The Northern Ireland Bill that passed its final stage on 22 July was historic: it provisionally lifted the ban on abortion and approved same-sex marriage in the nation.
The main purpose of the bill had been to keep Northern Ireland and its public services functioning, as the nation has been left without a devolved government since the power-sharing agreement between the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Féin collapsed in March 2017. However, Westminster MPs took the opportunity to address a number of other pressing issues for Northern Ireland through amendments to the bill – among them, higher education.
One amendment, put forward by Labour peer and former education minister Lord Adonis, said that there must be “a report on the improvement of higher education provision in Northern Ireland and the establishment of a university whose principal campus is in Derry/Londonderry”.
Lord Adonis said that two and a half years with no devolved government had left higher education in Northern Ireland in a “very unsatisfactory condition”, a statement that meets with agreement from experts across the sector.
“The issue is simple. There is an inadequate number of higher education places in Northern Ireland. This is a long-standing issue, but it has been getting progressively worse as education participation has risen across the United Kingdom,” Lord Adonis told the House of Lords.
However, the problems facing universities in Northern Ireland go beyond the number of student places available – even when leaving the issue of Brexit aside. Higher education in Northern Ireland had been suffering from underfunding for years before the executive collapsed.
In Northern Ireland, tuition fees are capped below the rate of English universities – at £4,275 in 2019-20 – with government subsidy supposedly making up the rest to put funding on par with the rest of the UK. As the Northern Ireland government faced budget difficulties, that top-up flatlined and Northern Ireland’s universities have had to cut jobs and cap their student numbers.
The problems began in earnest in 2011, but they worsened in 2015-16 when the government announced that it was reducing higher education funding by £8.6 million, leading to consequences for Northern Ireland’s two universities. In 2015, Queen’s University Belfast announced that it was cutting 236 jobs and 1,010 student places. That same year, Ulster University announced that it was cutting 210 jobs and 1,200 student places.
Universities in Northern Ireland now get about £2,000 less per student than English institutions.
Figures suggest that there are now 50 per cent more undergraduate places per capita for the general population in England than there are in Northern Ireland.
Ulster University’s Magee campus in Derry has submitted plans to expand its campus there, particularly to create a medical school, but it cannot push ahead without approval from a functioning executive. The only medical school in Northern Ireland is based at Queen’s University Belfast, and a recent report from the Department of Health said that the nation needs at least 100 more medical students a year to meet the increasing demand for doctors.
There is strong local support for a stand-alone university in Derry, alongside the expansion of Ulster’s campus in the city, where numbers have slumped from 4,658 in 2014-15 to 4,313 in 2018-19, according to data gathered under the Freedom of Information Act.
Local councillors have expressed “outrage” at the decades of neglect for student numbers in Derry, and in July unanimously passed a motion to support all options for expanding university provision.
Garbhan Downey, spokesman for the Derry University Group, a former Derry correspondent for the Irish News and former director of communications for Derry’s UK City of Culture project, said that momentum for an independent Derry university has increased dramatically in the past few years. “Derry is already the most Brexit-impacted city on these islands, with business and political uncertainty at a 20-year high,” the worst since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement securing peace in Northern Ireland, he said.
“The city’s needs are evident. Pick any set of social indices over the past 50 years and Derry – with its decades of isolation – will be either the worst or the next worst,” he told Times Higher Education. “The Derry University Group has met with senior parliamentarians in London and Dublin and repeatedly made it clear that the single most important element in this region’s recovery would be a dedicated stand-alone university. We are currently the fourth-priority campus of Belfast’s second university – why should a city famous for its millennia of scholars not have the best university on this island?”
However, Gerry McKenna, vice-president of the Royal Irish Academy (RIA) and former vice-chancellor of Ulster University, cautioned against relying on a new university in Derry, because any expansion was limited by the “chronic underfunding” of higher education. All campuses in Northern Ireland have been affected, Derry was not singled out, he said.
But there is very limited overt political support for increased university funding in Northern Ireland, he added.
There is also a chronic infrastructure deficit in the north west of Ireland: in roads, rail, other public transport, and airport facilities; and tackling one under-resourced issue without addressing the others will have limited sustainable economic or social impact, Professor McKenna argued.
One of the main problems is that there is no oversight or coordination of tertiary education in Northern Ireland, he said. “There is a need for the establishment of a Tertiary Education Council to provide strategic oversight and planning of HE, FE, and their integration, to ensure the efficient provision, including spatial distribution, of a fit-for-purpose system and to make a sustained case to the NI Executive for adequate funding for HE and research.
“This, plus integrated infrastructure funding for the north-west region and increased student places, is what is needed rather than setting up another expensive university administration, the costs of which would have to be taken from funding for student places or research,” he continued.
However, compounding all these problems is the ever present spectre of Brexit.
The complications of leaving the European Union have been made abundantly clear by the wrangling over the backstop, which aims to ensure that there is no hard border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. If the UK crashes out without a deal, there will be very specific problems for the border in Northern Ireland, no matter what anyone says, according to Professor McKenna. Alongside the return of political instability and the negative impact on trade, a hard border will also affect universities badly in other ways, he argued.
Part of the issue here is that Ulster University’s students and staff in Derry cross the border between the UK and the rest of the EU on a daily basis (the Magee campus is only 5 miles from the border with the Republic of Ireland). About 1,200 students from the Republic attend the campus and 20 per cent of campus staff live there.
“It’s very hard to plan in an uncertain future,” according to Professor McKenna. “Brexit has the potential to have a greater negative impact on Northern Ireland than any other UK region.”
Like other UK universities, Northern Ireland’s institutions benefit from EU research funding via Horizon 2020. Although the UK government has promised to underwrite any already approved funding, institutions remain unsure about their ability to participate in the next EU research programme after Brexit.
Unlike in the rest of the UK, for Northern Ireland, partnerships with colleagues over the border in the Republic of Ireland are crucial: 63 per cent of successful Northern Irish Horizon 2020 projects involve research partners in the Republic.
“Encouraged by the Good Friday Agreement, the island of Ireland continues to accrue significant benefits from the development of a de facto all-island research system,” according to a 2017 RIA report. “Leaving aside the instrumental arguments highlighting the economic impact of the HE sector, it is arguable that HE plays an even more critical role in promoting the functioning of a stable post-conflict society in Northern Ireland,” the report said.
The EU has also funded specific programmes to promote stability on the island of Ireland, operating across the near-invisible border between the two nations, including via higher education and research. The PEACE programme, promoting social cohesion, and the Interreg scheme, a regional structural funding project that supports research infrastructure such as science parks, have been key here.
“We are also disproportionately reliant on EU structural funds for research capacity building,” Professor McKenna said. The UK government has pledged to set up a Shared Prosperity Fund to replace these, but there are concerns and key questions yet to be answered, he added. “What size will that be? Will the funds be devolved? If they are, will they be ring-fenced? Because there is the danger that in an underfunded situation, the NI Executive could raid such funds.”
The RIA has called for a funding initiative supported by the Northern Ireland Executive and the governments of the Republic of Ireland, the UK and the EU to protect existing and promote enhanced R&D interaction, including joint research centres, shared PhD programmes, and regional research capability enhancement funding.
Professor McKenna said: “Brexit makes it a necessity for the HE systems in Ireland, North and South, and their respective funding regimes, to work cooperatively and synergistically in a way that should have been happening even if the referendum had never occurred.”
Print headline: Could a new campus ease Brexit woes?
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