University of Ulster: Magee Expansion

Adjournment – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 5:15 pm on 17th September 2013.

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Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP 5:15 pm, 17th September 2013

The proposer of the topic for debate will have 15 minutes in which to speak, the Minister will have 10 minutes to respond, and all other Members who are called to speak on this occasion will have seven minutes.

Photo of Maeve McLaughlin Maeve McLaughlin Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat.  I welcome the opportunity to bring this Adjournment debate to the House.  I suppose that it is a direct follow-on from the Public Petition on the expansion of the University of Ulster at Magee that was presented to the House in June. 

It is important to put the expansion issue into context.  The city's One Plan was developed and launched in 2011 through a very lengthy participative process and one that the city and region had probably not seen before.  It involved hundreds of individuals and groups from across the public, private, community, voluntary and political sectors as well as individual residents from across the city and region.  The result was a mission statement that placed equality at the heart of regeneration. 

The final One Plan featured a range of interdependent catalyst programmes for the economic, social and physical regeneration that is required to target the needs and inequalities that exist in the north-west.  To fulfill the economic, social and physical regeneration ambition of the One Plan, the explicit institutional targets for higher education expansion in Derry need to be met by 2020. 

I welcome the Minister's intervention to date and, indeed, the progress that has been made to attain the interim target of 1,000 extra maximum student number (MaSN) places by 2015.  Thankfully, we are well on our way to meeting that interim target.  However, the project needs additional momentum, collaboration and focus to ensure that the scale and timeline of the One Plan's objectives for Magee are met in full.  Those objectives are 9,400 full-time students, including 6,000 full-time undergraduate students.

The consultation and engagement that I referred to, and the findings of the One Plan process on HE expansion, are robust.  However, there is a need to reinvigorate and strengthen the coalition around the One Plan action for university expansion.  The imperative now is to deliver that which was agreed during the process.  A Magee implementation body is to be set up to provide the impetus needed to deliver the agreed 9,400 objective.  It is right and proper that the implementation body is led by the University of Ulster in partnership with the local authority.  The implementation body will not be stand-alone; it will be constituted as a subcommittee of the city strategy board, which will, therefore, provide the democratic legitimacy and the policy oversight for the project.  It will report directly to the city strategy board and will be scrutinised by it.

The implementation body's objective is to carry out the economic analysis, and there has been much debate over recent months about the merit of the economic analysis or business case that may be required.  The implementation body will look at the economic analysis/business case preparation and business planning work required to support the implementation of the agreed vision for the expansion of the University of Ulster at Magee, including the attainment by 2020 of the following milestones:  9,400 full-time students, including 6,000 MaSN students; a viable portfolio of courses reflective of the needs of the 21st-century economy; the establishment of a teaching and research foundation for a medical school in conjunction with Altnagelvin/Western Health and Social Care Trust; an enhanced research portfolio providing a foundation for teaching excellence, local and inward spin/outward investment as an attractor to mobile academic and research staff; and, of course, access pathways, through further education for those disadvantaged and vocational students who might otherwise be excluded from higher education.

The Minister for Employment and Learning, in a response dated 18 July 2013, stated:

"If a proposal were to be taken forward to expand the Magee campus in line with the vision set out in the One Plan, then a full economic appraisal would be required."

As a city, we welcome that clarity, and we ask the Minister for Employment and Learning to support the new implementation body in commissioning the business case.  We seek the Department's engagement on the implementation board, and we also seek that its departmental delivery plan will include the expansion of the university at Magee.

Photo of Pat Ramsey Pat Ramsey Social Democratic and Labour Party

In many regards, we welcome the debate; we welcome any debate that highlights and promotes the importance of Derry as an appropriate university city.  It is important that the Minister for Employment and Learning is here.  Clearly, it is not solely the responsibility of the Minister for Employment and Learning.  As the Member outlined, we have the One Plan to lead the way and to prioritise the needs of the region.  As the Minister is fully aware, one of the main priorities with the expansion of Magee is to accommodate almost 10,000 full-time students.  The mayor has convened a meeting on Friday with Richard Barnett and the key parliamentarians in the city to discuss a way forward.  The sponsoring body for the One Plan is the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister.  They have a clear duty and responsibility.  They signed up to that plan but not to the delivery mechanism that is so important in delivering it.  At times, we strongly champion and advocate the cause of the present Minister for Employment and Learning.  In Committee or at Question Time, I share his frustration at times when we are lobbying for certain things.  However, there is a shared responsibility and duty.  If the priority in the One Plan is for the expansion of the Magee campus within the University of Ulster, and it is the economic driver of the One Plan, the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister has to come up to the mark.

There is no point in Sinn Féin coming in here and making demands of the Minister for Employment and Learning.  Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness have a job to do.  They signed off on the One Plan, which is the economic driver of the regeneration of the city in terms of jobs.

We have to be honest with ourselves, mindful that the provost of Magee went on Radio 5 recently to say that Sinn Féin claimed that it had delivered on student numbers in 2011 during an election when it failed to do that.  The question that has to be put to Sinn Féin is this:  will it accept the responsibility that the First Minister and deputy First Minister have in their duty of care to deliver on this at the Executive?  They are only people who can deliver this project.

Without going over the history of what everyone has seen in the city — why Derry was ignored in the1960s, and why John Hume entered politics in 1966 — it was discrimination that the status of a university went to Coleraine and not to the second city.  Derry has borne a hurt and a wound since that occasion, and we are continually reminded of that.

Derry is going through a vibrant time.  I have never seen the people of the city feeling so good about themselves or taking such an immense sense of pride in what is happening there.  However, there is a consequence to that.  We want to ensure the legacy and opportunities of that for the coming generation of our young people, namely the economic regeneration driver of 10,000 students at Magee.

We were all disappointed on both occasions when the MaSN cap was relaxed.  We do not have to rehearse the arguments.  Queen's was informally contacted to make sure that it entered a bid in the first round.  How those student numbers were distributed is still a source of hurt.  Although the University of Ulster is clearly claiming that any increase in MaSN numbers will go to Magee, we have to be absolutely sure.  We were all disappointed — I raised the matter with the Minister recently — that the University of Ulster made a fundamental decision by removing the crèche facility at Magee.  We are trying to encourage further participation in third-level education, yet that decision was made.  At a time when we are trying to create an environment for 10,000 students and get the most marginalised into full-time education, that decision was wrong, Minister.  It was as wrong in Derry as it was at Jordanstown.

After this debate, we have to be absolutely sure.  The only people who can deliver this project for Derry and the region are the Executive, not solely the Minister for Employment and Learning.  He is certainly the guider and leader on this issue but we have to demand that the Executive listen and heed what they agreed in the principles of the One Plan and its main economic driver.  We should not shy away from that.  Regardless of whether Members who speak in the debate are party colleagues, Martin McGuinness has to take a much stronger lead in delivering this for his own city.

Photo of Raymond McCartney Raymond McCartney Sinn Féin 5:30 pm, 17th September 2013

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle.  First, I want to congratulate Maeve McLaughlin for tabling the Adjournment topic.  I think that most of us who live in Derry do not see this as particularly a Derry issue.  I notice that other colleagues, particularly from West Tyrone, East Derry and, indeed, South Belfast, have remained in the Chamber because they have some interest in the expansion of the Magee campus.

There is absolutely no doubt that for as long as most of us can remember, the issue of the university in Derry has been very much part of political agenda.  Indeed, if it can be encapsulated in a small way, I think that when you look at other cities on the island of Ireland and how many university students they have, it is very telling.  Dublin has 53,000 students; Belfast, 32,000, and Cork has 19,000.  I accept that those cities are bigger than Derry.  However, Galway has 17,000 students and Limerick has 12,000.  Those cities are smaller than Derry, yet it has only 4,000.  Coleraine has around 8,000 student places.  It is a smaller town than Derry.  In many ways, that encapsulates it for me.

There is always a tendency that people in Derry are accused of not speaking with one voice.  There was a serious attempt by the One Plan to bring all of those voices together.  It was a long, drawn out process.  Sometimes, Pat Ramsey indulged himself — although not today, when we are speaking with one voice — but that is understandable in the cut and thrust of politics.

The One Plan is part of the Programme for Government.  If today is a day for saying that Martin McGuinness should do A, B, C and D, then Sinn Féin will not be found wanting in telling the Executive that they have to do A, B, C and D.  My party has told them that with regard to the One Plan.  Quite rightly, in the past, the Minister reminded us that if there is no business plan, it is difficult for him to deliver.  Sometimes, we have to learn that lesson.  We learned it with the City of Culture in particular.  People in the city were calling from a distance.  We needed money for the City of Culture, and we were told that we needed a business plan.  The business plan was then submitted, and the Executive, through Martin McGuinness and Carál NíChuilín, were not found wanting.  Therefore, if we make the demand and present the business plan properly, and we do not take shots at one another, perhaps, we can deliver.

Pat Ramsey gave a glowing tribute to John Hume and his entry into politics through the university.  Nobody doubts that.  However, it would be cheap of anyone to say that the SDLP had the Department for Employment and Learning for a number of years.  Was there an expansion of Magee then?  Were resources put towards Magee?  The answer is no.  I will not say that that was the fault of Sean Farren, the SDLP, or Mark Durkan because he was the joint First Minister at the time.  However, I will say that they, possibly, could not do it because we had not presented the plan properly.

Maeve McLaughlin outlined today, and I think that there is acceptance, that even with it being in the One Plan and being a Programme for Government commitment, there is a need for a re-energised focus.  That is the reason why a task force has been set up.  If we put all of our energies into a task force, which brings in people from across the political spectrum, civic business and the community and voluntary sector, to refocus and redirect our energies, we will ensure that when we present the case for it, the Minister or anybody else cannot say that it is weak.  Let us ensure that our case is strong.  When it is strong and we have to go to the door of the Executive, Sinn Féin will not be found wanting.  We knocked at the Executive's door for the City of Culture and we delivered.  We have absolutely no doubt.  That was our commitment.  I do not know whether the provost of Magee said it with regard to what we said in 2011.  We said that the expansion of Magee would be guaranteed.  We will guarantee its expansion as we go forward.

Photo of Sandra Overend Sandra Overend UUP

I thank the Member who raised the Adjournment debate.  I am pleased to participate in it not only because of my interest in upskilling people throughout Northern Ireland and in the west, but because I was a very happy student of the University of Ulster at Magee College some time ago.

Indeed, it is the case that Northern Ireland has the lowest number of university places per head of population of all of the UK regions.  Under-provision is at its highest in the north west.  That is why it is important to ensure that we increase provision at Magee.  The University of Ulster has been lobbying for that for quite some time, and it is clear that there is considerable support for it to be taken forward.  I believe that all six Foyle MLAs support the expansion, and, indeed, the Ulster Unionist Party firmly supports it.

The expansion of the Magee campus is seen as the central plank of the wider plan to regenerate Londonderry and, indeed, the north-west region over the next decade.  If the 9,400 undergraduate target is reached, it is believed that that could generate about 2,800 jobs.  Therefore, the economic potential of the expansion cannot be underestimated. 

In December 2011, the Employment and Learning Minister, Dr Stephen Farry, announced an additional 322 undergraduate places and, in November 2012, a further 250 places for the university in STEM subject areas.  The university allocated all those additional places to Magee, and, as a result, all pre-registered nursing courses are being provided on the campus.  I understand that a new school of Irish language and literature has also been established in the faculty of arts at Magee.

I draw particular attention to the science, technology, engineering and maths courses.  I believe that, if Northern Ireland is to compete globally and to increase exports, the STEM sector is vital.  We need to ensure that there are skills to match demand, and our universities are a means of doing that. 

I believe that, in November 2011, the university also paid a deposit to Foyle and Londonderry College for the option to buy its lands once the school relocates from its current site in 2016.  That represented another important step forward in the expansion plans.  Therefore, it is clear that some work is under way, and I commend all those involved for that. 

Indeed, the university is on course to deliver 1,000 new undergraduate courses by 2015, with 572 secured already.  However, there is, of course, an appetite for things to move quicker, and some have claimed that the university needs to be more proactive.  Indeed, the Member who proposed this topic said that university bosses need to step up to the plate and produce a robust business case for the expansion, claiming that a failure to do so is what is holding up the expansion. 

However, the Minister has said that no business case is needed, and Magee provost, Dr Heenan, also said that detailed costings are not being sought.  So, we need to have clarity on the expansion.  We in the House are all aware that budgets are stretched throughout all Departments, and the higher education budget, I am sure, is no different.

I am particularly pleased to see the Employment and Learning Minister here today to respond to the debate.  I trust that he will outline the work that has been done, the scale of expansion that is expected in this budgetary period and the work outstanding that the University of Ulster needs to take forward.

Photo of Colum Eastwood Colum Eastwood Social Democratic and Labour Party

Given what Mr McCartney said, I am reluctant to get too combative, because it is important that we speak with one voice on Magee.  In fact, we have been speaking with one voice on the 'University for Derry' campaign since 1964, when unionist and nationalist leaders came up here to protest against what was a very unjust decision.  It is important to put it in that context, because the people of Derry have been living with that decision since then.  I think that they understand very clearly the importance of education and the link that that has to developing an economy. 

We have made a tremendous effort in Derry this year to prove that we are not going to allow our past to determine our future.  I stood and watched the largest loyalist march in Northern Ireland go through the city centre of Derry with no problems whatsoever.  The very next day, we had the all-Ireland fleadh and the greatest celebration of Irish culture in the world.  So, I think that Derry knows well what its job and responsibility are to deliver on the economy. 

However, it is very difficult for all us whingers — as the Enterprise Minister would have us called — to deliver on those promises when the fundamentals are not right.  The road system is not right, and the higher education system, clearly, is not right. 

I remember the day that the One Plan was launched because I happened to be mayor.  I spoke alongside the First Minister and deputy First Minister, and 9,400 places by 2020 was the headline figure.  I want to make it clear that 9,400 was our compromise, because we recognise — Mr McCartney gave the figures — that cities of a comparable size need a much greater number than 9,400 full-time students.  However, we took that for starters.  Mr Ramsey is right to say that the One Plan included that commitment, but, unfortunately, that was never really followed up in the Programme for Government.  I made the point at the time that the Programme for Government  said that we would "develop" the One Plan.  There was no specific target for or commitment to the most important part of the One Plan, which was the Magee expansion, and there was no specific commitment in a number of other areas. 

That was one of the major failings of the last period.  The SDLP was not the party that changed the "speaking with one voice" phrase or put up posters saying that Magee was guaranteed.  If you do that, you have to be prepared to help to deliver it, and we will engage and commit to any process that brings people together to try to deliver on that promise.  We will not let the Executive away in the smoke either, because the University of Ulster has a commitment and the Minister has a commitment.  However, we really need the whole Executive to say, "This is our commitment now.  We want 9,400 students in Magee, and this is how you do it."  I think that everybody would come up to the mark.  That is the spirit in which we approach the issue.  We will engage in any process to try to help to deliver it, and I am happy to see and support economic plans and cases being made.  The economic case is as clear as day:  an expanded university with the right courses at Magee would make a massive difference to the economy of Derry, Donegal, Tyrone and all the surrounding areas.  So we will support anything that will help to make that easier, but it has to be pointed out that the case has already been made — it has been made repeatedly. 

It is difficult for us to see the University of Ulster committing to a £200 million project in Belfast.  We do not begrudge Belfast a £200 million university project, but people in Derry see that and do not see anywhere near an equivalent commitment to our city.  However, we are here to be positive and supportive.  We hope that the Minister will get the support from his colleagues around the Executive table to deliver this, but a political will needs to come from every single part of the Assembly and Executive to make it happen.  If we do not deliver, in 50 years' time, people will not thank us, because this mistake was made 50 years ago and still has not been corrected.

Photo of Stephen Farry Stephen Farry Alliance

I thank Maeve McLaughlin for securing the debate.  Despite all the attention given to the issue, this is the first formal debate on the Floor, and I welcome it.  I should also acknowledge the contributions from everyone else and the work that was carried out on the development of the One Plan, which, amongst other things, sets out an ambitious vision for the expansion of higher education in the city and region.  I am, of course, convinced that investing in higher education helps to bring about future economic growth.  Indeed, the Executive’s economic strategy recognises that skills are the bedrock of an innovation-based knowledge economy. 

Northern Ireland already has a strong track record in participation in higher education, albeit with some pockets of under-representation that we are addressing through Access to Success, our strategy for widening participation.  However, we export many of our young people out of Northern Ireland, and I certainly want to offer many more opportunities locally.  That would significantly increase the prospects of graduates building their careers here and contributing to the local economy. 

When I took up office in May 2011, there were no plans and no resources allocated to allow for any expansion of undergraduate places in Northern Ireland, never mind in Derry specifically.

Nevertheless, I have focused on expanding higher education across Northern Ireland because I believe that it is an investment that must be made.  To date, I have been able to secure an additional 1,350 undergraduate places, all of which are in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects.  The Programme for Government has a commitment to achieve 700 additional places, and, hopefully, we will have delivered around twice that number, if not more, by 2015.  The first tranche of places was secured as part of the wider tuition fee settlement agreed by the Executive in September 2011 in order to manage increased demand for local places that arose from that.  The second tranche of places was secured in November 2012 as part of the jobs and economy initiative in order to further invest across Northern Ireland in higher-level skills relevant to our local economy.

I point out that the delivery of 700 additional STEM places is the only commitment relating to higher education contained in the Programme for Government.  The key and only commitment relating to the One Plan that is in the Programme for Government is to:

“develop the ‘One Plan’ for the regeneration of Derry/Londonderry, incorporating the key sites at Fort George and Ebrington”.

However, as I have said, the Executive have acknowledged the crucial role played by higher education in its economic strategy.

Leaving undergraduate places aside, I have also been able to increase the number of PhD places being funded through the public purse.  From a baseline of 495 places, I have made funding available to increase this to 845 places by 2015-16.  Our higher education strategy Graduating to Success has a target of increasing the number of such places to 1,000 by 2020.  We are well on the way to achieving that, and we are optimistic that that target will be met in advance of 2020, with 60% being met by 2015.

I am committed not only to expanding higher education but to delivering it.  However, in doing so, I recognise that the benefits of expanding higher education must be felt across Northern Ireland, and I have deliberately followed a policy of expansion at all higher education providers at every possible opportunity.  Progress is steady and higher education provision in further education colleges and both universities has benefited.  The University of Ulster is receiving 652 of the places, and it has undertaken to allocate all of them to its Magee campus.  One of the outcomes detailed in the One Plan is a targeted increase of 1,000 undergraduates by 2015, and we are well on the road to achieving that.  I am optimistic that I will be able to fund the 1,000 places by 2015, and I remain committed to seeking opportunities to make additional funding commitments over the months and years ahead.  I welcome the undertaking that the University of Ulster has given to allocate to Magee those places that it receives.

I wish to place on record the fact that I understand the importance of the expansion of the university to the city and wider region of the north-west through the additional local spending that would come from additional students, an increased pool of graduate labour, and an enhanced labour research base.  However, to go beyond 1,000 places will require resources that I do not presently have.  In the current year, both universities will receive £177 million in recurrent grant, and I have a total capital budget of £16 million available for higher education.  These resources are insufficient to accommodate the estimated annual costs in the One Plan for the expansion of the Magee campus of £28 million capital and £36 million in recurrent funding over the period to 2020.  The scale of the investment required to deliver the One Plan’s vision is therefore substantive and well beyond the scope of the current budget. 

We must also consider future Northern Ireland Budgets.  There is some uncertainty over the future of the current level of funding for the higher education sector.  As Members will know, the freezing of tuition fees locally was not factored into the block grant and we have to fund that commitment from making our own choices on public expenditure priorities.  It is important that the freezing of fees does not come at the cost of the higher education offering.  It is also important to stress that additional undergraduate places need to be baselined into the Budget. 

I understand and recognise the fact that an implementation group is to be set up to commission a business case for the expansion of Magee along the lines envisaged in the One Plan.  I await the outcome of that work with great interest.  However, I would counsel the implementation group to be realistic about the outcome that it will achieve.  For sure, the development of a business case would, in all likelihood, show that higher education expansion in Derry would benefit the city.  However, I will need to be satisfied that the expansion there will be in the best interests of Northern Ireland as a whole.  Any business case would need to show that the impact of additional places will be stronger in Derry than elsewhere in Northern Ireland.  We also need to consider the issue of whether investments in other aspects of the skills agenda would achieve a greater impact than undergraduate places, whether we are talking about the north-west specifically or Northern Ireland as a whole.  Also, any investment on the scale envisaged by the One Plan will require the approval of not only my Department but the Department of Finance and Personnel (DFP).  Assuming that the business case receives all the necessary initial approvals, its existence does not guarantee that funding will be made available for it.  Indeed, DFP approval may be contingent on that funding being available.

I want to address the specific issue of whether a business case is, indeed, required.  In the context of a specific proposal on a stand-alone basis to expand Magee, we would need a business case for that purpose.  For what we have adopted to date, which has been a policy of incremental growth of university places that adopts a pan-Northern Ireland approach, albeit, I have to confess, with a certain skewing towards the University of Ulster and Magee, we do not need a business case to proceed because we have the backing of existing departmental strategies.  I stress that, without a business case, incremental growth can still continue.

The 1,000 target in the One Plan should not in any way represent the ceiling of our ambitions.  I have no intention of stopping opportunities to find additional resources for higher education once we hit that 1,000 target.  I am committed to moving beyond that if we can do so.  It is also worth stressing that it remains open to the university to reallocate places across its campuses.  In addition, I highlight that part-time study is becoming more prevalent.  As the nature of participation in higher education evolves, our funding models will also need to change.  We are committed to reviewing the MaSN system.  There is also potential for a considerable increase in the number of international students, who are outside the MaSN financial control.  Building on the success of the City of Culture, the all-Ireland fleadh and other events, Magee will surely be best placed in that regard to attract students from other parts of these islands, elsewhere in Europe and internationally.

I thank everyone for participating in the debate.  I am acutely aware of the great level of interest, demand and potential associated with the expansion of the university in Derry.  We are delivering for the university through the incremental approach that we have adopted to date.  I am committed to continuing that.  Although we are not actively seeking a business plan — I have explained the context behind that — we will certainly give proper consideration to any business plan that is forwarded to us.

Adjourned at 5.53 pm.