The Derry University Group, which campaigns for an independent cross-border university for northwest Ireland, signed up to New Decade, New Approach in December.
Despite our unease about the corruption of the previous Stormont administration, we were convinced by the promise of 10,000 full-time university students in our city-region by the end of the decade.
It was the same promise that had been made ten years previously by Ulster University, which began the decade with approximately 3,000 students at Magee in Derry and ended it with an estimated 2,200 full-timers.
But this new deal had the stamp of the two governments on it, so we felt confident that Stormont would not renege on its commitments.
Boy, were we wrong. Just last month the Economy Minister announced that there wasn’t enough money for the Derry expansion – and that she would be sanctioning an off-the-books, £126m loan to allow the completion of UU’s £365m campus in North Belfast.
In retrospect, it is hard to say which was more patronizing: Diane Dodds’s insistence that we shouldn’t make a fuss and should resolve everything behind closed doors – or her DUP colleague Christopher Stalford’s remarks that Derry was suffering from the ‘economics of envy’. Then just for good measure we had the parade of senior UU academics wheeled out out to say that students don’t want to come to Derry anyway.
It was like 1965 all over again.
Our group contends that a new, regionally-managed, higher education institution, located on the border under the auspices of the National University of Ireland, will drive economic growth and deliver equality.
We look to our fellow regional capitals on the Atlantic Coast and witness Cork with 40,000 third-level students, Limerick with more 20,000 and Galway with 25,000 – and we see the huge benefits and stability this brings to these regions.
We are heartened that the lobbying and research we have completed so far is paying dividends – and that Dublin is now ready to move towards establishing a new cross-border university in Donegal and Derry.
Derry was previously a member of the island’s national university structure, so, post-Brexit, there is a perfect opportunity for us now to re-join.
A cross-border development will help us ensure that citizens from the North can retain the same rights to education and training as other EU states – as per the Good Friday Agreement.
And, crucially, we see the new university as taking the lead in developing all-island education policy on areas such as: the curriculum, academic standards, vocational skills, accessibility, student housing costs, and welfare/safety.
We have already been seeking capital and revenue funding for this project in London and Dublin, and from philanthropists, charities and a number of US colleges. And we have proposed that loan payments from Ireland to the ‘UK’, and from Britain to the EU, be repurposed into providing capital funding for a new cross-border university.
There will also have to be significant financial input from Stormont – both as a payment for past arrears and for ongoing obligations. But not as a mechanism for control. A regional university in the North West cannot be run from Belfast.
Greater Belfast already has in the region of 40,000 full-time students, generating 500m per annum for the two main universities. The associated student economy effectively doubles this figure, so higher education is effectively worth a billion pounds a year to Belfast.
If the North West had a 10,000-strong university in place, on current figures, it would generate in the region of £200m a year for the city-region.
Indeed, if the North West had been given the university in the 1960s, it is absolutely certain the city would not be in the dire economic straits it currently is.
But Derry’s income from its higher education sector is today so low that its impact on the city-region barely distinguishable – and it is also entirely administered by Belfast.
And this is an issue that dates back generations. To mark 60 years of the start of the campaign for a North West university last week, the Derry Journal posted a photograph of a placard carried by a student in 1963, which illustrated how university investment in Belfast over the previous decade had been 240 times that of what was given to Derry. This was two years before Stormont denied Derry its own university.
Belfast’s City Deal – an initiative they usurped from Derry, who got in first and whose need was much, much greater – will bring it an additional £850m from London. That’s at least four times Derry’s deal.
One sure way Stormont could restore genuine equality across the North and make restitution for its previous injustices would be to support the necessary establishment of a university here.
There is always money available from the state when Belfast needs it – but it is now time to shift the mindset that the ‘capital’ must be serviced first.
If it is a matter that Stormont has to delve into Belfast’s funds, such as its City Deal, to redress the balance and make good its debt to Derry, then so be it.
Sixty years on, there can be no more excuses to deny the North West its hard-earned university.
GARBHÁN DOWNEY is a spokesperson for the Derry University Group and current candidate for Seanad Éireann (NUI Panel).