Tom Collins: Derry has been done a monstrous disservice – independence is the only proper course for Magee

Tom Collins

Tom Collins

Tom Collins is an Irish News columnist and former editor of the newspaper.

Ulster University's Magee campus in Derry
Ulster University's Magee campus in Derry

If you have ever had the good fortune to hold a clutch of hundred dollar bills, smiling out at you would be the benign figure of Benjamin Franklin. Franklin was a polymath, and one of the pivotal figures in American independence.

Perhaps the best-known story about him is the experiment when he went out into a thunderstorm with a key attached to a kite and proved the connection between lightning and electricity.

In addition to his role as a statesman – or perhaps because of it, politicians in those days had vision – he was an educationalist, founding the University of Pennsylvania as a ‘place of useful purpose’.

He believed that education was not just an end in itself, but a way of bettering society. Franklin was a key figure in the Enlightenment at the end of the eighteenth century when reason triumphed over blind faith. Enlightenment thinking continues to underpin western thought.

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In 1771 Franklin spent six weeks in Ireland when he was an envoy from ‘the colonies’. He had a simple view of education which should be at the forefront of people’s minds as they consider the plight of higher education in Derry, and the determined efforts of government, the civil service and the University of Ulster to thwart its development.

“An investment in knowledge pays the best interest.”

In that simple sentence you have the reason why a Belfast-centric elite has consistently put blocks in the way of expansion and independence for Magee.

The reason why the bulk of Northern Ireland’s educational resources is piled into Belfast is precisely because it benefits the ruling class which works there and lives in its hinterland.

Derry may be the north’s second city, but in the eyes of successive administrations from James Craig onwards it has been the north’s second-class city. The evidence for this is abundant. The defenestration of the city’s historic reputation for education by the Lockwood Committee in the 1960s, which placed the north’s second university on a bog outside Coleraine, was but one manifestation.

Of course, the reality is very different. Derry has transcended the slights of a sectarian mindset. It is a youthful city, self-confident, outward looking and a cultural hub. Much of that is due to the way it has embraced its leadership role in the north-west of Ireland.

It is no coincidence that the most visionary leader of our age came from Derry. Franklin would have recognised a kindred spirit in John Hume.

John Hume with his wife Pat at a graduation ceremony at Magee
John Hume with his wife Pat at a graduation ceremony at Magee

When I addressed this issue in late August, UU’s vice-chancellor Paul Bartholomew told campaigners for an independent university: “We are committed, we are investing for the long term and we aren’t going anywhere.”

In response, the respected journalist Pat McArt, former editor of the Derry Journal, said: “We judge people on what they do, not on what they promise to do. And in this regard, the UU’s track record is abysmal.” I couldn’t have put it better myself.

Weeks later, UU changed Magee’s name to Ulster University Derry/Londonderry. Talk about rubbing campaigners’ noses in it.

We now learn, courtesy of a Freedom of Information request by the Belfast Telegraph, that civil servants have been providing briefing notes for ministers which undermine pledges to invest in the city’s HE infrastructure and to increase student numbers.

One of the arguments is that to do so would impact negatively on Belfast. That is boloney. There is a momentum in Belfast that will not be stymied. An independent university in Derry would complement research and teaching – not undermine it.

It would attract much-needed inward investment to the north-west, and enrich everyone here.

UU tells a good story, but, as the recent ruling that it cannot claim to be ‘world-leading’ shows, words alone cannot be trusted. Actions speak louder. Derry has been done a monstrous disservice. Independence is the only proper course for Magee.

:: Tom Collins is a New University of Ulster graduate and once worked for Queen’s University.