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.