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.