across the island of Ireland’, is one of a series produced in November by the RIA’s Higher Education Futures Taskforce but focuses largely on the North West.

The taskforce recognises the glaring need for a realignment of the island’s resources towards the North West, citing ‘a clear need to reduce the regional disparities that still exist in the distribution and availability of tertiary education’.

It argues that this must be done on a cross-border basis, ‘through focused regional planning and oversight distinct from the current Belfast- and Dublin-centric models and, in the former case, without the planning constraints of jurisdictional boundaries’.

The report points to ‘historic underinvestment in the northwest region’ and to recent comments by the British government that this should be addressed under the ‘levelling up’ agenda.

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It states: ‘Such strategies must be based on equity and fairness in the distribution of resources including infrastructure, services and communication facilities and should take due account of the value of place, such as to ensure that each region’s character, culture and opportunities are built upon to enable it to develop to its full potential. Policies geared towards this end will ultimately be to the overall benefit of the island of Ireland and help to ensure peaceful and prosperous outcomes for its inhabitants.’

The RIA has two key recommendations regarding university provision in the North West:

○ A co-ordinated and independent Planning Body supported by funds from PEACE PLUS, the Shared Island Unit and a major joint UK-EU-Ireland-NI initiative involving sustained commitment, including in transport (road, rail, air) and broadband/digitalisation infrastructure, should be established to plan future tertiary education and research provision, including cross-border provision, in the northwest of the island of Ireland. Such a body is necessary to oversee the development of the collaborative institutional structures, governance and funding necessary to redress the effects of historic under-resourcing and achieve the essential upscaling of economic, social and cultural development in the North West.

○ A separate tertiary education Oversight Body for Northern Ireland should be established to advise the Department for the Economy NI, help define sectoral mission and ensure greater co-ordination, regional distribution and efficiency within the University and Further Education (FE) sectors.

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The new Planning Body, ideally taking the form of a Cross-Border institution, would

‘drive the economic, social and cultural development of the north-west of the island, underpinning a north-west economic corridor with unique strengths and opportunities. It would also demonstrate that, notwithstanding the difficulties that have emerged over Brexit, the UK, EU, Ireland and NI remain committed to continued peace and prosperity across the island of Ireland, and to collaborative and synergistic links between Ireland, the UK and Europe.’

The taskforce further states that, with 80 percent of the North’s HE students currently located in Greater Belfast, the Oversight Body should be a high priority for the Executive.

‘Given the critical nature of tertiary education in determining the economic, social and cultural welfare of NI, the establishment of such a body warrants high priority within the NI Executive’s agenda.While recognising the significance of the proposal to establish a NI Skills Council, it is not believed that such a council, in the absence of a dedicated tertiary education oversight body, would have the specificity or focus to establish greater co-ordination, regional distribution, resource distribution and oversight within and between the HE and FE sectors across all of Northern Ireland.’

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In the throes of the recent elections, it became increasingly apparent that there was an urgent need to tackle what has been called the ‘Derry deficit’. Our candidates, to a woman and man, stressed the importance of university expansion, more and more of them now favouring an independent, Derry-centred model.

The RIA tells us that, besides being an economic driver, the presence of a university in a region automatically elevates it to ‘a region of learning’: ‘They attract enterprise, improve public discourse, provide world-class research facilities and researchers and act as a nurturing space for the arts and humanities, including their important interaction with the sciences in dealing with the intellectual and practical challenges of today’s world.They provide a site for students, academics and policymakers to come together to discuss and analyse societal questions and to attempt to drive progress for all…We must never cease endeavouring to improve our universities and to increase the beneficial impact they have on the regions they serve.’

Our new generation of public representatives for the first time has the opportunity, the support (from London and Dublin) and the roadmap (from the RIA) to deliver a new university for the North West and for the island.

We respectfully ask them to begin the process immediately by enacting the RIA recommendations as policy within their new programme for government and, specifically, that they establish an independent cross-border HE Planning Body for the North West, and an Oversight Body for the North.

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The Derry University Group would welcome meetings with all parties to discuss this position.

The full RIA paper is available for download from: