University Minister, Dr Stephen Farry says it would be folly to recommit to a target of 9,400 students for Magee by 2020 and that he is no position to make any further announcements on university expansion until the welfare reform impasse is sorted out.
Dr Farry made the controversial comments after explaining that a £10m bid for a new teaching block at the Londonderry campus was refused because the Treasury deemed it did not qualify as a ‘shared education project.’
Asked by SDLP MLA Colum Eastwood why the £10m bid was rejected, Dr Farry explained that the Magee teaching block was put forward by the Department of Employment and Learning (DEL) for consideration under an initiative to support shared housing and education projects.
“The Magee project was not agreed by HM Treasury for inclusion in the package of shared education and housing projects. The Treasury felt that it did not meet the criteria of being a shared education project,” the Minister explained.
However, the Minister went on to controversially link the expansion of Magee with Executive wrangling over welfare reform.
Asked by Mr Eastwood if he would recommit to a target of 9,400 students for Magee by 2020 he said: “Much as I share his aspiration to see Magee develop further, for me to commit at this stage to additional places at the university would be folly.
“In doing that, I have to baseline a commitment for at least three years, and, in practice, once you announce these places, you cannot simply turn the tap off afterwards.
“Until we sort out the current impasse around welfare reform and Budget uncertainty, we are in no position to make any further announcements of expansion of the university or, indeed, anything that requires a baseline commitment into the future.
“We have to get past the current discussions that we are having before any of these discussions can be advanced further.”
With regard to the bid for the £10m teaching block, however, Dr Farry said he wasn’t walking away from it.
“It did not meet the particular criteria around shared education set by the Treasury for this funding opportunity.
“It is still premature, in terms of formal business case approval and, indeed, planning permission, for a bid to be made during this financial year for capital funds, but I certainly intend - subject to the various approvals being in place - to make a bid at the earliest opportunity for the investment in the teaching block at Magee,” he said.
This is in line with earlier commitments made by both DEL and the University of Ulster.
In February the Sentinel reported how a normal capital funding request for the new block at Magee was expected to be submitted in the next Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR) period, 2016-20.
A University of Ulster spokesperson told the Sentinel at the time that if funding becomes available in an earlier budget monitoring round the project may also be put forward as a worthy beneficiary.