Magee Campus: Update

Oral Answers to Questions — Employment and Learning – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:15 pm on 9th February 2016.

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Photo of Gerard Diver Gerard Diver Social Democratic and Labour Party 2:15 pm, 9th February 2016

4. Mr Diver asked the Minister for Employment and Learning to outline the plans his Department has before 30 March 2016 to expedite the revised business case for the expansion of Magee campus of Ulster University. (AQO 9583/11-16)

Photo of Raymond McCartney Raymond McCartney Sinn Féin

8. Mr McCartney asked the Minister for Employment and Learning for an update on the proposed expansion of Magee campus. (AQO 9587/11-16)

Photo of Stephen Farry Stephen Farry Alliance

With your permission, Mr Deputy Speaker, I wish to group questions 4 and 8.

My Department received the latest version of the outline business case on 22 January 2016. My officials are reviewing it and looking at the extent to which previous comments provided on 1 July 2015 regarding the version submitted in June 2015 have been addressed, as well as considering any additional information provided. A formal response will issue on the latest case as soon as possible.

Photo of Gerard Diver Gerard Diver Social Democratic and Labour Party

Minister, thank you for your answer. Given the previous false dawns in relation to the expansion of the Magee campus, oversight and stewardship of the business case will be critical in the uncertain context of moving from one Department to a new one. Will the Minister assure the House that the same team will work on the business case and that it will be followed up assiduously?

Photo of Stephen Farry Stephen Farry Alliance

The same unit of officials will work on this when it transfers to the new Department. There may well be some change in personnel, as is the case in every aspect of government, but there will be no more or less continuity in this than in anything else.

I take issue with the Member's point on "false dawns". I certainly have not been involved in any false dawns in all of this. I have made it clear all along that I support the expansion of Ulster University at Magee and would like it to happen. It is clear that we need to produce more graduates, particularly those linked to the needs of our economy. However, I have also been very clear all along that we cannot expand the University of Ulster at Magee unless, collectively, the Assembly is prepared to ensure that more resource is allocated to higher education. We have to fix the current structural deficit in higher education. We have to fix the foundations before building more investment. Members should be very clear on what that involves: we have to reverse the £16 million of cuts from the 2015-16 financial year, and we have to address the £40 million structural deficit. Then we can look to the recurring cost of around £30 million to proceed with the expansion of student numbers at Magee.

I say to the Member, his party and others that it is not good enough simply to talk about this and make rhetorical commitments to the expansion. We have to show a coherent approach to public finances in Northern Ireland that will allow us to do such projects, which are very much in our interest. We have not had that collective approach across the parties for some time.

Photo of Raymond McCartney Raymond McCartney Sinn Féin

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as an fhreagra sin. I thank the Minister for his frank answer and welcome his continuing support for the expansion of Magee. As we take the business case forward, can he indicate what the timeline will be? Can a centre of excellence, perhaps based at the Magee campus, assist in the process of ensuring its expansion?

Photo of Stephen Farry Stephen Farry Alliance

At this stage, I cannot give a reliable answer on the timeline. That is subject to the ongoing scrutiny of the business case by my officials. If the economists in the Department are content with it, they will pass it to DFP for its consideration. In a context where my officials are not happy with the business case, they will have to refer it to the strategy board for further comment and amendment.

You will appreciate from my original answer that we have gone down that road before. Issues were raised about what was produced in the summer of last year, and it was quite some time before the revised business case came back to the Department. Whether this is the final stage of the process or whether we will have to go through another iteration depends on the point made about scrutiny.

I reiterate to the Member that this is not about the capacity of the city council, the consultants or the university to produce a business case. Whether Magee expands depends on how it is resourced by the Executive. The resources have to be found in a sustainable way. I spelt out the costs involved in addressing our wider higher education system in Northern Ireland. You cannot expand Magee unless you fix the wider problems first, and you then have the platform on which provision can be expanded. The case for more graduates is clear, but we have to make sure that we do that in an appropriate and orderly manner. We need a commitment from all parties to resource higher education properly to the level that is required to support our economy.

Photo of Sandra Overend Sandra Overend UUP

I thank the Minister for his response. Does he agree that the expansion at Magee, which we all support, should not come at the expense or threaten the viability of other university campuses in Northern Ireland?

Photo of Stephen Farry Stephen Farry Alliance

Absolutely. I very much concur with the Member's comments. Indeed, when I met a delegation from Causeway Coast and Glens Borough Council yesterday, it made exactly that point; I am not sure whether a woman from the delegation was in communication with anyone. Let me be very clear: we have been able to expand Magee over the past five years and have found some resource to do that. To an extent, that has been undermined by recent cuts, but, overall, the Magee campus is bigger than when I took office in 2011, notwithstanding my zero budget at that time for its expansion. It has been the policy of the university all along to consider any additional places awarded to it for allocation to the Magee campus. To be very clear: the expansion of Magee cannot come at the expense of or by undermining existing provision; it cannot come at the cost of displacing students into Derry out of existing campuses, whether Ulster University or Queen's. We need to ensure that any expansion at Magee is additional. There is a clear case for more graduates in Northern Ireland, and it is in that spirit that we should approach the expansion, subject, of course, to the Executive making money available.