Ulster University has pulled out of the Springvale project to build a "peaceline campus" in north and west Belfast because the private-finance initiative faces a multimillion-pound shortfall. But a UU spokesperson said it was still committed to the area and intended to work with the government and the Belfast Institute of Further and Higher Education on alternative educational and regeneration plans.
The university was tight-lipped over why it had abandoned the scheme. But it is understood that although it had raised £9 million for the campus, it was struggling to raise an expected £8 million in additional funding. Had it borrowed this money, about 70 per cent of the income of the campus would have gone on servicing the debt and the buildings. Although the government has pledged £40 million under the PFI scheme, this would be drip-fed over 25 years as a contribution to running costs.
The latest plans for the campus envisaged 1,500 full-time equivalent students at Springvale, but only 600 of these would have been new fee-generating participants. The others would have come from UU's existing campuses, neither bringing in extra money nor reducing costs elsewhere in the university.
West Belfast MP Gerry Adams was said to be angry and asking for dialogue. The West Belfast Partnership Board said it was "incensed, angry and disappointed" at UU's decision but was interested in trying to move the decision on. Geraldine McAteer, a member of both the West Belfast and Springvale boards, said: "It looks as if the project as conceived is not going ahead. The campus project was sold to us as our part of the peace dividend."
A research and jobs project at the site of one of Belfast's former major factories was dependent on the campus going ahead, she said. It had been hoped that it would act as a catalyst for social and economic regeneration in the area.
However, funding is already in place for a community outreach centre and applied research centre, and UU seems likely to work with the education institute in more traditional ways to boost the area's economic, social and cultural development.
A UU source said: "We do understand the symbolism (of a campus), but buildings should be seen as a means to an end, not an end in themselves."
Bill Clarke, provost of UU's Jordanstown and Belfast campuses, and manager of the Springvale project, said: "The perception that the university's commitment has lessened in any way is misleading and inaccurate."
It was a priority to find the best model for the university's involvement in meeting the urgent needs of one of Europe's most disadvantaged areas, he said.
Trevor Neilands, director of the education institute, said it had become clear that the original model as a joint venture with the university was no longer possible, but he remained committed to the "kernel" of the Springvale concept. "It was to open up a progression route from community access into further and higher education. The institute remains committed to that," he said.