A flagship plan for a campus in West Belfast has been severely holed below the waterline by two Government-commissioned reports.
The University of Ulster is now fighting a rearguard action to keep the Springvale campus plan afloat. Its consultants, Touche Ross, estimate the plan to cost Pounds 98 million, though it still has important backers in the civil service.
It will be difficult for ministers to pump the necessary funds into the project in the face of advice from the Northern Ireland Higher Education Council and the Pieda consultancy that it represents poor value for money both as a means of expanding higher education and as a vehicle for regenerating the most deprived part of Northern Ireland.
Ministers will have noted that there is no effective peace process argument for a West Belfast campus. Sinn Fein is at best lukewarm on the idea. In addition, the disclosure this week that French car components company Montupet is planning to open a large plant in Dunmurray, likely to employ large numbers of West Belfast Catholics, also takes pressure off the Government.
One of the reports, from Pieda, found that the existing higher education sector has a very large capacity for growth well in excess of forecast student demand. Practicable schemes could provide around 17,800 places. Springvale would cost Pounds 51 million more over 25 years than other options for expanding the system. It also rates poorly on non-financial grounds because it "would represent an inflexible response to the changes, uncertainties and demands of the system because it locks the system into a highly restrictive expansion plan".
The Pieda report raises the previously ignored issue of whether the University of Ulster would reduce its entrance requirements to the extent necessary to attract the significant proportion of Northern Ireland students who enrol in former polytechnics in Britain.
It also questions whether Northern Ireland needs more degree places since it performs poorly at NVQ levels 2 and 3 but is above the United Kingdom average at levels 4 and 5. Schools and colleges are poorly funded compared with Britain, and Northern Ireland has lower than average participation at sub-degree level but above average participation in higher education.
Pieda also studied the urban regeneration aspects of the proposal and concluded that the cost per job of the Springvale option is Pounds 154,000 in public spending, over 74 per cent higher than two other urban regeneration options considered.
The total cost per local job is estimated at Pounds 223,000, about Pounds 100,000 more than the next option. If the Pounds 51 million urban regeneration premium of the campus was spent instead on a range of other public sector initiatives, it could be expected to create 1,600 local jobs as compared with 333 under the campus plan, the report says.
Pieda also counters UU's claim that as a prestigious anchor tenant, it would attract other investors to the area. If the campus does have an effect, it is probably to accelerate investment decisions rather than to cause them; the availability of labour and financial assistance packages are more important factors.
Even if the Pieda report is neutralised in its final draft, ministers still face an unfavourable critique from the Northern Ireland Higher Education Council, chaired by the former head of the Northern Ireland civil service, Sir Kenneth Bloomfield. It strongly doubts that concentrating expansion of higher education on a single new campus would be the best or most cost-effective means of meeting Northern Ireland's diverse needs.
The university gathered substantial support for its innovative plan for 3,750 full-time equivalent students, which seemed almost a certainty even a few months ago. But the coming month will be critical for the project's survival.
If UU can channel American enthusiasm into the campus idea before President Clinton's visit at the end of next month, it may still get the go-ahead, but pressure on the British government for a positive decision may ebb once he returns to Washington.
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