University of Ulster:  Magee Expansion

Adjournment – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 6:45 pm on 16th September 2014.

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Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP 6:45 pm, 16th September 2014

The proposer of the topic for debate will have 15 minutes in which to speak, and all other Members called to speak will have approximately six minutes.

Photo of Maeve McLaughlin Maeve McLaughlin Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat.  I welcome the opportunity to discuss this topic, which is another important issue in connection with the expansion of the University of Ulster's Magee campus.  I suppose that it is important to point out that, since I brought a similar motion to the House in June last year, there have been quite positive developments in the issue on a number of fronts.  The Minister for Employment and Learning gave clarity on the need for a business case, which was causing some confusion in the city and beyond.  At that stage, he 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."

The city, thankfully, is now very clear on that, and a new education and skills implementation group has been established to take forward the skills escalation strategy and, of course, the Magee expansion.  RSM McClure Watters has been appointed to develop the business case, which Derry City Council, in partnership with the University of Ulster, has commissioned.  Phase 1 of that business case, which covers the needs analysis, is with the Minister, and the complete and final business case will hopefully be with him in October or November. 

Therefore, the Minister provoked a strong reaction in August when he said on the airwaves that the Magee expansion was shelved for the foreseeable future.  We rightly challenged that and asked this again:  why Derry?  Importantly, we also asked how a project could be stalled when the business case had not even been received.  That was followed by a delegation to the Minister from the civic, political and business leadership of the city.  At that meeting, the Minister clarified that he would receive the business case and would not rule out a bid for expansion going forward.  Following that, the Minister's office issued a statement, in which he stated that he was:

"sympathetic to the potential further expansion of the Magee Campus".

He also stated that his Department would:

"scrutinise any business case received in order to be in a position to make any bid in relation to the 2016-2020 Budget period."

I welcome that clarity and ask the Minister to reinforce that position in his comments today.

The university has also restated its commitment to the project, as has Martin McGuinness, who recently met with the business community and the University for Derry lobby group and stated his full support for the Magee campaign. 

For a minute, I want to consider the Programme for Government commitment to the Magee expansion.  We may differ on that and may argue about whether it needs to be stronger, but the key commitment is to develop the One Plan for the regeneration of Derry.  The Magee expansion is a critical catalyst project in the One Plan.  So, let us clear up any confusion that may exist.  There is a commitment to the One Plan, and it is the same commitment that we used for the City of Culture, the Foyle valley gateway master plan, the Brandywell and early intervention city status.  

There are very clear targets in the One Plan.  For the record, they are the expansion of the university at Magee to 9,400 full-time equivalents, including 6,000 full-time undergraduate students over the 10-year period to 2020.  They are also about securing a 1,000 increase in the maximum student number (MaSN) by 2015, doubling the MaSN by 750 full-time undergraduate students to 1,500 over the 10-year period to 2020 and, equally, accelerating the development of the C-TRIC facility.  

The other challenge that has been left to us is to demonstrate that the expansion of Magee will benefit the entire North.  It is important to point out that, as it stands, Derry has the lowest level of higher education (HE) provision of any major city on the island of Ireland, and that is lower when compared with similar-sized cities.  Derry's students represent 2·9% of the resident population, while those in Belfast, Cork, Limerick, Dundee or Lincoln students make up 9·6%, 15·8%, 20·6%, 14·1% and 13·6%.  I suggest to the Minister that the expansion of the university fits with all the key strategies and plans for the North, such as:  the Programme for Government, the economic development strategy, the draft innovation strategy, the MATRIX report, the One Plan, the EU higher education area, the DEL higher education strategy and many more.

However, despite the constraints that Derry and the north-west see, there exists a range of knowledge-based assets with significant growth sectors:  health technologies, stratified medicine, software engineering, ICT, renewable energies and sustainable technologies.  It has been well recognised that the city is at the heart of international telecommunications awareness, has an enhanced positive reputation resulting from the City of Culture, and a young population.

I ask the Minister to reinstate his support for the business plan, commit to the expansion of the University of Ulster at Magee campus and ensure that the project, as agreed, becomes a departmental priority.

Photo of Pat Ramsey Pat Ramsey Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank Maeve McLaughlin for securing this debate on what is, once again, one of the most important subject matters in the city.  I serve on the Employment and Learning Committee, and the Minister knows full well that we all believe in this.  To be honest, a debate like this goes to the heart of the city, Minister; it is like a wound in the heart of the city.  As Maeve McLaughlin said, you provoked anger, frustration and absolute disappointment with your press release during the summer. 

I know in my heart — I have met the Minister I do not know how many times, and I do not know how many times we have had this discussion — and I genuinely believe that the Minister is behind Magee and supports the importance of the One Plan that Maeve McLaughlin talked about.

I want to place on record that the One Plan's priority and objective is for a university campus serving 9,400 full-time students, including 6,000 full-time undergraduate students, supported by an enhanced provision of 750 full-time undergraduate students at North West Regional College, bringing the total number of full-time undergraduates to 1,500, over the 10-year period to 2020.

I am just going to use the wording again.  

It is important to say this:  the One Plan encompassed, consulted and surveyed every household in the city.  As a result, the key economic driver for the importance of Derry and its regeneration — culturally, socially and every other way — was the Magee campus.  It was adopted with great aplomb by the First Minister and the deputy First Minister coming to the city and welcoming it.  It was in the Programme for Government, but I am sure that the Minister will tell us that Magee was not specifically identified in that document. 

At the same time, I have every confidence that the Minister will be positive today.  In terms of the Programme for Government, and given that the One Plan was key, certainly for representatives of the north-west, how many times did the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister seek an update on the progression, development or out-workings of the One Plan, as it was identified to Maeve or myself ?  I would be keen to hear that from the Minister.

We have to be clear:  the business case has to be approved and endorsed by yourselves, and, because of the levels of it, it has to go to DFP.  However, I assure you that, even before that took place, I would have said to the Minister, at a very early stage, given the politics surrounding it, "You should be taking this to the Executive".  Irrespective that the business case being sustained, it is important that you take that and test the Executive.

Photo of Robin Swann Robin Swann UUP

Will the Member give way?

Photo of Robin Swann Robin Swann UUP

Just a query:  the Member has received the same briefing from the Minister as I have.  He says that he has met the Minister a couple of times.  In relation to the business case, if no business case is put forward, does the Member have any idea how much the Minister has saved by not bringing forward Magee?  If there is no business case, surely there is no value there?  Surely, that is something that the Executive should be taking forward.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

The Member has another minute.

Photo of Pat Ramsey Pat Ramsey Social Democratic and Labour Party 7:00 pm, 16th September 2014

I thank the Member for his comments.  Clearly, a business case has been presented.  The Minister and the Department have a draft business case in their possession, which the Minister will confirm that he has received.  We have been told that it was sent to him, and we have a copy of the outline business case that was submitted.  We all got it five or six days ago by email, so I do not think that there is any doubt about that.  I am making the point that we can develop and sustain an argument for the development.  I think back on the previous debate.  On many occasions, unfortunately, Members go down the route of saying, "The Derry ones are at it again".  These are not places for the people of Derry.  The increased numbers for Magee are for Northern Ireland, the border counties and to encourage students from England, Scotland and Wales who may want to come here.  There is clear and obvious evidence, locally and regionally, of ever-increasing student numbers moving away who might stay at home.  The increased fees, for example, might mean that students may want to stay here.  We see evidence of that.

My time has almost run out.  Around November 2011, the University of Ulster paid a deposit for the land acquisition of Foyle and Londonderry College.  This is key to the business case and in ensuring that the Minister has a legacy.  They will have until 2016, when Foyle and Londonderry College moves campus to the Waterside.  At that time, a decision will need to be taken to buy that land.  I want to know the Department's position in ensuring that that happens, and I want us to have it.

I have to finish on a positive.  I understand the Minister:  he brings great initiatives.  There are some good initiatives at present, such as the hairdressing apprenticeships at the North West Regional College, which will make a difference.  I know that there are some difficulties over the economic inactivity strategy.  I hope that we can iron those out, because they will make a difference.  By God, I can tell you this:  there is only one real project in the north-west that will give people a big lift, and that is the campus at Magee.  There is a hurt in the heart of the city, Minister —

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

Will the Member draw his remarks to a close?

Photo of Pat Ramsey Pat Ramsey Social Democratic and Labour Party

— and unless we get some resolution to give confidence to people, we cannot go on.  Again, I thank Maeve for securing the debate.

Photo of Ross Hussey Ross Hussey UUP

Mr Deputy Speaker, do I have your permission to remain seated?  Mr Deputy Speaker?  I will.

Photo of Ross Hussey Ross Hussey UUP

Once again, I am delighted to represent my colleagues from the constituency of Foyle.  I am pleased to speak this evening on a matter that affects the maiden city of Londonderry.  As you can see, I am the only unionist here to do that, but I am pleased to be here to do so.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on behalf of the Ulster Unionist Party in the Adjournment debate on the expansion of the Magee campus of the University of Ulster.  In doing so, I am conscious that I am giving a perspective from outside the city walls of Londonderry.  I can assure Members from the maiden city that this issue is of interest to those of us who represent constituencies like West Tyrone and the wider western and north-western part of Northern Ireland.  As was said by Mr Ramsey, we want this institution for all of Ireland and further afield.  I have certainly no problems in supporting that.  For the record, the Ulster Unionist Party is in favour and wants the expansion of Magee.

When Minister Farry made his announcement on the biggest radio show in the country — I cannot remember the name of that show — he talked about the pressures on his Department's budget, and he probably did not realise the storm that was about to fall onto his head.  Dr Farry effectively said that the proposed expansion of the University of Ulster's Magee campus was off the table due to the Northern Ireland Executive Budget cuts.  The loud condemnation of the Minister, in part understandable, has been well documented and, predictably, repeated here today.

It is very easy and tempting to engage in Minister bashing, especially when the Minister is not from your own party, but let us step back and try to calmly assess where we stand with the expansion of Magee.  I note that Foyle Members have been asking questions about whether the Minister for Employment and Learning has received a business case for the expansion at Magee.  It would be helpful if the Minister could be crystal clear on that issue this evening in the Assembly.

On 17 September last year, in a similar Adjournment debate, my colleague Sandra Overend asked a very salient question that cut to the heart of the question:

"the Minister has said that no business case is needed, and the 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." [Official Report, Vol 87, No 6, p63, col 2].

In response, the Minister said:

"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."

He concluded:

"I stress that, without a business case, incremental growth can still continue." — [Official Report, Vol 87, No 6, p66, col 1].

Members should note that exchange and consider how much more pertinent it is one year on in the context of a Budget that is more broken and stretched.  I have to say that I do have some sympathy for the Minister, not with the way in which he blurted the news out on the radio but with the problems with his budget.  Having said that, I have to remind the House that the Alliance Party did vote for the four-year Budget in 2011. 

The Minister stated last year that incremental growth can continue.  In December 2011, he said that an extra 700 undergraduate places would be made available in Northern Ireland by 2015.  At the same time, the University of Ulster stated that the 322 extra places being awarded to it would all be allocated to the Magee campus.  The question is this:  have those commitments been put in abeyance by the Budget stand-off and the Minister's August statement?  That is the simple question that should be answered today.  If it is, this Adjournment debate will have been worthwhile and not just another exercise in Minister-bashing and a pretext for issuing angry press statements to the 'Derry Journal' or the 'Londonderry Sentinel'.  As I said, the Ulster Unionist Party supports the expansion of Magee college.  We call on the Minister to clarify the numbers, the plan and the budget.

Photo of Raymond McCartney Raymond McCartney Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle.  Ba mhaith liom fáilte a chur roimh an díospóireacht seo inniu.  I welcome the fact that we are once more debating this issue.  I suppose that it is welcome, because sometimes Adjournment debates can be very constituency-based.  I welcome the fact that Ross Hussey is here and representing, if you like, the wider Ulster Unionist interest and the wider north-west.

Photo of Ross Hussey Ross Hussey UUP

I hope that that is not me being wider that you are talking about.

Photo of Raymond McCartney Raymond McCartney Sinn Féin

No.  I heard you say that you are the only unionist here, but I want to acknowledge —

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

Can all remarks be addressed through the Chair, please?

Photo of Raymond McCartney Raymond McCartney Sinn Féin

— Mr Swann's presence as well, no doubt supporting the expansion of the university.  That is maybe for another day.

In fairness to the Minister, he has met on a number of occasions delegations from the city and from the wider interest.  I think that he will acknowledge how important an issue this is, particularly for people who represent the constituency of Foyle and Derry city.  It has been on the political agenda for a long, long time.  The last time that we debated this, I reflected on the numbers of students in other cities throughout Ireland.  Indeed, this week, it was particularly interesting during the Scottish debate to hear of the impact of universities, particularly on the economy of Scotland.  I will say it again:  Dublin has 53,000 students; Belfast has 32,000; Cork has 19,000; Galway has 17,000; Limerick has 12,000; Coleraine has 8,000; and Derry has 4,000.  When the Minister is addressing this type of issue or reflecting on this debate, I think that it is worth him asking himself why he thinks that has been the case and continues to be.  Given the economic impact that a university has on the other places that I have named, why does Derry not have a higher proportion of students?  That, in many ways, would have addressed many of the problems that Derry has faced down through the years? 

The expansion of the university will be and should be a key element in addressing the many, many issues of regional imbalance and regional disadvantage, which has always featured in the Programme for Government.  When people look at unemployment figures in Derry, I do not think that it can escape any of us, including the Minister, that the lack of university places has an impact, as do other issues.  Collective responsibility, as much as this should be a collective responsibility, should feature in that as well.

Maeve McLaughlin outlined some of the meetings that have taken place, and I have no doubt that the Minister has shown support and, in many ways, played a vital role.  From a Derry perspective, we felt that the case was made in the most rigorous way possible.  At one or two meetings, the Minister said that the absence of a business case was not exactly showing us in the best light.  Perhaps because there was just an outline business plan, or a sense of what we needed, that was not hitting the mark with the Department, and the Minister said that very clearly.

Perhaps the fact that it was in the One Plan provided the strategic imperative for us to take it forward.  In recent times, however, the strategy board, and the University of Ulster, which accepted the expansion, played a crucial role.  Then came the need for a business case to be delivered.  As Pat Ramsey said, we have all received a copy of the outline business case.  We know that the Minister has also a received a copy and that the timeline is that he should have the full business case by October.

In August, when the Minister announced that the expansion of Magee was on the shelf, it came, as Pat said, as a bit of a shock to all of us because, until then, the commentary had always been positive.  I refer to the previous debate.  There is no doubt that, in the heat of argument or debate, it is easy to say, "If my Department's budget is being cut, this is what will go to the wall or on the shelf."  I think that we have to avoid that.  Certainly, there has to be honesty at all times, but it can be easy to say what will suffer, which leads to the most negative reaction.  That is what you got from people in Derry, Minister.  They said very clearly, "This is not what we want, and we will bring it to your door."  They said that because all that we do should be based on evidence, and I think that the business case and the figures that I presented provide that evidence.  I will not go into the figures for the economic impact of universities on cities as I accept that you are well acquainted with those —

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

Will the Member draw his remarks to a close?

Photo of Raymond McCartney Raymond McCartney Sinn Féin

However, we know that, historically, we have been left behind, so our job is to make sure that we catch up in the future.

Photo of Colum Eastwood Colum Eastwood Social Democratic and Labour Party

We often say that a week is a long time in politics, and, given the last week that we have had, it definitely is.  In Derry, half a century is an eternity.  It is coming up to 50 years ago that the Lockwood report, which was basically a sectarian document, announced Coleraine as the site for the new University of Ulster.  This is not just about looking back, but it is important to put it in context:  that decision left a very negative legacy in our city of, amongst other things, economic deprivation.  The failure to address that in the subsequent 50 years has made it much more difficult for our city to see the peace dividend that other places may have seen.  It is a well-worn phrase, but we do not wear being known as "the economic and unemployment black spot of the North" as a badge of honour.  We really wish that it was not the case.  However, it is, unfortunately, true that our city lags behind when it comes to the employment figures.  We come here and argue for all sorts of different tools for economic expansion, but we all recognise that no matter how many roads we build, we need a proper university.  We talk about the figure of 9,400.  For us, that was a compromise, a starting point.  Unless we get at least to that point, we have no chance of redressing some of the difficulties that we face.

Census figures relating to employment were revealed in July and were revised this month.  They showed that there are 15,000 more jobs in the four Belfast constituencies than there were in 2009 just after the financial crash.  However, the picture in Derry is very different:  in the same period, we lost nearly 2,000 jobs.  Derry is supposed to be alongside Belfast and, as part of the economic strategy, one of the major places that we look at in terms of economic expansion.

Derry's employment figures are contracting, so, for us, the issue around Magee is not just, as Pat Ramsey said, that we want more Derry people to go to university.  It is a fundamental economic issue that needs to be resolved, but it just never has been resolved.  We need the proper number of students doing the proper kind of high-tech courses.  There was welcome news today in the opening of the science park at Fort George.  That is fantastic, but if we want to properly maximise and utilise that opportunity, we need to ensure that we have high-tech graduates going from the University of Ulster at Magee into that site so that we can build another building at Fort George, employ more people and ensure that we have more people in the city earning a decent wage and contributing to the economy for the whole of the North.

I sometimes feel for the Minister, although I did not feel for him when he made that announcement on the radio in August.  It was an insensitive way to make a point.  We all know the point he was making, but people in Derry saw through it because, as I pointed out earlier, this is a 50-year old debate and not one that has just arrived as a result of welfare reform.  It was insensitive, and it was a mistake, and, to be fair to him, the Minister has recognised that, and he has again committed to the expansion of Magee.

My view is that it is a much bigger issue than just the Minister.  It is an issue that needs to be at the heart of our Executive and trumpeted by the First Minister and the deputy First Minister.  It is shocking that there is nobody from the DUP on the opposite Benches this evening who cares enough to come into the Chamber to fight for the economic survival of our city.  That, for me, is a very worrying development.  As far as we are concerned, this needs to be handled at the very top.  I am glad to see that the deputy First Minister said on the front of the 'Derry Journal' that he would spearhead the campaign.  We are going to hold him and the Executive to that.

Ms McLaughlin and I will disagree about this, but there was no proper mention of the expansion of Magee in the Programme for Government.  It said that they wanted to develop the One Plan, but, as far as I was concerned, we had already developed it.  What we need to do is implement it, and we needed specifically to mention Magee and some of the other aspects of the plan in the Programme for Government.  Some of them were mentioned.  Ebrington and Fort George were mentioned, as were jobs targets, but there was no specific mention of the expansion of Magee and no budget given to the Minister to make it happen.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP 7:15 pm, 16th September 2014

I ask the Member to bring his remarks to a close.

Photo of Colum Eastwood Colum Eastwood Social Democratic and Labour Party

In terms of a positive ending, we are rowing behind the commitment given by the deputy First Minister and the commitments given by the Minister for Employment and Learning.  I hope that the First Minister shares in those commitments, because we need to ensure that we deliver this.  I do not welcome the fact that we are back here a year later.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

The Member's time is up.

Photo of Colum Eastwood Colum Eastwood Social Democratic and Labour Party

I do not want to be here next year.

Photo of Stephen Farry Stephen Farry Alliance

I welcome this debate, as it provides an opportunity for me to set out my approach to the delivery of the expansion of our university sector and in particular the expansion of the University of Ulster at Magee in Derry. It also allows me to set out the pre-existing funding challenges facing our universities and the much deeper pressures that are now being experienced in light of the ongoing budgetary difficulties facing the Executive.

My central objective is to ensure that Northern Ireland continues to have a world-class and internationally recognised higher education sector and, indeed, that we can further build on this strong platform over the coming years.

Our universities are key partners in the economic transformation of Northern Ireland.  Indeed, they are central to our inward investment narrative and efforts to create more jobs and business start-ups locally.  They are also key providers of higher-level skills and research.

Over the past three years, I have put in place Northern Ireland's first higher education strategy, Graduating to Success, and the first widening participation strategy, Access to Success.  In this time, I have also added just over 1,200 university places, all in STEM subjects.  We are on course to double the number of publicly-funded PhDs over the decade.  We have also made fresh investments in university research.

It is particularly important to emphasise the relationship between universities and our economy.  However, I remain concerned at pockets of graduate unemployment and underemployment, and I am keen to stress the importance of investment in employability skills and developing a greater relationship between the degree programmes offered and the requirements of the economy.  My Department's increased focus on a new strategy for apprenticeships, including higher-level apprenticeships, with the opportunity to link up with higher education pathways, is particularly relevant in this context.

The decision to freeze tuition fees for local students at local universities was the right one.  It is a recognition of the Executive's commitment to widening participation.  However, we must at the same time recognise that it does curtail the universities' ability to generate additional income.  With the efficiency savings asked across the public sector during the current Budget period, combined with this restriction on income generation, our universities have a major challenge to match the rate of growth of the leading universities across these islands.

To put this in perspective:  the amount invested per university place in Northern Ireland is between £1,000 and £2,500 less than in English universities, depending on the funding band.  To put this another way:  the universities require an investment in the region of £25 million per year to remain competitive.

It is important that we retain a quality higher education system and, indeed, build further upon that.  I do not want to see lower tuition fees being matched with an inferior form of higher education — that is not something in the interests of our young people or the economy, and I am sure that Members would share that concern.

It is important to set out this context before looking at the specific ambition to expand the University of Ulster campus at Magee.

I do understand the impact that the creation or expansion of a university campus can have on any location, including Derry and the wider north-west.  I also understand the history around this issue and the frustrations over the past 50 years.  The One Plan provides my Department with the strategic context and targets for the expansion of the Magee campus.  However, it is important to be clear how it is framed within the Programme for Government.  While there is a general commitment to the One Plan, only the regeneration of Fort George and Ebrington are specifically mentioned.  Importantly, my Department is not measured or scrutinised in relation to the expansion of Magee in any respect.

When I assumed office in May 2011, there was no Executive budgetary commitment or resources within my departmental budget to facilitate the expansion of Magee.  However, through two bids to the Executive — the first arising out of the tuition fee settlement and the second relating to the jobs and economy initiative — and from redirecting resources in my pre-existing budget, I have been able to expand higher education by around 1,600 places across Northern Ireland, with 1,200 being directed to our universities.

The University of Ulster has received more than its proportionate share of those places, receiving 652.  In line with its stated commitment, the university has allocated those places to the Magee campus.  So I do believe that solid and steady progress was being made towards the interim target of 1,000 additional places by 2015 as set out in the One Plan, before budgetary uncertainty and now cuts have forced a pause in our expansion plans.

I appreciate that the Derry/Londonderry strategy board is developing a business case in relation to the much greater proposed expansion of the Magee campus in line with the One Plan target through to 2020.  The business case is required given the location-specific nature of the proposal.  We have received the needs-analysis aspect of the business case, with the remainder expected to arrive during the autumn.

However, we are receiving this business case at a time when the Executive are facing an unprecedented budgetary crisis.  My departmental budget has already been cut in-year by 4·5%.  The previously indicated level of cuts to be formally ratified in the October monitoring round may well be exceeded.  Furthermore, we are stating into the abyss, with even greater levels of cuts facing us in future years unless there is a major reassessment of the approach being adopted on some critical financial and policy matters in the Executive.

I have had no alternative but to pass on 4% cuts in-year to our universities, with further uncertainty over forthcoming budgetary periods.  My first responsibility is to work with the universities to manage the pressures as strategically as possible, with a particular focus on the direct needs of the local economy and the steps necessary to maintain international standards.

I am sympathetic to the potential further expansion of the Magee campus of the University of Ulster, but I cannot be expected to both cut public spending and increase it at the same time within the context of higher education; it simply does not add up.  Indeed, it is worth stressing that the resourcing of the One Plan's student numbers would represent a significant challenge in terms of funding and would require an investment of over £30 million on a recurrent annual basis.

That said, my Department will scrutinise any business case received in order to be in a position to make a bid in the 2016-2020 Budget period.  Any bid to the Executive for additional resources would only be viable once financial circumstances are different and the overall Northern Ireland budget and the resourcing of my Department are placed on a sustainable footing.  Any bid would have to represent additionality and not be at the expense of quality elsewhere within the higher education system.  It must also be considered in conjunction with other investments required to consolidate the world-class standard of our universities and the wider development of skills in our economy in areas such as apprenticeships.  Also, on the particular issue of capital investment relating to the proposed teaching block, my Department will seek to process that business case over the coming months and will consider making a bid in the 2015-16 Budget.

In conclusion, I stress that we will process the business case in order to be in a position to make bids if financial circumstances allow us to do so.  However, it is important that Members are under no illusion about the extreme financial pressures that are facing my Department and the Executive.

The higher education system is under great pressure, and the pressure is set to increase.  Until that situation is reversed, we will not have a credible environment for my Department to realistically seek to expand the Magee campus.  So, while the door is open to the bid being made, it is important that people understand the wider context in which we are operating.  If we can work collectively to address budget uncertainty to ensure that we have a fit-for-purpose higher education system that is properly resourced, those opportunities will become viable.

I have been very clear about my position.  It is important that Members appreciate that we are in a situation where we face cuts in higher education.  It is difficult to see how you can make cuts and make an argument to expand at the same time.  We have to address and reverse those cuts, and then we can look to future opportunities.

I thank Members for the debate and the opportunity to respond.  I have met a number of delegations from the city and will no doubt continue to do so.  I have never turned down a request for a meeting in that regard.  We look forward to receiving the remainder of the business case in the autumn and giving it scrutiny.  As it is a very complex piece of work, it will take us some time to go through it, and no doubt there will be some different iterations of the business case required.  However, that will provide us with a foundation to make a bid, subject to those financial circumstances changing.  That will allow us to have a higher education system that we can embed within our community, ensure is of international standard and then seek to expand even further.

Adjourned at 7.29 pm.