Tom Collins: Time to make Derry a university city

Tom Collins
Tom Collins Tom Collins

STRIKES are back in fashion. Working people seem to be getting their voices back. And by working people, I do not mean just those in jobs traditionally regarded as working class.

Barristers, lecturers and doctors are among those angry at the discrepancy between their earnings and inflation. And we know it will get worse. Those of us with wrinkles and long memories remember the winter of discontent.

It’s worse today with a growing number of ‘working poor’ while the richest get richer at our expense – and it’s not just in these islands, but in developed countries around the world.

When I was a student at the New University of Ulster in the late seventies I did the usual things students did then: picketed the university convenience store for selling South African fruit, bellowed through a megaphone alongside the legendary Inez McCormack on a NUPE picket line, and showed solidarity with striking lecturers.

The latter occasion was memorable. I’d been studying a drama module led by the remarkable Frank McGuinness – before he found fame with Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme.

We’d done a staging of TS Elliot’s The Waste Land (ironically a good description of NUU’s Coleraine campus). McGuinness took us to Magee College to perform The Waste Land for strikers there. Only God knows what they did to deserve our mediocre acting.

But shows of support were important, and I intoned the words “April is the cruellest month…” as I scrabbled along a blank wall.

McGuinness was very intense, and I am sure we were a disappointment to him. The line “I was neither living nor dead, and I knew nothing…” is a pretty good description of my university years.

Then as now, Magee was the unwanted child of an institution infamously plonked in Coleraine by a unionist government which cared little for Derry or its proud citizens, be they nationalist or unionist.

The wrong perpetrated then has never been righted. And it is scandalous that in the generations since, successive administrations have failed to address this deep injustice.

It is close to criminal that UU has been given the resources and encouragement to migrate to Belfast which already has a significant higher education presence.

Even worse is the way successive education ministers allowed UU to position itself in the same space as Queen’s (of which I am a former director of marketing, recruitment and communications) when the real need was diversity in higher education.

It is a failure of public policy that serious questions were not asked about the type of HE institutions needed here; and how the sector should have been shaped to meet the needs of students and the economy.

The UK is dominated by research-led civic universities (Queen’s is one). Unfortunately the newer universities and former polytechs (UU is a hybrid of both) have modelled themselves on the civics, in part because of an inferiority complex, and because funding favours research over teaching.

But there are other models.

Liberal arts universities, giving students a broad knowledge base before they specialise, meet the needs of today’s employers who want graduates with social and emotional intelligence, as well as subject knowledge.

Polytechnic universities – dismissed in the UK but championed globally – which major on engineering, and the pure and applied sciences, drive economies through innovation.

Our needs would be best met by a radical reshaping of HE here, replacing Queen’s and UU with a world-beating institute of technology like CalTech or MIT, and institutions focused on the liberal arts and vocational training, and research intensity in health, the humanities and social sciences.

We would attract students, staff and investment from around the world and drive a hi-tech economy.

Reform would also allow us to redress the injustice done to Derry.

University cities are major drivers of economic development. They become hubs for their regions, and important components in national and international networks. The 1960s cross-community campaign for a university in Derry knew that.

Even assuming the best of intentions in placing NUU in Coleraine; that decision fundamentally undermined the economic development of Derry and the wider region.

The damage done in the decades since is incalculable. The time to undo that damage is now – whatever the cost to the two institutions that have profited as a result.

A new vision for HE here is badly needed. If we grasp the opportunity, the rewards will be great.