‘£16m in cuts and £40m deficit must be addressed before I even look at £30m for Magee’

Universities Minister Dr Stephen Farry says a business case for the expansion of Magee is being examined but warns he first has to reverse “£16m of cuts” and address a “£40m structural deficit” before even beginning to look for £30m for more student places in Londonderry.

He made the comments when pressed by SDLP MLA Gerard Diver at the Assembly.

Dr. Stephen Farry MLA, Employment and Learning Minister, pictured with Professor Deirdre Heenan, Provost of the Magee Campus of Ulster University.

Dr. Stephen Farry MLA, Employment and Learning Minister, pictured with Professor Deirdre Heenan, Provost of the Magee Campus of Ulster University.

The Minister said his Department received the latest version of the outline business case on January 22.

He said a formal response will be issued as soon as possible.

Dr Farry rejected Mr Diver’s claim that there have been too many ‘false dawns’ on Magee.

“I certainly have not been involved in any false dawns in all of this,” he said.

But he went on to confirm that those championing the expansion of Magee are going to have to wait.

“We have to fix the current structural deficit in higher education. We have to fix the foundations before building more investment.

“Members should be very clear on what that involves: we have to reverse the £16m of cuts from the 2015/16 financial year, and we have to address the £40m structural deficit.

“Then we can look to the recurring cost of around £30m to proceed with the expansion of student numbers at Magee,” he said.

Responding outside the chamber, Mr Diver said it was “disappointing the department cannot commit to a time line in terms of moving the project forward. While I understand department officials must undertake due diligence of the revised business case, I would hope this examination will take less time than it did to study the original submission. Considering this Assembly mandate is closing fast, I also asked if the file would be expedited.

“We are continually seeing timelines pushed further and further back. We must strive to ensure that the local university is developed in time for the next generation of students, not their children or grandchildren.

“This is why I sought and received from the Minister an assurance that the same officials remain with the Magee file. Any change of personnel would only add to further delays for our university project.

“Therefore I welcome the fact that the same set of officials will bring continuity to the project.”

Responding to the Ministers comments that the Magee issue was a problem with funding not commitment, Mr Diver said: “I have certain sympathy with the Ministers position. He didn’t visit huge budget cuts upon his department.

“That said a different way must be found come May and the election. Higher education and the hopes, ambitions and indeed even family relationships, which change when children are forced to travel vast distances to study, cannot be reliant on the economic illiteracy which has characterised this SF/DUP Executive.”