North West Columban Initiative

The Derry University Group is the lobbying organisation for an independent third-level institution for North-West Ireland, to be managed autonomously by the city-region. It was formed by Conal McFeely, Diane Greer and Garbhan Downey and is based at Ráth Mór.

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Derry needs new university partners

The Derry University Group argues that Derry/Strabane’s draft regeneration strategy is perilously reliant on Ulster University – and calls for new partnerships with other third level institutions

Derry & Strabane Council’s new Strategic Growth Plan (Draft), published last month, is a comprehensive and ambitious visualisation of how our region could develop and prosper over the next decade and a half. It foresees an investment of £3.8bn in capital expenditure, 15,000 new jobs and £200m in additional wages. The plan is, however, critically dependent on Ulster University. Indeed, just like Derry’s last regeneration strategy, Ilex’s 2011 One Plan, it regards UU as a lead partner and driver (pages 30-31). The One Plan, for those who have not read it, was contingent on UU increasing its student numbers in Derry to 9,400 by 2020. But with just three years left to go, UU looks highly unlikely to meet even half of this target.

The financial projections in the One Plan were very telling. The strategy depended on a capital investment of £200m in Magee, along with a ‘recurrent requirement’ of £250m. To put this in context, the entire capital requirement needed to service the One Plan (and Derry’s entire redevelopment) was £401.9m, while the entire recurrent requirement was £257.8m. (See One Plan, page 73). Thus, almost exactly half of the city’s capital requirement, and virtually all of its recurrent requirements, hinged on the promised expansion of UU. But instead, UU exhausted its entire resources (plus its future borrowing power) in building a new £300-£500m campus in Belfast, offering Derry a solitary £10m teaching block which, six years on, is still not operational. The One Plan failed, in large part, because UU committed itself to Belfast and not Derry.

Derry: UU’s fourth choice
The issue six years ago, as it is today, is that UU, because of the way it is structured, is unable to act in Derry’s best interests, or indeed sole interests. UU is an East of the Bann institution, which for decades has consistently categorised Magee as its ‘Priority Four’ campus after Coleraine, Jordanstown and Belfast. Magee has no autonomy to make decisions for itself; it has no independence. So for it to be a cornerstone of the region’s regeneration plan is effectively handing over the reins of the Derry economy to Belfast. Again.

More than 100 courses – including law, history and psychology – have closed at Magee since 2010. There has been no discernable growth in any discipline whatsover. The campus is a wasteland, bereft of any footfall after 4pm, devoid of any student life. The promises of a 100-seater medical school in Derry ring hollow when you realise that all biomedical and science courses are now centred at Coleraine, which is also to be the site of the new veterinary department. Coleraine is further building two new teaching blocks, a PE centre and the new IT hub for the entire university. Crucially, on top of all of the above, UU has no money left. Anything it gets, it must use to service the spiraling debts accrued by its Belfast development.

And not only is Magee not a priority for UU, it is also very low down on Stormont’s to-do list. There was no mention whatsoever of Magee expansion in the recent £1bn infrastructure package agreed by Theresa May and the DUP.
So, to repeat: there will be no significant expansion of UU in Derry over the next decade. The money is not there.
It is time we stopped trying to reimagine UU Magee into the institution we think it should be and recognise instead the stark reality of what actually exists. We are in danger of putting all our eggs in a busted basket.

Plan spells out dangers
In fairness to the new Derry/Strabane draft plan, it does openly identify lack of progress at UU Magee as the most significant risk to our region’s development. The ‘Interdependencies and Risks’ section of the plan (pages 48-49) reads:

The scale of the ambition is of course challenging, requiring a rate of growth comparable to that experienced by some of the world’s most dynamic and successful cities in the last 20 years or so and is critically dependent on the urgent and rapid progress of a number of key catalyst projects including:
• The expansion of the University of Ulster Magee Campus
• The completion of the A5 Western Transport Corridor
• The delivery of the A6 Derry to Belfast road
• The upgrade of the A2 Buncrana Road including its junction with Strand Road

One of the principal risks in the successful delivery of the plan is if one or more of the above key catalyst projects does not progress or proceed on time with the potential to negatively and significantly impact on the other projects and the achievement of outcomes within this plan…

…In particular, the university expansion is fundamentally critical in improving the economic attractiveness of the City and Region – given its positive impact upon the labour market and skills, through the provision of skilled graduates and the increased availability of training opportunities.

In other words, if UU does not pitch in fully, the entire plan will fail.
Significantly, however, within this draft regeneration plan, there is as yet no suggestion of any other university partnership – or potential partnership. The number one threat to economic growth in this region is staring us in the face. Council cannot afford to ignore it. It must provide us with a viable alternative. The Derry University Group has suggested on numerous occasions it is time to begin talks with other third level institutions with a view to them locating in the region. We have also proposed that UU hand back the Magee lands to Derry/Strabane Council to allow us develop our own regionally-controlled third-level offer – as happened when Trinity passed on the Magee campus to the New University of Ulster in the 1960s. Because, despite rafts of good intentions and ostensible commitments, UU is clearly not working – and has never worked as it should – for Derry.

For this region to continue to bet its future on another round of promises – despite overwhelming evidence that UU cannot deliver what this region needs – is reckless. Given the risks to the region acknowledged in its new draft plan, it is essential that Council immediately begin exploring other options.

Region’s wide academic connections
Derry has long-standing links with scores of universities and university cities across the globe. Our proud tradition of scholarship dates back 1,500 years to the time of our patron saint and city founder, Colmcille. The former Dean of Derry, the philosopher George Berkeley, was an early sponsor of Yale University in the 1700s, and a college there is named in his honour. The University of California, Berkeley, was named after the Dean as well. Our region’s formal associations with Trinity College, Dublin go back more than a century. Magee was a Trinity campus up until the 1960s, at which time it was subsumed into the New University of Ulster (Coleraine). The city also has long-standing connections with Queen’s University, Belfast – thousands of Derry students have graduated from the institution since the 1940s. And, indeed, the last vice-chancellor there, the late Professor Patrick Johnston, was from Derry and a proud champion of our region.

For decades, if not centuries, Derry academics have lectured (and administered) in universities all over the world. Our diaspora have served, and continue to serve, virtually all of the US Ivy League colleges and also the leading universities in Ireland, England and Scotland. There are university buildings named after Derry’s Nobel Laureates, John Hume and Seamus Heaney, in both Maynooth and Belfast. In recent years, US colleges have begun to extend their reach into Ireland. Dublin is now home to Boston College and the American College, while Notre Dame is opening a campus in Galway. Derry is also growing in popularity as a summer school venue for US colleges. This year alone, Rath Mor in Creggan has hosted lectures for Temple University (Pennsylvania) and John Madison University (Virginia). Magee’s Irish Studies Department is currently running a school for US college students. And there are regular academic visits to the city from Boston College.

Building an independent Education City
In 1997, oil-rich Qatar established its own Education City, on the outskirts of the capital Doha. The 14 square km super-campus development, which was formally inaugurated in 2003, today houses eight of the world’s leading universities; six from the US, UCL (London) and HEC Paris. These colleges share research and work with businesses and institutions in the public and private sector.

While Derry could never match the spending power of Doha – it has many considerable advantages over the Middle East:
• It is the closest European city to America and is the former US Navy HQ for the North Atlantic
• It is geographically near Britain, Dublin and mainland Europe
• It is politically stable and safe for US travellers
• Its currency is secure
• It is English speaking
• It has centuries-old historic and familial connections with the US
• It has long-standing, preexisting connections with many American universities
• It is an international academic leader in modern literature and conflict resolution studies (with Nobel laureates in both disciplines)
• It has an outstanding reputation for its cultural, tourism and recreational facilities

Importantly, a number of US colleges have already expressed an interest in partnering with Derry. Over the past five years, North West educationalists have engaged with the authorities of Berkeley, Yale and Boston College to discuss potential alliances. There are also ongoing affiliations with several universities in Pennsylvania. These connections, and those fostered over recent years by city statesmen and women such as the late Martin McGuinness, himself a committed educationalist, must be fully developed. To this end, the Derry University Group offers the following amendments to the Draft Plan:

• Council, in conjunction with wider North West civic society, will establish its own Higher Education Department. The HE Department will have specific responsibility for developing independent partnerships with leading third-level institutions, both in Ireland and internationally, with a view to establishing an Education City in the North West.
• The HE Department will be responsible for attracting resources from governments, philanthropic institutes, trusts, educational partners and the private sector for the development of the region’s third-level sector/‘Education City’.
• The HE Department will be responsible for identifying, zoning and developing specific landbanks within the North-West region for the purposes of third-level education.
• The HE Department will be responsible for administering and managing the region’s third-level landbanks/‘Education City’.
• The HE Department will be supported by its own full Council committee, development budgets, marketing budgets and staff. It will be headed by a specific HE Strategic Director.
• The HE Department will ensure a minimum of 10,000 full-time HE students are enrolled in the Derry/Strabane ‘Education City’ by 2027.

Council has a responsibility to the citizens of the North West to pursue the development of its third-level sector itself – independent of UU. UU may, of course, choose to retain its interest in Derry but it can no longer be the region’s sole, or leading, HE interest. Obviously, it would expedite the region’s drive towards developing an independent HE sector if UU, via government, would hand over the lands at Magee, its courses and its running costs, to the Council in the short term. Council would then have full autonomy to source the third-level partners necessary to deliver a full range of courses to make the region’s third-level offer comparable with other Atlantic coast university cities like Galway, Cork and Limerick.

To be the Priority Four campus of the North’s second university is not enough for Derry, and it was never enough.
We deserve a first-class Education City, and we believe we are capable of delivering it for ourselves.

Conal McFeely
Diane Greer
Garbhan Downey


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University must be legacy priority

Two sets of figures released over the past few weeks have given added impetus, if not urgency, to the calls for an independent university to be established in Derry. The first were the latest unemployment statistics: Derry has yet again the highest jobless rate in the North. Despite all the growth, which was anticipated in the cultural and tourism sectors, the city is actually worse off than it was three years ago.

At the time of the last Local Government Elections in April 2011, Derry’s unemployment rate (Claimant Count) was 7.6 percent, the highest in Northern Ireland – a full fifty percent higher than the then NI average of 5.1%.
The current figure for the Council area (as of May 2014) is 8.3% – as against a lower NI average of 4.8%. But that only tells part of the picture. According to government figures, an estimated 25,000 people in this city are deemed “economically inactive”. Significantly, the second worst-off district, both in 2011 and now, is our nearest neighbor and new partner in local government, Strabane – currently at 7.4%.

These government statistics paint a stark picture of our economic past and future. The second set of figures, released recently by Creggan Enterprise – give some idea of why we are in such dire straits. CE’s research shows that this that this city has the lowest third level education provision on the island – with less than half the provision of the next worst town on the list. In percentage terms we currently have an eighth of Galway’s third-level student places, a seventh of Limerick’s, a fifth of Coleraine’s and a quarter of Cork’s. (See table.)
There could not be a clearer correlation between unemployment and the lack of education provision. It is evident to all that our young people are not getting the education they need to join the workforce.

Magee not the solution
Very few serious people, politicians and academics included, are now prepared to advance the public argument that working within the current structures of the University of Ulster, is a viable solution. A full half-century of experience has proven otherwise. One of the key strategies, if not the key strategy, for tackling unemployment in the Northwest has been the development of UU. Indeed, the Derry public has repeatedly been given assurances of 10,000 student places at Magee by 2020 – and this ambition was reinforced within the DSD’s One Plan for citywide development.

Stormont, however, has since told us that the city’s plans to develop a campus of 10,000 students is not a “realistic” target – and is now talking in terms of a maximum of 6,000. It is worth noting here that Limerick and Galway, both smaller cities than Derry, house 27,000 and 26,300 third-level students respectively. Given that the Magee numbers haven’t grown over the past three years – and indeed barely at all in the last ten years (2004/2005 intake: 4,105; most recent available figures: 4,182), many will be skeptical that even the ridiculously-low figure of 6,000 students can be met.

Self-help and outside help
If our City of Culture year taught us anything, it was that Derry’s spirit of self-help, combined with joined-up government thinking and cross-table political support, could pay real dividends – and that the city could deliver an internationally-acclaimed project in time and on budget. Our community leaders and public representatives worked with, and sourced funding from, virtually all government departments in the North – and also from private trusts, philanthropists and corporate sponsors – to deliver a £100m project in the space of three years. Railways and bridges and new concert grounds were built. Political will was, of course, essential for all this – just as it will be if we are to establish our own university that will properly service this city and our similarly-neglected neighbours across the Northwest. This is a project far bigger than any one department.

A good example of how a region can self-start a third-level institution is Mondragon in the Basque region – which, in 1997, set up a co-operative university, owned and operated by the community, in a former economic blackspot. It is decentralized model, sponsored by, and intrinsically linked at all levels, to local business and the local education sector.

Use the Ebrington site
We have a chance now to build on the legacy of 2013 – not in a piecemeal way – but with a landmark, citywide project. Derry, however, knows not to expect anything for nothing. We must offer an incentive to funders and indeed to students. The city should show its intent by immediately designating the 26-acre site at Ebrington – which is still almost completely vacant three years after opening – as the new university quarter. It would then gift the site to those who would develop it. Where better to establish a new campus, replete with ready-made Georgian buildings and world-acclaimed cultural space, than in the heart of the city? And how many universities could boast to having hosted the Turner Prize?

This iconic campus would then deliver bespoke courses (e.g. conflict resolution, urban regeneration, creative arts, community enterprise, Irish history, Irish film & photography, emigration studies, Irish drama & literature, frontline journalism) along with mainstream STEAM courses – in partnership with the new cultural hubs developed across the city as part of the City of Culture year.

We would also formalize our long-standing partnerships with Boston, via the Golden Bridges conferences, and Berkeley, to allow us to offer and receive virtual courses and/or modules. And via the Ireland Fund, and US-Irish agencies, we would source academic support from other US Ivy League colleges.

Expertise, and funding, is essential from all strata of local government, just as it was for 2013. City of Culture funders, such as the Department of Culture, Media & Sport, all Stormont departments, corporations like Seagate, private foundations like the Hamlyn Foundation and local investors and community trusts would be invited to be part of development team. They have all played their part in raising the city’s ambitions – and are all necessary to finish the job. And that, more than anything, is essential. This city’s social and cultural resurgence is irreversible. We can no longer allow process to stop us doing the correct thing – 2013 showed that. We need to tackle unemployment, we need to tackle shocking economic inequity and we need to rectify the massive imbalance in our third level education provision.

It is time to build the city the university it deserves and finish the job.

Boston prof supports community-focused university for Derry

Several weeks ago, I read with interest the article “University must be Derry’s number one priority” by Conal McFeely in which he called for the establishment of an independent third-level educational institution in Derry. Mr. McFeely supported his argument with economic, cultural, and historical data and reference to a history of unfulfilled promises to invest in higher education in Derry.

Having been a faculty member (and occasionally a departmental administrator) for more than 30 years at the University of Massachusetts Boston, I found several points raised in Mr. McFeely’s article resonating with my own experience. These lead me to support his call.

Mr. McFeely identifies two major problems flowing from the lack of local opportunities for third level education. First, he sees Derry students experiencing an increased disadvantage due to the lack of third-level places available to them, resulting in a much smaller number participating in education at this level. Second, this shortage and the chronic unemployment problem are clearly and directly linked.

Boston faced a similar situation in the mid-1960s with respect to adequate college [i.e. third level] level availability. Boston is a large urban center with numerous institutions of higher education, but none were publicly-funded four-year colleges or universities, which would have been affordable to lower income and working class students in and around the city. Despite well-funded private colleges and universities, many students were shut out of higher education opportunities.

The existing, publicly-funded University of Massachusetts campus was located at some distance from Boston (a distance comparable to that from Derry to Belfast). But that campus was already at maximum capacity and it was turning down thousands of qualified applicants. These rejections included 1400 academically-qualified, metropolitan Boston high school seniors. This meant that students in underserved poor and working class neighborhoods could not access the kind of education that would enable them to obtain economically-meaningful employment. It also meant that their ability to contribute to the community was restricted. This was a serious loss of resources to the development of solutions to Boston’s problems.

The need for a second, publicly-funded undergraduate campus was clear. In response, the Massachusetts Legislature established in June 1964 a separate Boston campus within the University of Massachusetts system – one that would be largely independent in student recruitment, course offerings, and the priorities for funding.

UMB appears to be the kind of institution that has accomplished what McFeely calls for. The early UMB administration was willing to re-imagine how to develop a university that educated young and old, poor and working class, thereby enabling them to advance their careers and contribute to the needs of the community

The establishment of the University of Massachusetts Boston in the 1960s led to a variety of educational experiments including the creation of programs and even the establishment of a college that focused on adult learning, trade union issues, and many other community needs. It helped each student achieve individual economic and employment goals and by giving them better skills and capacities, it enabled graduates to make important contributions to the community.

Mr. McFeely has put forward an argument for something that goes beyond job training. He envisions a broader community dimension. He is looking for a citizen-led university that will engage with its community and surroundings.

This is one of the important reasons for locating the university in Derry. It will enable it to draw from local resources to solve local problems. It can recruit local students who have both the direct experience with the problems that face the city, and because of that, a stronger motivation to try to solve those problems.

This kind of community engagement requires a curriculum that goes beyond job training. There is no doubt job training is important to both individual students as well as employers and the local economy. And it needs to be training for good jobs so students don’t have to travel for that kind of education.

But a community-oriented education demands more. It must respond to an additional set of questions. It must ask: who does this curriculum serve? What do our students already know and bring with them to this educational experience? And, what do they need to learn for both employment and to make meaningful contributions to the community?

Students need an education that helps them to develop problem-solving skills, to engage in critical thinking and analysis, to work collectively, to empower sectors of the community that have been powerless, and to use their imaginations in identifying and meeting challenges. Whatever the subject matter content of the courses they take and the learning they do, these skills must be infused.

A local independent campus is in a better position to deliver this kind of job and civic-related education.

But the institution need not just be local. A quality education program will attract students from outside of the area. It will increase the pool of talented newcomers who will contribute a diversity of perspective. For those who do not remain in Derry, they will leave with new perspectives drawn from their education here.

The experience of the University of Massachusetts in Boston illustrates what can be gained from such a community approach. As for Mr. McFeely’s call for partnering with US East Coast institutions of higher education, well… let’s talk.

Terrence J. McLarney
Terrence McLarney has been an attorney in the Boston Massachusetts area since 1971. In 1984, he became Associate Professor of Legal Education at the University of Massachusetts Boston, where he taught in both the Legal Education and the Labor Studies majors. He was Honorary Visiting Research Fellow at Magee College 1991-92. He also served as the department chair for law and later for all undergraduate programs, before retiring in 2013
He is a frequent visitor to Derry and Donegal.

‘UU shut down Magee while Derry slept’ – the proof

Up to two-thirds of the courses offered by Magee in the faculties of Arts, Computer & Engineering, and Life & Health Sciences have been closed down in the past five years.

Preliminary findings of research conducted by the Derry University Group suggest that only about a third of the scores of courses offered by these faculties in 2011 are still available today. The cuts have virtually decimated the campus’s offer, eradicating courses in:
• Computing/IT/Design
• Irish History
• Modern European Languages
• The Professional Certificate in Legal Studies
• Business
• Politics
• American Studies
• Psychology and Sociology
• Community Development, and
• Dance.

The full findings are still being tabulated and will be published in full shortly. But the interim report into Magee closures, seen by this newspaper, is stark indeed. The closures, as detailed from 2011, come on the back of a series of cuts at Magee over the past 20 years, which has seen other major losses including:
• Hotel & Tourism Studies
• International Business Communication
• Housing Management
• Peace & Conflict Studies and, more recently, Incore
• Applied Languages
• International Politics
• Co-operative Development Studies
• Food Technology
• Women’s Studies
• Community Youth Studies
• And a large raft of Computing/Technology courses.

Some of the courses, and/or subjects, were moved to Coleraine or Jordanstown, while others were closed down entirely. A Derry University Group spokesperson said the new findings, while still being tallied, were ‘both stark and staggering’.

‘Derry’s university has effectively been closed down while the city slept. This issue has to be redressed immediately under the new Programme for Government.

‘We are not talking about expansion here. We are talking about a complete rebuild of Magee – or, alternatively, a new university entirely. The current campus has next to nothing to offer students.

‘In the interim, and as a matter of urgency, Stormont and UU must liaise to establish a new Derry-centred, management and administration team for Magee. It is clear that Magee cannot be revived, and will never be revived, under the current Belfast-centred UU structures. It must have its own autonomy if it is to serve the North West.’

UU claim that up to 3,600 students currently study at Magee. And while this figure is widely disputed as being grossly inflated, it is still some 6,000 shy of the city’s long-established minimum target.

‘Almost a billion pounds has been spent on developing UU’s Belfast presence over the past five years, between the new campus at Springfield (£300m) and new R&D facilities at the Titanic Quarter (£600m).

‘Derry needs to secure at least a similar amount under the new Programme of Government to ensure that the North West achieves some parity with Belfast and hits its 10,000 student target within the next ten years.

‘We are forwarding this latest research to our political leaders, many of whom promised at the recent election to make Magee their number one priority. Our message to them is simple: Magee needs autonomy if it is to survive and grow. And also, we in the Derry University Group will continue to hold you to account for your promises, just as we have done in the past.’

Magee ‘not fit for purpose’

New statistics released today indicate that Ulster University’s Magee campus is chronically unable to meet the needs of Derry and Strabane sixth-form students. Figures compiled by campaigners for an independent university suggest that only a quarter of local school-leavers believe Magee can offer them their first choice course. And only one in seven Derry and Strabane sixth-formers are actually applying for their first choice course at Magee – though they may also be applying for this same course elsewhere.

The new survey, which was conducted before UU announced the closure of a further ten courses at Magee, was issued via school principals in November by the Derry University Group. The results have been collated with the assistance of St Cecilia’s College and the Hive Studio. Almost two-thirds of those surveyed say they are applying to Queens – i.e. 99 out of the 156 interested students who submitted valid responses. But a total of only 50 (32.1%), have listed Magee as one of their five university choices.

Students from selective (grammar) schools are less likely again to attend Magee. Just six respondents from 68 have Magee anywhere on their list of up to five university preferences. And only two are applying for their first preference at the campus. The researchers have also today issued revised figures on Higher Education provision across Ireland. These indicate Derry has by far the lowest percentage of third-level students on the island.

DUG spokesperson Conal McFeely says it has been apparent for many years that Magee is ‘not fit for purpose’ but that the new figures lay bare the scale of the problem.
‘The Northwest needs its own autonomous university as an urgent priority,’ he stated.
‘Our children are leaving in their hundreds – most never to return – not for adventure or experience, but because they have no other option.

‘Furthermore, you have to ask yourself, if three-quarters or more of our own young people aren’t being catered for, what hope is there of attracting students from outside the region to Magee?

‘And to compound the problem, the University of Ulster – instead of developing the Northwest – are now cutting back a further ten courses at Magee.’

Mr McFeely said recent proposals to expand Magee were too little, too late, and ‘far too far’ down the political agenda.

DEL Minister Stephen Farry conceded on BBC Radio Foyle last week that he had not read the most recent business plan for the expansion of the campus, submitted by the Derry Strategy Board. And he stated that he had no money to expand the campus ‘in the current financial climate’.

Mr McFeely said: ‘Stormont and the Belfast-centred University of Ulster have been playing games with the Northwest for fifty years. Enough is enough. Both agencies blame the other, but the truth is neither is committed to the Northwest, so it is time for us to assume this responsibility for ourselves.

‘We cannot wait on never-ending promises of expansion. The only way we can get a fit for purpose university is for our new Council to beg, borrow and steal the money so we can develop it ourselves.

‘The current situation is nothing short of an outrage. A half century ago, the decision to build the new university in Coleraine brought down Stormont; but today the massive new build promised for the Northwest three years ago is currently being built in North Belfast. It’s as if nothing has changed.

‘All the social indicators, show Derry and Strabane to be one of the most disadvantaged areas on these islands. We also have fifty percent fewer third level students than anywhere else on this island.’

‘We need a proper, independent university so we can meet the needs of our new generations and grow a new economy for the Northwest.’