Private Members’ Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 11:00 am on 4th October 2011.
The Business Committee agreed to allow an hour and 30 minutes for the debate. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes in which to propose the motion and 10 minutes in which to make a winding-up speech. All other Members who wish to speak will have five minutes to do so.
I beg to move
That this Assembly calls on the Minister for Employment and Learning to ensure the creation of 1,000 extra student places at the University of Ulster’s Magee campus during the current comprehensive spending review period in order to provide the key economic driver that is envisaged by the Ilex regeneration plan.
Derry’s politicians, business people, union representatives and community activists spent two years pulling together a regeneration plan: our ‘One Plan’. The First and deputy First Ministers were in Derry to launch that plan. Unfortunately, the ‘One Plan’ is not even mentioned in the first draft of the Programme for Government (PFG), and, every week, we have a new announcement form the Executive that further dilutes the proposals in the plan. One such proposal is for Magee to have a targeted maximum student number (MaSN) increase by 2015, with the hope that it will have 6,000 full-time students by 2020. That could add £1 billion to the regional economy by 2040. The plan — our plan — refers to Magee as the catalyst for city-wide economic renewal, with the potential to create up to 2,800 new direct and indirect jobs by 2020.
This year, Magee received 5,786 applications via the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS), of which 4,072 were from Northern Ireland. A mere handful of those — 1,111 — were accepted, and just 727 were from the North. Magee had to reject 4,675 applications this year alone, and 3,345 of those applications were from local students. One thousand extra students would only begin to plug that gap.
On 12 September, the Minister said that:
“the Executive felt that it was financially prudent to assess the actual distortions in student flows, and to consider additional resources in due course.”
Perhaps the Minister will outline to the House what additional resources there may be and whether “due course” means within this comprehensive spending review (CSR) period.
I remind the Minister, the Executive and the House that we have been waiting since 1965 for a meaningful commitment from Stormont to Magee and to Derry. In 1965, when John Hume led 25,000 Derry people from every political persuasion to the steps of this Building, they were ignored. We will not be ignored again. If the Executive are serious about making the economy their top priority, they need to urgently tackle Magee university. We have a broad coalition of support in and outside Derry, and, no doubt, we will have support from different parties in the House. However, the time for lip service is over. The people demand action from the Executive. It is not six months since posters went up all over Derry telling us that the expansion of Magee was guaranteed. The people of Derry are now calling that guarantee.
Before I call the next Member, who will be Alastair Ross, I remind the House that the motion relates to student places at the University of Ulster’s Magee campus. I will allow Members to widen their contribution slightly. The motion relates to student places at a particular university, but I can understand that Members may want to go outside the motion slightly. I do not see anything wrong with that, but let us not stray too far from the motion.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I welcome your guidance. Given that this is not an Adjournment debate, perhaps it is necessary to broaden it out a little bit. We will aim to do that.
The motion calls on the Minister to ensure an additional 1,000 places at the University of Ulster’s Magee college. We have three main concerns about the motion, which is why we sought to table an amendment to address those concerns. I will try to outline those concerns during my short contribution.
First, we had an issue about looking at Magee in isolation. As I said, this is not an Adjournment debate, and, therefore, we have to take into consideration the fact that other universities, campuses and FE colleges are looking for additional places. Those who support the motion will say that Magee has asked for them, while others have not. That may be the case, but it is important for us to look at other institutions when we are debating the issue. The issue is important to the Members who tabled it as there is a particular geographical interest. However, it is important not to focus narrowly on one geographical area. We must look at our HE and FE sectors right across the board. Had our amendment been accepted, it would have widened that out a little.
The second issue relates to the 1,000 extra student places. Again, our amendment sought to get more focus on those 1,000 places. It is a little bit woolly in the sense that we wanted to focus those 1,000 places on —
Order. I am trying to be careful not to stifle the debate. However, the amendment that the Member is talking about was not selected. I am happy to give him a number of reasons why it was not selected if he wants to talk to me afterwards. We should not stray into an amendment that was not selected. I am not stopping or stifling the debate at all. Nevertheless, the Assembly has procedures and conventions.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I appreciate your comments. I am trying to address the motion as tabled and the reasons why we cannot ultimately support it. We can vote only on what is on the Order Paper, and the fact that we are not focusing on science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects specifically is of concern to us.
We know that, given our economy, we need to get more people to university. The Minister’s decision on freezing fees will help us to do that. I also know that those who support the additional places at Magee college also want to see more young people going to university and being able to compete for the graduate jobs that we hope to create here.
I thank the Member for giving way. I note that he is trying to explain that the reason why the DUP is not supporting the motion relates to the 1,000 places and the STEM subjects. Given that the Minister said that there will be an extra 1,000 places potentially spread across the universities, does the logic apply that those 1,000 places should be for STEM subjects only across all universities, or just Magee?
As an Assembly, I think that we want to be focusing additional places on those STEM subjects; those are the subjects that are going to be relevant in a global economy.
I am grateful to the Member for giving way. I was not planning on speaking so soon, but I want to put something on record, before people get too carried away. I have never said on the record that there are 1,000 places based upon the resources that have been allocated as part of the Executive’s agreement, nor have I said that there are going to be 600. We are talking about several hundreds. I want to put that in context for Members, before they work ahead on the assumption that there are 1,000 places to talk about; there are not.
I think that the Minister’s contribution is helpful. The issue about the STEM subjects is one that we, perhaps, would not be so prescriptive on. However, it is important that we focus on the knowledge-based economy that we want to create in Northern Ireland. Those are the subjects that we need to focus on. The growth in the science and technology sector is going to continue over the next number of decades. It is, therefore, important that we focus on those subjects, particularly given the Assembly and the Executive’s continued efforts at devolving corporation tax and the reliance on the graduate-type jobs that will flow from that and from the foreign direct investment.
The third issue that we have with the motion is around cost. At the moment, costs are an issue in every Department. We have to be cognisant of that, particularly following the Executive decision of 8 September to freeze student fees. That was supported by parties across the House, the universities, students and families across Northern Ireland. However, in supporting the decision to freeze student fees, we were aware that there would be a financial implication and a knock-on cost. The decision came at a cost. We know that there will be constraints across the Executive Budget and, particularly, in the Department for Employment and Learning budget. The motion is lacking due to the fact that it does not refer to the cost or to the tightening of the budget.
I believe that the decision on student fees will help to increase participation and to make sure that there is not a barrier to more young people going to university. However, I think that it will have a potential impact on whether any additional places can be created at Magee college or anywhere else. That is a financial reality that we must live in.
There are, therefore, three reasons why we cannot support the motion. First, it focuses on one geographical area rather than across Northern Ireland. Secondly, it does not focus on the subjects that we desperately need to get young people into for the good of the economy in Northern Ireland. Thirdly, there is the issue of costs and the cost of doing this in tighter financial budgets, particularly given the decision that was taken on student fees.
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Beidh Sinn Féin ag tabhairt tacaíochta don rún. Sinn Féin will support the motion. Sinn Féin has long advocated the need for the expansion of the Magee campus in particular, and my party colleague Martina Anderson was one of the people in Derry who led on that very vocally in the past number of years. We have been advocates for expansion for a variety of reasons. The neglect of third level education in Derry has been well presented over a long number of years, and I think the case has been made. The strength of the university and the reputation of the campus have grown, but that has not been reflected in the lifting of the MaSN cap or the realisation of extra spaces.
The Ilex regeneration plan for Derry is known as ‘One City, One Plan, One Voice’. It is, perhaps, one of the most comprehensive pieces of work to be carried out in Derry or, indeed, the north-west over a long number of years. At its core are attempts to tackle years and years of economic, social and political discrimination and underdevelopment. There is absolutely no doubt that, as Colum Eastwood has said, at the core of that regeneration initiative and concept is the absolute need for more university places to become the economic driver, along with many other aspects of it, in the delivery of the plan.
If we do not realize the extra places, and if the MaSN cap and the ambitions of U4D and the university are not realized in the next number of years, it will deal a blow to attempts to address years and years of economic underinvestment and regional disparity.
The case for expansion has been made. The Minister visited Derry recently and received a presentation from the university and Ilex. I listened to what he said then, and I think that he is on record as saying that he accepts the need for expansion and that he wants to work with the university to deliver that expansion. I think that he has also accepted that Magee is the only university that currently has a proposal on the table for the number of places. The Minister smiled when I said that, so it will be interesting to hear his take on that.
As the song goes: “Two out of three ain’t bad”.
Support for the expansion is important. The university has stated that publicly and forcefully on a number of occasions, and I have not heard any counterstatement from the Minister or his Department. I will listen in particular to what he has to say about the matter, and I want him to reaffirm that today. He has to say that he agrees with the expansion of Magee. It is not just about the expansion of a university campus, and the Minister must see it in the context of the regeneration of Derry and tackling regional disparity. From the point of view of his party, if it is going to make any sort of contribution to a shared future, the expansion of the Magee campus is a way of showing the people of the north-west that there is a shared future for them after years of underdevelopment.
The Minister said that there are a limited number of spaces, and that is where the debate lies and why we must focus on that particular aspect. He knows that the demand is there for STEM subjects. He must pay particular attention to that and ensure that STEM subjects feature high on his list of priorities for the extra places.
There has been speculation about the total number of places. Some reports have put it at 600, and we have heard this morning that it may be 1,000. We hope that it is 1,000, although the Minister is saying that it will not be 1,000. Whatever the number, the Minister must make a decision, in the current context, on what will have the maximum impact on the economy of the North and on the economy of the north-west in particular. If the Minister can make a decision that will get the maximum delivery and the maximum outcomes in tackling regional disparity and economic underdevelopment and that will kick-start a regeneration plan in the north-west that is focused on Derry and the Magee campus, there is no doubt that that is what he should do. The case is overwhelming. Whatever extra places the Minister can deliver should be delivered to the Magee campus.
That will be seen as a statement of his intent to make the regeneration plan work. It will also show that he wants proper third-level education in the city of Derry.
I was surprised by the last speech. Maybe it is because I am the Chair of the Committee, but the statements that I have heard from the Minister put the number of places at nowhere near 600 or 1,000 — a few hundred is what I have heard. It is as well to get the facts right, and I am sure that the Minister will clarify that.
One of the first Acts of Parliament in this place was the Basil McCrea Endowments Act (Northern Ireland) 1923, which passed considerable sums of money to Magee College. I want people to understand that I am supportive of Magee. My colleague Mrs Overend is a graduate of Magee, so we are supportive of Magee. However, Mr McCartney’s statement that there is an overwhelming business case is simply not true; the case has not been made. You can say that there has been an increase in applications and that those are up 30% in the past —
It was not me who said that the business case has been made; it was the university. As far as I am aware, that has not been publicly challenged by you or the Minister.
Thank you for that.
I recall that there was some discussion in Londonderry, and I challenged it. The business case has not been made and accepted. These figures are not trivial; you are asking for an extra 1,000 places. I refer to the University of Ulster, not just Magee campus. There were 8,487 places last year. You are looking for a significant uplift, and you have to realise that this is not just about Londonderry, it is about the whole of Northern Ireland.
I return to the issue of informed debate. A publication was released in March 2011 entitled ‘Identification of Priority Skill Areas For Northern Ireland — March 2011’. The report says that there is evidence of graduates moving out of Northern Ireland for better pay or jobs. We do not have jobs for the graduates we are producing. The report goes on to say that increasing our skills makes sense only if we have jobs to give the graduates. My problem is that we are doing this in a somewhat cavalier fashion: we feel that we must tick the boxes and get 1,000 more graduates, but we do not know what skills people require.
It is not that I am unsympathetic to what people are trying to do, but it is not for the Minister to dictate to any university where it will put its places or what its subjects will be. A negotiation, a discussion, is to be had but, ultimately, universities are independent institutions.
When we look at how best to address the skills gap in Northern Ireland, there are other institutions such as further education that deal with the issue in a different way. According to the report, this is what is required:
“As there is a significant increase in the number of people required with professional and technical skills, to at least level 3, it is recommended that particular emphasis is placed on the attainment of level 3 qualifications.”
That is to say, apprenticeships. If money is found, that is where I want to see it spent; that is where we need it. It is not right that the 50% of people who go to university, to higher and further education, are subsidised by the 50% of the people who do not have those skills.
I have already given way, so I will not do that.
An awful lot of people are out of work now because they used to go into jobs such as plumbing, maintenance and electricity working. Those people need our help and support as well. Those are the skills to which the Minister should rightly direct resources. I feel that they have been missed out. I give way to the Member now.
I thank the Member for giving way. I understand his frustration about the lack of money. One in four of the young people who left school this year has found nowhere to go. Given that the Executive have, allegedly, put the economy at the centre of this mystical Programme for Government, does the Member not consider that all of those challenges should be met?
I agree with the Member in that respect, and that is why I have some difficulty with the motion. I agree that all areas should be tackled and that we should look at skills. The direct consequence of freezing student tuition fees at the level at which that has been done is that there are knock-on effects on other sectors.
The Minister will argue that there will be no diminution in what will be offered, because he will find it from elsewhere, but the opportunity to increase student numbers is not there, because the Executive took that decision. It is an absolute knock-on effect. No increase in fees, no more student numbers — unless the Minister goes back to the Executive and asks them for more money, which will be taken from other hard-pressed sectors. If I am not right on that, the Minister may contradict me.
(Mr Principal Deputy Speaker [Mr Molloy] in the Chair)
When it comes to making the proper decision, it is not an absolute declaration that we keep pushing more and more people into university when we cannot get them jobs. We should be looking at the real skills and needs of our people, and supporting them.
I welcome the opportunity to discuss the issue, and I recognise that further and higher education has a vital role to play in the regeneration of the north-west. I met many people involved in the sector in Derry, at meetings of the Committee for Employment and Learning and the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister. The Magee campus strategic development plan and the Ilex regeneration plan are robust, innovative and inclusive frameworks for renewal and regeneration of the city.
I also recognise the centrality of skills provision to developing and driving our economy at regional and local level, to increasing employability, reducing social inequality and improving the quality of life of our citizens. Of course, higher education has a vital role to play in delivering those aims, but, as the previous Member mentioned, we must also invest in other key skills areas, which the Ilex plan recognises.
Therefore, although I agree with the supporters of the motion that it is vital that the Assembly does all that it can to support regeneration for Derry/Londonderry, I put it to them that, as a result of the Executive’s agreed higher education funding package, which their parties signed up to, which included the delivery of no increase in student tuition fees — issues on which they vociferously campaigned — we have to be realistic about what else can be achieved at this stage.
The Alliance Party supports the aim of increasing student numbers at the University of Ulster’s Magee campus, not least given its importance to the Derry/Londonderry regeneration plan. However, I also understand that the Executive have jointly recognised the vital role that higher education has to play across the region and have agreed a good deal that will secure what were key aims for many political parties of no increase to student tuition fees, significant ongoing public investment in our universities, and a commitment from the Minister to work with the sector to expand student places. As the Minister said, it will perhaps not be in the region of 1,000 places, which was mentioned today.
Where additional student places are possible, I ask the Minister to ensure that allocation is based on evidence of demand. The House must be realistic about what can now be achieved and where we need to target the scarce resources that we have. Therefore, I oppose the motion.
I, too, thank the Members who brought the motion to the House, but, like my party colleagues, I am unable to support the motion in its current form. I appreciate that the issue is very important to the city of Londonderry, especially in the context of the Ilex regeneration plan. Before I address the Magee issue specifically, I think that it is very important to put on record the efforts made by our party and the then Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure, Nelson McCausland, and also Arlene Foster, in campaigning for the city of culture bid in 2013.
We support Londonderry, and we have endeavoured to make sure as best we can that it gets the recognition that it deserves. I hope that the aim to deliver the best regeneration of any city that these islands have ever seen is fully realised. I make that point because if the motion divides the House, and, ultimately, is not carried, I think that it is very important that it does not send out an erroneous message that the Assembly is against any sort of regeneration in Londonderry. We are supportive of the city and all that it aims to achieve, but we have difficulty with the wording of the motion.
I find that I just cannot support the motion with regard to the specific creation of 1,000 extra places at the University of Ulster’s Magee campus. I understand that the plan is very closely linked with increasing the number of full-time student places. However, that is only one part of an overall strategy. I favour more places.
Although you are opposing the motion, I want to put on record my appreciation that you welcome the fact that the regeneration plan is about economic regeneration and that the expansion of Magee is at the heart of it.
I thank the Member for his intervention and for his kind words. I am open to hearing what Magee campus would have to say on this issue, but, though I favour more places, I cannot favour this motion with regard to just one institution. I support more places at Queen’s University, at the other University of Ulster institutions and at the Open University. However, as we have already discussed this morning, all that is subject to funding. Everything, unfortunately, has a price. I am sure that the Minister will outline just exactly where the budget sits in relation to that
We are squeezed for funds across the higher education budget; that is no secret. Increasing places at Magee cannot be at the cost of other universities. Why should Magee be a special case? That is the question that Members who represent constituencies other than those affected have to ask. As I said, I am open to hearing what staff at Magee have to say on the issue, as the Committee for Employment and Learning has not heard enough from those staff during this Assembly term to make a full assessment about whether there is even a demand for additional places. I cannot, therefore, support the motion. Even if the budget were in place, we still lack a lot of the information that is required to make a decision.
In addition, there is a frank admission in the Ilex plan that the plan for expansion at Magee includes:
“encouraging the uptake of economically relevant study including but not restricted to STEM.”
That has already been mentioned, and we will not deviate from the topic. However, that point has not been reflected in the motion.
Any extra student places granted should focus on science, technology, engineering, and maths subjects in order to best support our economy. However, as was stated earlier, those places should not be restricted just to Magee; higher education uptake does not have to be supported only in Londonderry. In fact, the proportion of people enrolled in higher education in my constituency of North Antrim is lower than in East Londonderry and Foyle put together. If the debate is to be parochial, I would say, in support of my constituency, that we need more places in the Northern Regional College, especially when we consider Northern Ireland’s poor record on essential skills provision. I cannot support the motion. I do, however, urge the House to consider increases in student places across the Province, where possible, with a particular focus on STEM subjects.
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Ba mhaith liom tacaíocht a chur in iúl don rún. I support the motion tabled by, among others, Colum Eastwood, who is not in his place at this time, and which was supported by Raymond McCartney during the debate.
Mr Ross said that the motion was too narrowly focused on one geographic area. However, it has relevance for a wider geographic area than the city of Derry alone. We are talking about the entire region, but in particular west of the Bann, where a strong case needs to be made for regeneration and a degree of economic rebalancing. The Minister and the Department for Employment and Learning, one of the economic Ministries, have a key role to play in addressing the dual challenge of tackling disadvantage and helping to grow and, indeed, rebalance the economy. I ask the Minister to think strategically about what measures he and his Department can take in that regard.
The statement that accompanied the announcement about the review and freezing of tuition fees included additional notes to editors and was circulated to various newspapers. I was drawn to a particular phrase in paragraph 8, which stated that:
“any new student places will only be in areas of economic relevance”.
As Raymond McCartney said, where the difference can be made is in areas of economic relevance, and where the Department can make a difference is, essentially, at Magee. That is where additional places would have the maximum impact.
There is no contest in the University of Ulster about where additional places should be allocated. It is my understanding that the University of Ulster has said that, whichever number of additional places may be allocated — we are arguing for the greater number — those places should be allocated to Magee and that the expansion of Magee is the linchpin not only of the north-west regeneration plan but of the University of Ulster’s strategic plan.
In his response to the debate, I would like the Minister’s clarification on the level of demand for places at the Magee campus. I understand that as many as five students compete for every place that becomes available at Magee. Chris Lyttle said that he wants to see evidence of demand; so do I. I would like the Minister to address the issue of demand.
In conclusion, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle, I ask that the Minister also clarifies his own party’s position in respect of its election manifesto. I understand that, on page 57, specific commitments to expansion of the Magee campus are made. Go raibh maith agat.
As an Assembly Member, I recognise the importance of improving the lives of people throughout Northern Ireland and of not looking at issues purely on a personal level with regard to my constituency of East Belfast.
I recognise the serious social and economic problems that face people in the north-west. Recent depressing unemployment figures show a 13-year high; a statistic that masks its adverse effects on families and the daily grind of poverty that many people face in that area. Therefore, from the outset, I want to state clearly that expansion of the Magee campus is an important pillar of the north-west’s social and economic regeneration hopes as outlined in the Ilex regeneration plan.
Last night, I read that, in 2010, some 6,000 students applied for places at Magee, yet there were only 700 places available. Evidence of demand should, therefore, be forthcoming. Certainly, the Committee for Employment and Learning would like to see that evidence at a future meeting.
If one looks at the number of university places in Northern Ireland per head of the population, it is clear that it has the smallest higher education sector of all regions of the United Kingdom. Coupled with that, the size of Northern Ireland’s higher education sector per head of the population puts it joint bottom of the league with the east of England. It is clear for all to see that Northern Ireland needs a bigger higher education sector and more student places if it is to keep pace with the rest of the United Kingdom. Even more importantly, there needs to be growth in that sector if Northern Ireland is to compete seriously in an increasingly competitive and shrinking economy. I would like to see proposals come forward at a future Committee meeting.
This morning, the Minister stated that there could, potentially, be 300 extra places. We have heard that there might be 600 or 1,000 extra places. My problem is that, at present, Magee, notwithstanding all its needs, will be the only institution to benefit. My fear is that that could prove extremely detrimental to other universities and colleges throughout the Province. I believe that it was Mr McCrea who mentioned the importance of apprenticeships. Certainly, I get weekly demands for training and apprenticeships from people in Ballymacarrett, whether from the lower Newtownards Road or Short Strand. I suppose that, within tight budgetary constraints, we are all trying to develop and encourage initiatives in our own areas.
Other universities and regional colleges should be considered for the provision of potential extra student places throughout Northern Ireland. The Magee campus should be included in that consideration. Provision of STEM subjects should also be considered in order to provide a key driver for the economy. In 2010, a Confederation of British Industry (CBI) survey entitled ‘Ready to Grow’ identified a shortage of STEM skills at all levels. It identified an under-supply of those skills and reckoned that the problem is likely to get worse. The CBI policy adviser Leo Ringer stated:
“Over the next three years, more than half of all employers predict difficulty finding the STEM talent they need, which could act as a barrier to business growth in key areas such as low-carbon manufacturing and the creative industries”.
As the Member said, it is important that we focus on STEM if there are going to be additional places.
I am not saying that higher education is only about STEM. We need to recognise that it is not an academic route for everyone. Indeed, 10% of all STEM students drop out in the first year. Just last Friday, Google announced over 200 jobs at a new £65 million data centre in Dublin. That is very much about the creative industries —
I welcome the opportunity to speak on the motion, and I thank the Members who tabled it. As a past student of the University of Ulster at Magee College, I look back on my time there with great fondness. Despite all the strife that Londonderry suffered over the years, when I studied in the city, there was a great student community, and we always felt that the residents welcomed us very much. I have some great memories of my time there, and it is my hope and desire that it goes from strength to strength as an educational establishment.
I am not against the motion in principle. However, in practice, the outworkings of the decision to cap student fees, as well as the Department’s sustained contribution to the two HE establishments, will be phenomenal for the higher education sector and, specifically, its ability to increase student places.
I am very concerned at increased funding for tuition fees being the sole argument as to why places at Magee should be capped, given that, only last week, the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister (OFMDFM) announced an £80 million social investment fund, otherwise known as its slush fund, without even telling the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister. Does the Member agree that the money that went to other budgetary headlines could provide the places, if education and the economy are the main drivers in the mystical Programme for Government?
I thank the Member for her intervention. It is another example of the need for improved, joined-up government, and I will go into the detail.
When the Minister met the Committee for Employment and Learning, he said that there are consequences that flow from the decision. I wonder how many people are going into this with their eyes closed to what those consequences might be. We have to be careful that, in seeking to increase the number of places at Magee, we do not disproportionately affect the resources for areas such as apprenticeships and further education colleges.
Not only are students discouraged from travelling to other parts of the UK to study at university, but we are now actively discouraging students to come to Northern Ireland from Scotland, England and Wales to study. The result will be that demand for student places in Northern Ireland will rise. If demand rises without sufficient supply, the result will be an increase in the universities’ grade requirements. How else will they determine who will be awarded the university places?
It is unfortunate that this will erode the strides that the previous — might I say, Ulster Unionist — Ministers for Employment and Learning took towards making university places accessible to a huge range of people in Northern Ireland from various socio-economic backgrounds and making university attendance not just for the elite.
We can wish for the sun, moon and stars, but the current state of the Department for Employment and Learning (DEL) budget sets the future agenda for university places. The Minister has set his target for increasing student places by a few hundred but, because of financial constraints, I guess, is unable to define any specific time frame for that. Moreover, I understand that it is not in his power to decide where those student places will be offered, whether in Belfast, Jordanstown, Coleraine or Magee. He can encourage better targeting, but, at the end of the day, the universities have control of that.
With all that in mind, I ask the Minister to look at other areas where he could help the key economic driver that is envisaged by the Ilex regeneration plan. An increase in apprenticeships is one suggestion, especially given the need to increase our students’ capacity in the STEM subject areas, as has been a recommended specialism for the suggested extra student places at Magee. Our FE colleges are ideally suited to help deliver on this issue. Furthermore, while the MaSN cap is not set to increase by any more than a few hundred, I wonder whether the Minister will encourage universities to increase the number of part-time courses available in these key subjects.
In conclusion, is the Minister prepared to think strategically about the economic regeneration of all arts and parts of Northern Ireland? It is time for some joined-up thinking on the delivery of the higher and further education sectors.
Nearly 45 years ago, the men and women who went on to found the SDLP led a march to the front door of this very Building. They united the city of Derry behind a single call for a university that would service all the people of the north-west of this island. That spirit seems to have been lost along the way, and we sit here today debating the need to put some energy back into what the Executive allegedly support.
OFMDFM is the sponsoring Department of Ilex. The growth of the Magee campus and the arrival of extra students are key elements in the regeneration of the city of Derry. Yet, for some reason, that does not appear to be a priority for the Executive. I am also aware that the regional development strategy clearly identifies the city of Derry as the north-west’s regional hub. Again, I am not aware of any party in the Executive that dissents from the principles of the regional development strategy, except when it comes to actually doing something about them.
This is the basic issue: are we all talk, or is there any substance behind what we put on paper and behind the commitments that we make to people? The people of Derry are beginning to wonder what the Executive will ever do for them.
The Magee campus is not the only example: Mr Eastwood covered an entire programme-for-government’s worth of examples where the city of Derry can look to the Chamber with disappointment.
In the House yesterday, I asked the Minister for Employment and Learning whether he agreed that it was time to make supporting third-level education a financial priority. He said:
“The answer to that is a very simple no.” — [Official Report, Vol 67, No 1, p37, col 2].
What sort of region refuses to make funding third-level education a financial priority? What sort of region reduces a debate about the regeneration of our second city — the most important city to everyone in the north-west of this island — to that sort of argument? That is what has been peddled in the House today. I do not want to see the people of Derry having to unite for the second time in two generations and marching to the steps of this Building to demand what is rightly theirs: equality, fairness and the same opportunity that anyone else is entitled to. I fear, however, that that may well come to pass again. John Hume had to march the city to the Building in the late1960s; Mark Durkan, Colum Eastwood, Pat Ramsey and Mark H Durkan, with others, may have to do the same in the future. It is simply not right or fair to ignore all the commitments that we make to the city of Derry because it does not suit us financially.
Some people wondered whether the elephant in the room was the fact that, for ill or for good, the composition of the Magee campus reflects the general population of the north-west of Northern Ireland and the north-west of the island of Ireland.
Is it not a fact that, each year, over 2,000 young Catholics get university places in Derry as opposed to under 500 from the Protestant community? Is that the elephant in the room to which you refer?
I hope that the elephant in the room is not that. If it is, the people of Derry will have a further question to ask about this place. Is it failing on not only what it puts on paper but by actually perpetuating an old prejudice that has dogged the city for generations, a prejudice that prevented its development, that held it back, and that everyone in this region, I think, would have the right to expect no longer exists?
I understand that the city of Derry does not provide the Minister’s party with a great amount of political support. I accept that. However, it is an absolute fact that the city of Derry is a fundamental and central part of the regional development strategy, that it has the alleged commitment of the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister and the entire Executive to its regeneration, and that it is entitled to expect, in the same way as every other town and city in this region expects, that it would understand the value of education —
— and would understand that if you fail to invest in it, you fail to invest in society.
I will, first, apologise to the Member who moved the motion for missing his contribution. I want to express my disappointment that the Democratic Unionist Party amendment was not selected. Therefore, as my colleagues highlighted, the narrow focus of the motion means that we are unable to support it, and I thank my colleague Alastair Ross for clearly highlighting the reasons why. Although I understand the proposer’s sentiments and his desire to see the expansion of Magee, which is in his constituency, by another 1,000 student places in this CSR period, he is failing to face up to the fact that we are working within a limited budget. I think that that is lacking from today’s motion.
I thank the Member for giving way. Does he agree that the previous speaker, Mr McDevitt, took a rather worrying turn when he almost tried to sectarianise this debate? The reasons that this party outlined for not supporting the motion have nothing to do with that. In fact, they were genuine reasons, which Mr McDevitt did not allude to during his contribution, such as the financial impact, particularly in the context of student fees having been frozen.
I thank the Member for his intervention. It is unfortunate that Mr McDevitt sought to turn the debate in that direction, where it was not meant to be turned at all.
I would like it if we were in a position to support the new places at Magee without that having a detrimental effect on the other universities and colleges. However, in the current climate, that is simply not possible. The moment we do that, however, I can see those in the other universities and regional colleges in Northern Ireland being up in arms crying discrimination and inequality, and rightly so, for why should we as an Assembly give precedence to one college or university over another?
In my constituency of West Tyrone, I have been lobbied by the regional college in Omagh for an increase in the MaSN cap to allow it to increase student places so that it, too, can develop its STEM subjects, which are the key driver in our economy. I am sure that Members right across the House face exactly the same situation in their constituencies. If we as an Assembly are serious about STEM delivery across Northern Ireland as the key driver for the economy, we need to broaden our focus so that all our universities and regional colleges will benefit from any increase in student places. We will not stand guilty of creating a situation where one college takes precedence over another.
I know that the Minister has pledged to make a modest increase in student numbers in this CSR period, but, in doing so, he has also sounded the warning bells that they will only be in the low hundreds. Again, I call on the Minister to give serious consideration to this issue so that all universities and colleges can benefit and continue to prosper.
I have heard the argument made by Members that any available student places should be focused towards the expansion and development of Magee owing to the benefit that that would have for the north-west, as that is where the maximum benefit can be found. Although that may be a legitimate argument, I again bring the focus back to the other regional colleges, especially in the south-west, where extra student places in the likes of Omagh, Enniskillen and Dungannon would make a huge difference, enabling colleges there to expand on the courses offered and allowing students to study much closer to home. Let us remember that it is the students from that rural area who have, for years, been the victim of travel — they have always had to travel to study. The courses were not available for them in those areas but were in Belfast or Londonderry.
I note that, in June, in answer to a question from a Member regarding the viability of expanding the Magee campus, the Minister stated that that would be viable only:
“if the University of Ulster could attract sufficient students who meet the entrance criteria and secure a sustainable funding stream to meet the infrastructural and teaching costs involved”.
I also note that the capital cost alone of expanding the university currently stands at some £200 million. That begs the question of whether the college has the capacity and a funding package to sustain the viability of the creation of the 1,000 extra places proposed in the motion.
I urge the Minister to ensure that the provision of any extra student places is of equal status across Northern Ireland universities and regional colleges, including the Magee campus, and is focused on the STEM subjects —
— in order to provide a key driver for the economy and the regeneration of all our constituencies right across Northern Ireland. On that basis, we cannot support the motion.
I understand very well the wish of the Members posing the motion. It has long been a strategic aim of the University of Ulster to increase its undergraduate student numbers at the Magee campus. The university first outlined its plans for expansion in 2009 when it indicated that it would like to expand the campus by 1,000 undergraduate places over a five-year period. The expansion would also see the creation of two institutes on the campus: the institute of health and well-being and the institute of sustainable technologies.
In 2009, my Department did not have the funding available to commit to the expansion. Estimates put the cost of the 1,000 places at around £8 million per annum. That was a recurrent cost that would need to be found each year as long as the additional places were offered by the university. The cost comprised institutional funding to the university and funding to each of the 1,000 additional students by way of maintenance grant and student loan subsidy costs. The university has not approached my Department for any capital funds in relation to the proposed expansion. However, my Department undertook to submit a bid for the increase in numbers in the 2010 comprehensive spending review. I understand that, at the same time, the university was working closely with Ilex, as an expansion of that size could potentially have a considerable impact on the local economy.
The recently published regeneration plan for Derry/Londonderry states that higher education expansion is recognised as one of the key drivers in the successful regeneration of the city. According to the plan, an increase in student numbers has:
“considerable potential to expand and generate a significant and catalytic impact on the local economy in terms of skills and jobs”.
I congratulate Ilex and all who contributed to the plan, as the vision contained in it transcends traditional academic and cultural boundaries as a proven agent for equality, inclusion, regeneration and participation. I understand that the plan has been fully adopted by the University of Ulster and now forms its vision for development of university provision in the city. The expanded university would not only provide higher education in Derry/Londonderry but encourage demand for, and supply of, higher education for local people in their own university.
The plan for expansion of the university has identified mechanisms for targeting its operation at areas of particular disadvantage. Those include the expansion of the internationally recognised Step-Up programme; the encouragement of the uptake of economically relevant study; the provision of an enhanced range of cultural and academic activities and programmes for the community of the north-west; the use of social clauses in specifications for public procurement tendering in further and higher education institutions; and the potential for business creation in the form of spin-out companies. The plan sets out how an investment of such a scale would bring the forecast benefits. I empathise with Members who now feel that those benefits will be forgone if the planned expansion does not take place.
Members know that my Department is facing an extremely challenging financial position. That is due to two factors: first, the overall budgetary settlement coming out of the latest comprehensive spending review; and, secondly, the decision not to increase tuition fees in Northern Ireland. Moreover, the situation is compounded by the rising number of unemployed people over the past few years. My Department needs to achieve savings of £150 million annually by 2014-15 to address extant pressures. Some £68 million of those savings have been targeted at the higher education sector, which is proportionate to the level of investment in the higher education sector relative to other DEL business areas.
The sector is contributing £28 million in cash savings over the next two years by way of a 12% reduction in teaching and research grant, which impacts on all higher education institutions. The balance of the £68 million was expected to be funded by an increase in the level of tuition fees. The decision to hold fees at their current level, with only inflationary increases, means that the balance of £40 million has to be found through other measures.
In approaching the issues around the future of higher education funding, I had three priorities in clear order of importance. The first was to sustain the level of funding for universities, given their central position in the future development of the economy through research and development and producing a critical mass of skilled graduates. The second was to preserve access and maximise participation in higher education for students from Northern Ireland, because going to university should not be determined by the ability to pay. The third was to seek to expand the number of university places to address the anticipated enhanced demand from Northern Ireland residents to study locally because of the decision to maintain the level of tuition fees and the differential with the level of fees that they would face in other jurisdictions.
It was always going to be difficult and challenging to address all three objectives on the basis of a fixed block grant for Northern Ireland. Given that the decision to freeze fees meant that additional sources of income had been forgone, the £40 million gap could be addressed only through shifting resources from other allocations in line with the new set of priorities as determined by the Executive.
My Department had set aside £2·5 million, £5 million and £10 million over each of the next three years to fund an expansion in student places, which we regarded as being an inescapable consequence of the decision to freeze fees. However, in the absence of evidence of the changes in student flows that will begin to become clear in 2012-13, the Executive felt that it would be more prudent to use those resources to address the £15 million, £30 million and £40 million gaps in funding over the next three years.
The Minister outlined some of the Executive’s priorities and how other moneys are being spent. Does he regard the money set aside in the Budget for the social investment fund as a priority for the Executive? Does his party subscribe to that expenditure?
That is slightly off-topic, but if the Principal Deputy Speaker will allow me the liberty, I will say that that money can make a real difference in communities. There are issues about how it is spent and its accountability, but the expenditure of that money can make a real difference across a range of issues, including those of employment and employability, which are of great interest to my Department.
I will return to the topic, which is the issue of student places. The Executive realised the potential for increased demand as the result of lower fees here and provided £1 million, £2 million and £3 million over the next three years for a more modest expansion in student places. I also have the option of returning to the Executive to make the case for additional resources as soon as the evidence of the scale of increased demand becomes clear.
At this stage, I want to stress a number of points. The available resources, which I have just set out, are incapable of meeting the terms of the motion. Had those proposing or intending to support the motion explained where they saw the additional resources being found, either from other aspects of my Department or the budgets of other Departments, that would certainly have been helpful. Indeed, some Members actually argued that my Department should have cut the budgets of the universities further or raided their reserves as a means of paying the price of freezing fees. The effect of that approach, of course, would have been to shrink the quality of the universities and to limit rather than expand the number of available places. That comment applies most to the party proposing the motion.
As much as I support the regeneration of Derry and the north-west, and the expansion of Magee in particular, I have been very careful to make clear that those outcomes will not happen on the back of the current financial arrangements. I do not want any misunderstandings or false expectations to arise around that. I will address the point raised by Mr McElduff: it is, indeed, something that my party was keen to see, and I congratulate him on getting as far as page 57 of our manifesto.
I will give way to both of you in a second. I share other Members’ frustration and disappointment about the fact that that aspiration is, obviously, on hold. However, my party remains committed to it.
Minister, you said that you have £1 million, £2 million and £3 million, I think. I know that it depends on where the places are allocated, but what sort of number of currently available places are we actually talking about? To remove any doubt, will you confirm that, without additional resources from the Executive, you cannot provide any more?
I thank Mr McCrea for his intervention. We are discussing the allocation of those places with all higher education providers. The resources that have been made available would equate to several hundred places. At this stage, and pending the outcome of those discussions, we cannot be more precise. As Members will appreciate, the cost of different courses varies, and each different institution has its precise priorities within the broad framework of economically relevant subjects, so the number of places will be determined by where they wish to invest those resources. However, we want to be in a position to make a clear announcement about that within the next number of weeks.
Will the Minister take the opportunity to say whether or not the university has presented a business case for the expansion, and, if so, did he accept it? The Chairperson of the Committee for Employment and Learning seemed in some doubt about that, so we need some certainty and clarity from you.
During the most recent Budget process, the Department, through my predecessor, made a bid for additional places, but it was not accepted. I am conscious that the University of Ulster made a strong case for the additional places, but I have a duty to take all of the interests of higher education providers into consideration. In doing so, I do not seek to diminish the strength of the case made by the University of Ulster, but we expect there to be demand right across the board, and I have a duty to take the interests of all providers into consideration.
It is also worth stressing that my Department can award additional places to the various providers as institutions, but not to individual campuses. Therefore, in the event of additional places being awarded to the University of Ulster, it will determine where they go. However, the vice chancellor has already publicly stated that the expansion of Magee is the priority. That is a decision for the university, not for me, although I would welcome that course of action.
There have been calls for me to allocate all the additional places to the University of Ulster and, indeed, directly to the Magee campus. However, I have to consider the needs of all the higher education providers, and the additional places will be allocated across them all. The rationale for the additional resources for university places is to manage demand across the system. That would not be achieved through concentrating the additional places in one location. As sympathetic as I am to the Magee campus’s case and to the regeneration of Derry, I cannot commit to doing something in the context of the current comprehensive spending review for which I do not have the resources. Should the Executive make the additional resources available to my Department, the issue of increased student numbers at the Magee campus in Derry can be re-examined alongside the case for additional resources for all the other higher education providers. I will have no hesitation, if the evidence is there, to go back and make that case to the Executive.
For now, my Department will continue to explore what it can achieve with the resources available to it and what that will mean for the University of Ulster. Unfortunately, as sympathetic as I am to the motion and the motives behind it, I am not in a position to support it today. However, I certainly hope that we can re-examine this issue in the future and, indeed, potentially, in the context of this Assembly, but until we have those additional resources available — and that involves having the evidence — we cannot commit to it at this stage.
I welcome the Minister’s presence throughout the debate. It is very disappointing that some of the political parties represented on the Committee for Employment and Learning and the Ilex regeneration project team find themselves unable to support the motion, given that they and their party colleagues supported this development in the past. It is important to put on record that the previous bid by the Committee for Employment and Learning for the additional places at the Magee campus, which the Minister and others mentioned, was led and submitted by an Ulster Unionist Minister. I am very confused today by the stance taken by the Ulster Unionist Party, given that it joined us in voting against the Budget, which has seen the downgrading of the DEL budget in particular, and, therefore, the resources that would be available to our young people.
Many commentators refer today to a lost generation of young people, who through no choice or fault of their own —
I will give way in a second. A lost generation of young people has been placed on the scrapheap. They had applied with extremely good grades. There are young people in my constituency who travelled down to Belfast Metropolitan College and, in their own words, threw themselves on the steps and on the mercy of the authorities there to try to get a place and were turned away empty-handed.
Just to be clear, because we have been brought into the debate, we support the Magee campus and we want to see good things happening in that area. However, we voted, like you did, against the Budget. The natural consequences of the Budget decision by the Executive to freeze the fees at a certain level leaves the Minister with no option but to say that we cannot put through those places. That is the way that it is. We wish that it were different, but we will have to go back and look at the issue again.
Unfortunately, my confusion has not cleared in any way. It was my understanding that, although the Ulster Unionist Party had concerns about a different approach being taken on GB students compared to students from the North who want access to universities here and who will have to pay different fees, all parties were united around the freezing of tuition fees. That was something that all here welcomed.
A number of contributors to the debate focused on the reduction of the DEL budget for tuition fees without paying much attention to the ability of other Departments to identify where other priorities might lie. That shows up the weakness in the Executive, because five or six months on, although we had agreed a Budget in the absence of a Programme for Government, all we have is one that, on every page, says “officials’ version only”. In other words, it is a civil servant’s Programme for Government. That is what parties have been asked to respond to as of yesterday, which is very poor.
The contributors from the DUP referred to how money should be ring-fenced for other universities that provide extra places for STEM subjects. That is a valid point. There are other ways in which STEM subjects could be promoted. The former Deputy Chairperson of the Committee, junior Minister Bell, and I attended various meetings at which we heard those who advocate the use of STEM subjects proposing ways in which they could be encouraged in our schools. One was to have a different grade of tuition fee, or no tuition fee at all, for students who wish to study those subjects at university, in the same way as other disciplines provide bursaries to students who study subjects for which there is a particular market demand.
My party colleagues and members of Sinn Féin pointed out the glaringly obvious fact that the north-west, and the city of Derry in particular, has been discriminated against historically by the previous Stormont Administration and throughout direct rule. The figures are clearly seen in the range and the community background of the applicants to the University of Ulster at Magee and the very high unemployment that persists in Derry today.
I thank the Member for giving way. I apologise for not being present earlier in the debate. The Member referred to different ways in which the STEM subject issue could have been dealt with. Does she accept that there are different ways in which the overall issue could have been dealt with, such as using different wording in the motion? We tried to propose an amendment, but it is not on the Marshalled List. I do not think that anyone in the House is opposed to development at Magee; the Minister’s overall problem is that there is not enough money to meet the demand. The proposal, as it is currently worded, appears to offer no such advantage to other campuses. Although we all want to support Magee, I do not think that anyone wants to do it at the expense of other campuses, particularly because of the limited amount of money that the Minister has available.
I appreciate very much that, for many years, the Member has been a champion for Derry or Londonderry, and — [Interruption.]
Don’t you worry; I am very easy about interchanging those terms.
The DUP seems to have done an about-turn in relation to the concerns that it raised about the social investment fund. I accept that the Minister says that the money could do good if used correctly. However, there was an announcement last week by OFMDFM about the social investment fund, to which no other party was invited. Only a select few community groups were invited. That is my understanding of it. I understand that members of the OFMDFM Committee knew nothing about it, so is it any wonder that those of us in parties that have been excluded from those decisions are fearful of how that money will be used?
Thank you, Principal Deputy Speaker. My colleagues Mr McDevitt and Mr Eastwood referred to the legacy of the SDLP in standing up for Derry, to use a phrase that was used elsewhere, particularly in ensuring that the north-west region was properly resourced, promoted and invested in to tackle the crippling unemployment and lack of opportunity that still persists to this day in that part of the North.
I want to put one other myth to bed. I am sure that Members will acknowledge that, although the numbers of places at Magee would increase, the students who apply for those places will come from right across the North. Mr Buchanan referred to the investment that is required for colleges in his constituency, and none of us disputes that. However, I am sure that he will acknowledge that the ability of young people to live outside their own tight neighbourhood and to have the level of independence that is needed to live away from home is, in itself, an educational and, quite often, enriching experience for all.
Minister, you said that this was an Executive decision, so we are disappointed that parties were unable to support the motion. Those who are interested can look for themselves to see why it has not been supported.
Will the Member agree that I said clearly that I support the people of the north-west and the Magee campus? The main question was raised by her colleague Mr McDevitt, who talked about the elephant in the room in terms of sectarianism and about how the north-west had been let down by the Assembly. Perhaps we can ask the Minister at some stage to show —
— how the Committee for Employment and Learning has let the people of the north-west down.
Time is up.
The Assembly divided: Ayes 27; Noes 49
Ms M Anderson, Mr Attwood, Mr Boylan, Ms Boyle, Mr D Bradley, Mr Brady, Mr W Clarke, Mr Doherty, Mr Eastwood, Mr Flanagan, Ms Gildernew, Mrs D Kelly, Ms J McCann, Mr McCartney, Mr McDevitt, Dr McDonnell, Mr McElduff, Mr McGlone, Mr McKay, Mrs McKevitt, Mr McLaughlin, Mr McMullan, Mr A Maskey, Mr P Maskey, Mr Ó hOisín, Ms Ritchie, Mr Sheehan.
Tellers for the Ayes: Mr Eastwood and Mr McDevitt.
Mr S Anderson, Mr Beggs, Mr Bell, Ms P Bradley, Mr Buchanan, Mr T Clarke, Mr Copeland, Mr Craig, Mr Dickson, Mrs Dobson, Mr Douglas, Mr Dunne, Mr Easton, Dr Farry, Mr Ford, Mr Frew, Mr Girvan, Mr Givan, Mrs Hale, Mr Hamilton, Mr Hilditch, Mr Humphrey, Mr Hussey, Mr Irwin, Mr Kennedy, Mr Kinahan, Ms Lewis, Ms Lo, Mr Lunn, Mr Lyttle, Mr McCarthy, Mr McCausland, Mr McClarty, Mr B McCrea, Mr I McCrea, Mr McGimpsey, Mr D McIlveen, Miss M McIlveen, Lord Morrow, Mr Moutray, Mr Nesbitt, Mr Newton, Mrs Overend, Mr Poots, Mr Ross, Mr Swann, Mr Weir, Mr Wells, Mr Wilson.
Tellers for the Noes: Mr Buchanan and Mr B McCrea.
The following Member voted in both Lobbies and is therefore not counted in the result: Mr Agnew.
Question accordingly negatived.
The Business Committee has arranged to meet during the lunchtime suspension. I propose, therefore, by leave of the Assembly, to suspend the sitting until 2.00 pm, when business will resume with Question Time.
The sitting was suspended at 12.38 pm.
On resuming (Mr Speaker in the Chair) —