Now it’s time to give Derry its university - Tom Collins

Deliberate policy decisions over decades by people who believe ‘Belfast’ is a synonym for ‘Northern Ireland’ mean higher education isn’t the only area impacted by prejudice against Derry

Tom Collins

Tom Collins

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

Magee should be given its independence, taking its place alongside Ireland’s universities, ancient and modern. Picture by Nigel McDowell/Ulster University
Magee should be given its independence if Conor Murphy is serious about an all-island economy (Nigel McDowell/Ulster University)

When I told my teachers I was going to the New University of Ulster to study a new-fangled degree in media studies, I was told I shouldn’t go. “No pupil of mine is going to a dump like Coleraine,” was the blunt instruction.

My mother said much the same; she had ambitions for me to study law. Like most Catholic working-class parents, she believed education was the ticket to a better life. The more they pressured me to go somewhere else, the more I dug my heels in. Coleraine it was: a soulless plate-glass university in the middle of a bog.

My mates were nearly all from Derry and – incongruously – we shared our floor in halls with Reggie Smith, suspected by many of being a British spy, and the inspiration for Guy Pringle in the Balkan Trilogy, written by his wife Olivia Manning (a great read by the way). Smith was a visiting professor, and would often roll back drunk from the senior common room.

With the exception of a heated student union debate during the hunger strikes, the politics of Northern Ireland did not intrude. We spent too much time drinking and pogo dancing to the Undertones.

We were vaguely aware of the snub to the north’s second city with the decision to site its second university in a Protestant market town. But we were 18, and largely oblivious to the machinations that brought us there.

Half a century on, the injustice to Derry not only remains, it has been amplified by the huge investment in Belfast where Queen’s, Ulster University, Belfast Met, and Stranmillis and St Mary’s University Colleges all offer higher education.

Queen’s University Belfast has been given the award
Queen’s University Belfast should make a contribution towards establishing an independent university in Derry (Liam McBurney/PA)

This concentration has not happened by accident. It is the result of deliberate policy decisions made by ministers and civil servants over decades – most of whom believe ‘Belfast’ is a synonym for ‘Northern Ireland’.

Higher education is not the only area impacted by this prejudice against Derry. Transport infrastructure is a joke, levels of poverty are among the worst in the UK and Ireland, and inward investment rarely makes it west of the Bann.

Deliberate policy decisions over decades by people who believe ‘Belfast’ is a synonym for ‘Northern Ireland’ mean higher education isn’t the only area impacted by prejudice against Derry

But it is not only policymakers who are at fault. Ulster University, which was given guardianship over Derry’s Magee University College, has singularly failed to make the investment necessary to allow it to realise its full potential. The university claims otherwise, but the facts speak for themselves.

Ulster’s multi-million pound Belfast campus – a vanity project if ever there was one – is a constant reminder that if you want to see what an institution’s priorities are you ‘follow the money’.

Ulster University campus in Belfast. Picture by Hugh Russell
Is Ulster University's new campus in Belfast a vanity project? (Hugh Russell)

Economy minister Conor Murphy, whose department is responsible for higher education, will have civil servants briefing him on the hundred and one reasons why a university in Derry should not be a priority. They are the same civil servants who allowed the unfettered growth of higher education in Belfast. Murphy must ignore them.

The establishment of an independent university in Derry would be the driver for economic regeneration in the North West – the evidence is clear, universities stimulate growth; its impact would be enhanced by close links with the Atlantic Technological University in Donegal; and it would also stimulate social and cultural development in the region.

Ulster University – which is unsurprisingly touchy about the subject – has clearly lost the confidence of people in Derry who want a university with a leadership team that is focused full time of the needs of students and the broader community.

Murphy should make a clear statement of intent to establish an independent university in Derry and establish a taskforce to make it happen. In the meantime, UU funding should be conditional on significant investment in Magee as it prepares for independence. Queen’s, which has deep pockets, should also be expected to make a contribution.

If the minister is committed to economic regeneration, and to extracting the full benefits of an all-Ireland economy, a university in Derry should be top of his list of priorities.