2010 Why the Best Higher Education Option for Derry is a Strong Unitary University of Ulster

 Professor Gerry McKenna


The recent heightened level of interest in, and demand for, increased higher education provision in Derry including proposals by the U4D lobby for a ‘University for Derry’, is a natural reaction of a community that feels hard done by in many ways. This includes the understandable reaction to the announcement by the University of Ulster (UU) in 2009 that it plans to invest over £250 million in transferring most of its activities from the highly successful Jordanstown campus to the Cathedral Quarter in Belfast. It is also a residue from the 1960s when the decision to locate Northern Ireland’s second university in Coleraine rather than in Derrywas viewed as blatant discrimination on the part of the Unionist government against developments ‘West of the Bann’. There is little evidence that the then government did, in fact, seek to pressurise the Lockwood Committee overseeing the project into choosing one location over another; nonetheless its members showed very limited political sensitivity in failing to anticipate the inevitable reaction which followed within the nationalist community. This article seeks to explain why the continued development of a strong unitary University ofUlster remains the most viable and sustainable option for expanding higher education in Derry.


The amalgamation of MageeCollege into the newly established New University of Ulster (NUU) in 1968 offered the prospect of some significant development of higher education in Derry. However NUU struggled to attract students during the troubled years of the 1970s leaving little scope for the development of Magee. The merger between NUU and the Ulster Polytechnic to form UU in 1984 brought new approaches to higher education thinking in Northern Ireland. UU was, immediately, a large university and therefore did not suffer from the very limited financial resources that had inhibited developments at NUU. Because of its size, and to facilitate the merger, the government funds available to the new institution were of a scale such that major and substantial developmental projects could be envisaged and undertaken. This funding was reduced progressively over subsequent years. The management of the ‘new’ UU, with strong support from the then direct-rule government, sought to build up the Magee campus as a priority. Capital and other funds were allocated deliberately and disproportionately to support Magee development. Any increases in student numbers allocated by government were distributed in accordance with this vision and some numbers were also transferred from other campuses.  


The initial phase of post-1984 Magee development concentrated on increasing student numbers; UU had at that time little high quality research upon which to build. The adjacent Aberfoyle estate was purchased to allow campus expansion. New buildings were erected and older buildings refurbished in order to facilitate growth. Many new courses were established. The next major phase of development took place in the late 1990s and early years of the current Century. This coincided with a focussed and highly successful push within the University to develop major research strengths in selected areas across all four campuses. A new ‘state of the art’ Learning Resource Centre (Library) was established; the old Foyle and Londonderry College was purchased and converted into the modern Foyle Arts Centre; Research Pavilions were built along with an Innovation Centre for start-up high technology companies; the campus was funded for development as a site of the Northern Ireland Science Park; funding was obtained for the development of the Intelligent Systems Centre; the Academy for Irish Cultural Heritages was established along with the Institute for Transitional Justice; nursing programmes were developed and new Halls of Residence were built. Negotiations were initiated with Government and other interested parties at this time on expanding the campus onto an adjacent site; initially focussed on Templemore, but subsequently on the opportunity arising from the planned vacation of the nearby Foyle and Londonderry College campus. Despite the stronger financial position of UU relative to NUU, many of these strategic developments would not have been affordable without the support of donors, by far the most significant of which was Atlantic Philanthropies. Universities are ‘not for profit’ institutions, with very limited annual surplus resources available from the public purse for major developmental projects. Philanthropic support has been severely reduced in recent years due to, inter alia, the global economic recession.


It is clear therefore that the University, far from neglecting Magee, has given it the highest priority within its strategic development plans. While development in recent years has been slower than previously, there is little evidence that Magee has suffered disproportionately relative to other UU campuses.


Many of the innovations at Magee have come from ideas generated by staff on other campuses and a number of acclaimed centres based there continue to have major inputs from elsewhere. Innovative initiatives developed at other campuses have also been replicated, where appropriate, at Magee. These include the highly successful development of e-learning programmes and the technology transfer vehicle, UUTECH. All faculties have played their part. Magee is today a strong and equal partner with each of the three other campuses within a large and successful university. The campus has been strongly represented in successive Research Assessment Exercises, the most recent of which resulted in UU having three subject areas ranked in the top three in the UK; a feat replicated in only 20 other universities. As a result of strategic planning and judicious investment over many years, UU has performed incomparably better in measures of research quality and volume than all former polytechnics and many much older universities.


The most recent clamour for an independent university for Derry has undoubtedly been influenced by a number of factors. These include:


1. The perceived failure of the University to grow the campus more rapidly in recent years. However, it should be noted that in the absence of a further relaxation on the government imposed cap on student numbers, any expansion at Magee would have to take place through transfers from other campuses, most obviously Jordanstown. In the current economic climate, this is probably the only realistic mechanism for significant growth at Magee.


2. The view that Derry, as a major city, should have a similar sized independent university to rival Corkand Galway. This thinking fails to take account of the length of time taken for University College Cork (UCC) and the National University of Ireland Galway (NUIG) to reach their current size and reputation. It should also be noted that a reduction in the number of universities through mergers and amalgamations is currently being discussed openly in the Republic. The rationale for such thinking is the perceived need for critical mass in order to achieve international standing; an obvious aspiration for all universities. In Great Britain current and probable future cuts in UK university funding are being widely predicted to result in a number of mergers and the closure of up to 30 existing university campuses.


3. The link between university campuses and related local economic activity of benefit to retailers, landlords, developers and other business interests is seen by some, in the absence of other economic initiatives, as justifying university campus development. Such arguments are often accompanied by little more than a cursory acknowledgement of the primary function of universities, namely the development and exchange of knowledge and ideas through teaching, learning and research. While universities may stimulate or support, indirectly, local general economic activity, this is not their primary function. Any deviation into other spheres, or allowance of undue influence from external sources, including business interests, undermines their autonomy, usurps their governance, and threatens their justification and long term survival.


Notwithstanding the economic and financial realities which make an independent university unviable, the arguments for maintaining the future development of Magee within a unitary University o fUlster are overwhelming. Included among these are:


a. Access to the greater funding base and versatility which a large university commands.


b. The support of the combined brainpower of the entire university in innovating across all campuses.


c. The possibilities for cross-campus synergistic collaboration; a major feature of UU since its inception.


d.  The marketing of the proven brand including its hard won international reputation in the US, Europe,India and China.


e. The protection which size and economies of scale bring in times of economic and other adversities.


Arguing for the benefits to Derry of Magee remaining part of a unitary University of Ulster is not to decry the efforts of those, including local politicians, who wish to see greater and faster development. This includes the work of Ilex, the Derry/Londonderry Regeneration company whose recent report ‘One City – One Plan – One Voice’ proposes major expansion of higher education in the city. In pursuing this aspiration, it is entirely legitimate and honourable to hold the University management and its governing body to account. The University is a public body which receives virtually all of its income from government and from student fees. It is to be expected therefore that it should have a clear long-term vision, a well developed overall strategic plan translated into campus- and intercampus-plans, and clearly measurable, ambitious, but realistic, milestones. These should be articulated such as to be readily understandable to the local population and to staff and students alike. This approach is likely to yield the greatest long term and sustainable development at Magee. The alternative is likely to be a series of disappointments as proposers of the U4D movement and University management are tempted to out-bid and out-promise each other with inadequately planned and unaffordable aspirations which are unlikely to be fulfilled.


The recently announced availability of the current Foyle and Londonderry College campus offers a tremendous opportunity for the University to complete its development plan for the Magee campus. However, this will have to be achieved within a hugely difficult financial environment and will require patience coupled with dedicated focus of purpose. It seems unlikely to be fulfilled if the University continues to pursue the inordinately expensive, largely unfunded, and academically implausible, ‘Jordanstown to Belfast’ transfer plan. For some perplexing reason this particular ‘elephant’ remains stubbornly ‘in the room’.


It is imperative that the Magee development plans of UU are progressed in a fashion such that the goals and timetables are honest, open, realistic, and achievable. Those committed to the overall interests of Derry, and who support the further expansion of higher education, research, and knowledge transfer in the North-West, should work closely with the University to achieve these aims.


Original version of an article published in Fortnight magazine, Autumn 2010.


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