SDLP Foyle MP Mark Durkan has said it is ‘absolutely wrong’ to use the expansion of higher education to make a political point and has accused the Minister for Employment and Learning Dr Stephen Farry of ‘downright shabby politics’ over his pronouncement that expansion of Magee is “off the table” indefinitely.
Londonderry’s Mayor, Brenda Stevenson, meanwhile as called for an urgent meeting of the City’s Strategy Board and Education and Skills Working Group to be convened next week, to discuss the Minister’s shock decision.
Mr Durkan said: “There will be wide resentment that a Minister has lobbed the line ‘Magee expansion off the table indefinitely’ into the discussion on the budgetary fallout from the Treasury’s bullying fines on the block grant.
“It is shabby for Dr Farry to take the compelling case for expansion of Magee as a hostage in a budget debate where people need to see more principle and purpose from local ministers and less cynicism.
“It is also quite disingenuous to use such shrill rhetoric to imply that there has already been a substantive, meaningful policy and budgetary commitment to Magee’s expansion as set out in the One Plan.
“This shallow ruse appears to be the newest excuse as to why we don’t have a Minister, Department or Executive proactively prioritising the expansion at Magee as the optimum way to deliver and share the regional benefits of higher education expansion.
“I have already asked Dr Farry to tell us what concrete budgetary commitment previously made to increase numbers at Magee has been withdrawn or frozen in the context of his unilateral pronouncement.
“In this crass attempt to present Magee’s expansion as a direct, significant casualty of people’s valid concerns on public welfare reform, Dr Farry is not only misrepresenting the degree of actual commitment to Magee and Derry but is also insensitive to the deeply held anxieties about the impact of welfare reform on hard-pressed households – not least in Derry.”
Expressing her deep concern at the decision, the Mayor and co-chair of the city’s Strategy Board, said it was imperative that key city stakeholders meet to discuss the decision and agree what steps need to be taken to ensure the city and the North West region does not suffer as a result of the welfare cuts.
She explained that Derry City Council and the University of Ulster along with Ilex and U4D were currently in the process of carrying out an Outline Business Case for the Expansion of University of Ulster, which would include a full Economic Appraisal of the case. The Analysis of Need for the expansion is to be submitted in the coming weeks to DEL for consideration following which with the full business case to be submitted in October. The business case considers expansion of the Magee Campus in the context of the next Programme for Government (post 2016).
She commented: “The decision by the Minister today is too premature and does not allow the Council and Ilex to move forward with the One Plan which has tasked them to deliver economic, physical and social opportunities from regeneration for a more vibrant economy, of which the expansion of Magee is a vital component.
“The expansion of Magee is a key priority for the city and one of the Strategy Board’s key objectives moving forward to deliver on the One Plan. The decision today by the Minister to put the expansion of Magee on hold is a huge blow to the city and region. Every effort must be made to reverse that decision and put pressure on him and his officials to find savings elsewhere, it is not acceptable that Magee University, this city and region will have to bear the brunt of these cuts. An urgent meeting of the Strategy Board will be set up so we can work collectively to agree a way forward to address this decision and ensure that education and the development of Magee University remains a key priority for the Department,” she said.
“While I acknowledge the need for each department to make savings, this business case is primarily concerned with the Department’s forward planning and it is important that no decision is made until the Business Case is finalised. We can’t allow the Minister to continue to pump public funds into the expansion of the University in Belfast to the detriment of Derry,” she added.