Substantial expansion in university education in Derry and Letterkenny is vital if chronic and historic economic problems in the north west are to be overcome, a leading economist has warned.
John Daly, chief economist with the North and Western Regional Assembly (NWRA), made his comments in a presentation to the Royal Irish Academy and the John and Pat Hume Foundation. Mr Daly spoke at a consultation on “strengthening the impact of higher education in the north west”.
The NWRA is one of three regional assemblies in the Republic which works with key stakeholders at EU, national, regional and local level to optimise regional development.
The issue of a university for Derry has been a major political one for the city for more than 50 years. The decision by the unionist Stormont government to locate the new University of Ulster in Coleraine rather than Derry was a key catalyst in the civil rights’ campaign. The issue was one of the platforms from which the career of the late John Hume took shape.
In his presentation, Mr Daly focused on the north west city region which includes, Derry and Strabane council with Letterkenny and Co Donegal. He highlighted a number of key performance indicators in education, wealth and employment.
In education, Mr Daly told the consultation, approximately one in three people in Derry and Strabane (28.4%) have no formal education or primary education only. The figure for Letterkenny and County Donegal was one in five (29.9%). However, this was expected to rise to a par with the Derry statistic when more recent census figures for the Republic are published.
Figures also showed the north west city region consistently had the lowest rates of disposable income across the island of Ireland, considerably lower than the national averages north and south of the border. Unemployment rates were also among the highest in Ireland with Derry city and Strabane recording a 3.1% rate and Donegal – at 18% - only beaten in the Republic by Longford.
The NWRA economist told The Irish News that the north west region – as the fourth most populated on the island of Ireland – was significantly underperforming in terms of higher or university level education. He pointed out that in the 2021/2022 period Derry had 3,495 people enrolled full time in university education although this figure was expected to be closer to 5,000 in the current year.
“However, Derry city has a population of over 108,000 people and if you look at Limerick with a population of 94,000, there are 24,000 students enrolled full time in higher education and in Galway, there are 22,761 while the population of Galway is 79,934. Both Galway and Limerick have major university campuses,” Mr Daly said.
The NWRA economist said the development of higher level education at UU’s Magee campus and the new Atlantic Technological University’s (ATU) Letterkenny campus was central to lifting the north west city region out of the deprivation and poverty levels it has languished in for so long.
“It is imperative that policy makers and higher education providers work together to expand full time higher education. In the long term, Derry city’s higher education footprint should be equal to or higher than Galway or Limerick,” he said.
Mr Daly said development in the Belfast, Dublin and other city regions was centred on a “knowledge-based economy” and if the Derry city region was to have any hope of growing, a similar economy was important.
“Specialised higher education and research at Magee and ATU must focus on areas such as ICT, digital services, gaming, renewable energy, life sciences and healthcare, financial services and creative industries and tourism.
“That is how we can maximise a stronger region. If we cannot direct the economy of the north west, it will continue to suffer,” Mr Daly said.