We need your support to keep TheyWorkForYou running and make sure people across the UK can continue to hold their elected representatives to account.Donate to our crowdfunder
My Lords, a few moments ago, the noble Lord, Lord Empey, said that the great and the good had fled the Chamber. I leave him to speak for the great but, as far as the good are concerned, there is no purer good in society than education, including higher education. The issue I bring before the House is the state of higher education in Northern Ireland. It is in a very unsatisfactory condition. This would not normally be a matter that detains this House, because the Northern Ireland Assembly would be sitting and the Executive would be coming forward with proposals, but it is now two and a half years since the Executive met. Two and a half years is a large part of the time that pupils are educated for. Two and a half cohorts of students had the opportunity, or lack of it, to go to university, so I make no apology for raising the issue in this House. Each year that we delay dealing with higher education provision in Northern Ireland is a year that many thousands of young people are denied the opportunities they should have. It is right that, in the absence of an Assembly and Executive in Northern Ireland, Parliament directs its attention to this issue.
The issue is simple. There is an inadequate number of higher education places in Northern Ireland. This is a long-standing issue, but it has been getting progressively worse as education participation has risen across the United Kingdom. There are 50% more undergraduate places per capita in England than there are in Northern Ireland, and one-third of all students who have a Northern Ireland residence are studying outside Northern Ireland at the moment.
I have had the pleasure of going to Northern Ireland a great deal recently and talking to young people. Apart from Brexit, which I have mostly been going to discuss, the issue they raise with me all the time is inadequate university provision. There are not enough university places and people are put off going to university because they are unable to go locally. Most people, particularly the most able students, feel they need to leave Northern Ireland to get a higher education.
This general problem is in crisis in Derry, because there is no university with a dedicated campus there. There is one campus of the University of Ulster, the Magee campus, which has a historic mission and has existed in Derry for a century and a half. But it has a tiny number of places and is not being expanded as it should. I have gone through towns and cities of a comparable size across the United Kingdom, and not detected one anywhere with fewer higher education places than Derry. It is true that some other towns and cities of a comparable size in England, Scotland and Wales do not have a dedicated university, but even where they do not, they have campuses of other universities which provide far more places than in the case of Derry.
I was initially surprised by this because I am not versed in the history of Northern Ireland, but as I got into it, a very sorry story was revealed. In the 1960s, the Lockwood commission was engaged in deeply controversial issues as to where the second university in Northern Ireland beyond Queen’s University Belfast should be located. I am afraid that it was a straightforwardly sectarian division of opinion. One part of the community wanted—
I was a Minister in Northern Ireland during the period. The committee was headed by Lockwood, who was an English academic. He produced a report on a second university for Northern Ireland; he recommended not Londonderry but Coleraine. Runner-up to Coleraine was the city of Armagh. It was not a sectarian decision; it was made by an impartial English academic. It is slanderous to suggest that he was sectarian.
My Lords, the statement just made by the noble Lord would be deeply contested within Northern Ireland. One has only to look at the literature and the debate there. I respect the noble Lord’s point of view, but it is deeply contested.
As the noble Lord said, the decision was taken to locate the second university instead in Coleraine, a small town. The decision of the Lockwood committee was to close the Magee campus, but the then Northern Ireland Government thought that it would be a step too far. There was a modest increase in the number of places at the Magee campus, but no major new departments were located there—on the contrary, there was a reduction in their number. This has been a long-running issue since.
When I went to Derry, the business community and young people said to me that the single decision which would do more than anything to boost the economic and social life of that city would be the location of a dedicated university, for which there is masses of space, alongside an expansion of the number of places in the city by the University of Ulster.
These decisions are simply not being taken, but it is worse than that: the decision on the table to locate in Derry medical places at the University of Ulster has now been entirely stalled by the absence of an Executive and an Assembly. There are no medical places in Northern Ireland outside Queen’s University Belfast. The great city of Derry has no capacity to train doctors or medical staff to degree level, because there is no provision at the Magee campus of the University of Ulster.
The story becomes worse than that when one delves into the situation. A decision has been taken to expand the University of Ulster, which has campuses across Northern Ireland, but the greater part of the expansion is taking place not in Derry but in Belfast, with a hugely expensive relocation of the Jordanstown campus to the city centre—it is costing more than £200 million.
I raise these issues which are not being debated and discussed in Northern Ireland because there is no Assembly and no Executive. They are of huge concern.
My Lords, I declare an interest: I taught in the University of Ulster. I hesitate to interrupt, but one reason for the Jordanstown campus being relocated to Belfast is that the building infrastructure is not capable of being sustained and is not safe.
There may be very good reasons for such decisions being taken, my Lords, but that does affect the fact that there is no increase in the number of places in Derry. The focus of the University of Ulster is not in Derry. Its headquarters are in Coleraine. The big expansion in which it is engaged is in Belfast. Belfast is the only place in Northern Ireland that has an adequate number of higher education places. This issue is being systematically unaddressed.
As I have said, in the normal course of events, this matter should be addressed by the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly; it is not. It is tragic for Northern Ireland that it is not. Each year where it fails to be addressed means that more young people have opportunities denied to them. It is therefore essential that this Parliament addresses the issue, particularly in the context of the economic and social situation in the city of Derry, which I think most noble Lords would agree is deplorable at the moment.
Derry has the highest unemployment rate in Northern Ireland and the lowest employment rate. Indeed, it has the highest unemployment rate of any city in the United Kingdom. When I met leaders of the business community in Derry, they said that the single decision that could do more than anything to boost job creation, confidence and the location of new businesses in Derry would be the building of a dedicated university in that city. So I think it is right that we address this issue. For as long as there is no Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive, this is going to be a burning issue of concern in Northern Ireland.
I look forward to the Minister’s assurance on two points if direct rule is going to continue for any length of time—and despite the assurances given earlier today, it looks perfectly possible that it may continue for some substantial period. First, will the Government unblock the decision about the creation of medical places in the University of Ulster’s Magee campus in Derry? Could that not be taken forward next year? What is stopping that decision? Secondly, if direct rule continues beyond September, as appears likely, will the Government give an assurance that they will look at the expansion of university places in Northern Ireland as an issue of urgency, so that more young people do not have opportunities denied to them? I beg to move.
My Lords, I was the Minister responsible for further and higher education for some three and a half years and I had to deal with what is now Ulster University at some length. I visited Londonderry on a number of occasions. The Magee College was formerly sponsored by the Presbyterian Church in Ireland. Ultimately, it became a campus of the University of Ulster, as it was then called. Various pressure groups were formed, including one called U for D—University for Derry—a group of local businesspeople and others who were trying to promote a more substantial campus on the site. The university authorities talked to my department and we looked at sites and various options. However, a whole range of other factors has to be taken into account.
Northern Ireland has had the highest participation rates in university education by people from disadvantaged backgrounds—in excess of 41%, the highest in the United Kingdom. However, we must remember that a very significant number of students are not able to obtain their education, simply because of the curricular availability in two universities in one Province, and a number of people will inevitably move to other locations for higher education. That is not necessarily a bad thing: people need to broaden their horizons and they cannot all be kept locally. I believe it is important to bear that in mind, but for a population of our size to have multiple universities covering the spectrum that is needed in the current circumstances is a very big ask.
The other thing to remember is that the council and authorities of the university came to me with their own plans. I went to visit the Jordanstown campus and as the noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan, said, it was absolutely clear from all the professional advice we received that the buildings were in such a condition that it was not economically feasible to modernise them. They were built in the 1960s, they were out of date and the reports were very clear that it was not possible or economically feasible to rebuild or modify them on that site. Consequently, the university decided that it wanted to push itself into the Belfast region: we are talking about a distance of eight or nine miles further towards the city centre of Belfast. My department supported it in doing that, but it was its decision, not ours—it was not forced. The council of the university and the vice-chancellor said, “This is what we want you to do for us”. We gave them the first tranche of money to start the work on their campus in York Street in Belfast, which is now in an advanced stage of construction.
To deal with the particular issue in Londonderry, there is substance to what the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, says. I strongly support, as I know my colleagues in the Assembly do, the proposal for medical students to be taught up there, because there is a shortage of medical staff throughout the health system in Northern Ireland. I have referred to it many times in this Chamber and we will be doing so later, so I totally support it.
There are funding constraints, as is always the case. I also point out that it is not simply about higher education. We have rebuilt the further education estate throughout Northern Ireland—it has been a herculean task. That was ongoing, and we must remember that not everything can be confined to higher education: we have apprenticeships, and a whole range of other areas to cover. If we had more money, I suppose that we could do more things, but we must remember that we cannot determine precisely where a student will go. We kept our fees suppressed, not at the £9,000 level that they are in England; they are probably approaching £4,000 at the moment. That was a deliberate decision to try to make higher education more attainable and affordable.
I support the fundamental point that the noble Lord makes about doing more up there to broaden the range of courses that can be taken. I did support it, I think that there is widespread support in the Northern Ireland Assembly for putting the medical students up to Londonderry, and I would support it. He must remember that there is a supply and demand issue here. The number of students who could be generated in the immediate vicinity of the city of Londonderry is limited, and not all students want to go to university in their own backyard. Young people want to explore, go further and see different things.
We must also analyse potential demand. That is a primary job of the university. It must determine where it is getting its students from. It was made very clear to us what it wanted to do. It said: we want to rebuild our Jordanstown campus and put it in the centre of Belfast. Will you support us or not? It was not a question of Londonderry versus Belfast—that option was not open. It had made its decision. I believe that it should now proceed to support the opening of the medical facility in Londonderry. I would support that—it makes sense, it gives the city a bit of a push—but we must bear in mind that decisions on these matters were taken by the university itself, not by the Government.
My Lords, I agree with the noble Lords, Lord Adonis and Lord Empey, in their support for the proposed medical school in Derry, which appears to have complete cross-party support. If the Northern Ireland Assembly were up and running, from everything I have heard and seen, it would be progressing as of now. It is the lack of an Assembly that is the block. When I raised this previously, the noble Lord, Lord Duncan of Springbank, said that the Londonderry city deal might contribute to it, but the question is whether that is completed or whether an element of government ministerial input is still required to enable full delivery to take place.
This is just another example—the noble Lord, Lord Empey, probably has a list as long as both his arms—of where problems arise. As I said, I have visited the Magee campus. It was an interesting visit given all the things they are doing there, including impressive work on artificial intelligence. As far as the university is concerned, the building is available, it is anxious to move forward and it is frustrated not because of a lack of support—or even, in principle, because of a lack of money—but because of exactly the reason we are stuck here: the lack of decision-making capacity in Northern Ireland.
Can the Minister tell us anything encouraging as to whether steps can be taken that do not immediately depend on the re-establishment of the Assembly or, alternatively, add another bit of pressure to re-establish the Assembly?
I greatly appreciate what the noble Lord and the noble Lord, Lord Empey, have said in respect of the medical school, but does he accept that the issue goes much wider than that? The number of university places in Derry has declined since 2014 from 4,658 to 4,313. That is the lowest figure by far in any of the 15 towns and cities across the island of Ireland that have higher education provision. Does he agree that there is no reason whatever why Derry should be so disadvantaged in the provision of higher education places?
I defer to the noble Lord on the figures and I accept that there is an issue in this. I understand the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Empey, about balancing supply and demand, but, having represented a Scottish constituency for decades, I have to say that we are in part the beneficiaries of that lack of places because Scotland is a popular destination for medical students from Northern Ireland. Because of the mismatch, when students from Northern Ireland come to Scotland to study medicine, they tend to stay, which does not help the supply of doctors for Northern Ireland. We have an advantage in Scotland in that we have four, or possibly five, medical schools, if you count the undergraduate school at St Andrews, and we train some 20% of the UK’s doctors. It does not always have to be a balance of local students; you can attract students from elsewhere. Indeed, surely the essence of what we are trying to do in Northern Ireland is to make it the kind of place that people want to come to and stay, along with somewhere for which local people can see a future.
I agree with the basic point being made, but my main point in intervening was because of my direct engagement on the issue of the Magee campus. I am looking at the work being done across the piece and the frustration of the university. It has something that it can go ahead with, which would achieve the targets. I think we are talking about 80 to 100 medical students, which were the numbers given to me. In that context, anything the Minister can say that would give the people of Londonderry a more positive sense that this could go forward would be welcome.
I understand that point. Of course the city of Derry would be enhanced by a larger university presence. There are two very fine universities in Northern Ireland—Queen’s University, Belfast and the University of Ulster—so all that my noble friend Lord Adonis, has said is absolutely right. We would support him in his amendment to ensure that a report is produced on progress with university provision in that part of Northern Ireland.
However, this Bill is about restoring the Executive and the Assembly in Northern Ireland, and that is the only way properly to ensure that these improvements are made. I fear that there is a tendency—noble Lords will see it in the Bill—towards creeping direct parliamentary rule coming into our proceedings. It is not that the Government are providing Ministers for Northern Ireland, rather that Parliament is asking for report after report on all the different issues that affect the people of Northern Ireland. Later, the noble Lord, Lord Empey, will raise a number of hugely important issues that call for reports on matters that are for the Assembly and the Executive. Ultimately, the answer for those in the city of Derry who want these things to happen is to talk to those politicians who can bring the Assembly and the Executive together in Northern Ireland. There is a Sinn Féin MP in the city of Derry—for Foyle. Perhaps he or she—I do not recall who it is because they do not attend the House of Commons—should be approached, as should the Members of the Assembly to get the Assembly and the Executive up and running. You can then deal with the issues affecting higher education and so on; that is the key to all of this.
We could talk for ever in this House and the other place about reports and what we would like to see, but ultimately, in the absence of direct rule—
I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. Having worked in Northern Ireland, he will realise that 90 miles takes you from one side to the other. It is a comparatively small place. If we are to have a medical school, what on earth has happened to the medical school at Queen’s University? Other universities used to be jealous of it. Since hospital services tend to be centred on Belfast—we have seen the recent example with tests for breast cancer—how can we justify setting up another medical school? I have nothing against the city of Derry, but how can we justify setting up another a mere 90 miles away when medical care is, by and large, centred in Belfast?
It would not be for me or anyone else in the House to determine that. It would be a matter for the Ministers responsible for higher education and health to determine. Of course, the noble Lord is right to refer to the medical school at Queen’s University, Belfast. In my home village of Abersychan in south Wales, three of our family doctors were educated at Queen’s, and fine doctors they were too. But of course, Northern Ireland exported them, as it exported other people, and they did not come back. The issue is not whether people should or should not be educated at Queen’s, but whether there should be better higher education provision in the city of Derry, including medical studies. That is a matter for the Assembly and the Executive. As soon as they are up and running, they can make those decisions, but it is not for us to make them; it is for the devolved Administration in Northern Ireland so to do.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, has raised important issues and I am grateful to him for doing so. I appreciate having again a short debate with him on higher education matters, here on a very specific issue. I recall from previous debates that the noble Lord has visited Northern Ireland, so it acts as a bit of a link when he raises these matters today.
Higher education, and indeed education services as a whole in Northern Ireland, have been raised in various debates in the House over the past two years. It is clear that education is an important area that needs strategic decisions on future reform. That is vital to ensuring that all children and young people in Northern Ireland have the opportunity to fulfil their full potential. On the issue of establishing a university in Derry, I am aware that the city and the wider north-west has a pool of talent to be nurtured, and I know of the excellent University of Ulster Magee campus in Derry city centre. I am also aware, as I believe are a number of noble Lords, of plans potentially to establish a medical school in Derry, as mentioned today. I am keeping a close eye on the progress of this proposal in the context of delivering the Government’s commitment to a Derry and Strabane city deal. However, while I know that the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, knows this, measures to improve higher education, such as to invest in a new medical school or university anywhere in Northern Ireland, are devolved matters. It is this Government’s fervent hope that Northern Ireland’s political leaders can see their way to agreeing to restore the devolved institutions so that locally accountable leaders can take the strategic policy decisions needed to make progress. The noble Lord, Lord Murphy, has spoken eloquently on these points. Perhaps I may reassure the Committee that the Secretary of State is making every effort to ensure that the ongoing talks process is a success.
The noble Lord, Lord Adonis, made a point about there being not enough university places in Northern Ireland, a point of which I think the Committee has taken full note. I am grateful for the views put forward about the situation on the ground by the noble Lord, Lord Empey, and the noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan. That has been helpful to the Committee. Higher education provision is crucial to ensuring that we have the skills for the future and opportunities for our young people. They should have the choice to study at universities across to UK.
As the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, pointed out, there are two universities in Northern Ireland: Queen’s and Ulster. Ulster University has several campuses, including the Magee campus where a range of courses are offered, including in professions such as law and accountancy. As mentioned, Queen’s University runs a medical school, and discussions on a medical school at Magee are ongoing.
Decisions on places are a matter for the government department in Northern Ireland. As this is a devolved matter, I will not purport to be able to significantly enlighten the Committee on the substance of the important issue that the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, has raised. But in light of its importance—here I am for once on the same side of the fence as the noble Lord, Lord Adonis—I am happy to accept the amendment and to commit to reporting on progress on the issue.
My Lords, that is an extremely constructive response on the part of the Minister, and I welcome it. It is a significant step forward and gives us the opportunity, on the basis of a good, factual account of the situation, to debate the future in autumn in the event that there is not an Assembly and Executive. If there is, that report will no doubt be useful for them too. However, may I just clarify a point of some significance? In the event that there is not an Executive or Assembly in the autumn, under this Bill and the continuation of these powers do the Government have the power to proceed with the establishment of the medical campus in Derry on their own account?