Time for clear commitment on Derry university expansion

The debate on the expansion of Magee is one we have had for 50 years, now it's time to end the talk and ensure Derry has the university it deserves.

I do not refer to the Lockwood report and its 50-year anniversary just because there is some nostalgic notion about 1965. It is because that was a great wrong that was committed on the people of the North West by the government of the day. The reason we in Derry reference the report time and time again is because it is a wrong that has never been righted - I think that it is about time it was.

If you look through some of the papers from 1965, you will see that the government of the day was originally going to use the Lockwood report just to close down Magee, even in the limited way that it was operating at that time. However, it was felt that, because of some of the protests that were happening, Magee would have to remain in place. The attitude was: 'Throw it the bone of a few arts courses and that will keep the people of Derry happy'. It did not. It is clear that attitude still exists in some quarters. Well, we are still not happy. We believe very strongly that unless we address the issue Derry is never going to be able to reach its full potential, indeed Northern Ireland is not going to be able to reach its full potential.

If you look at all the economic league tables, you will see that Derry and the North West in general are at the wrong end of them. It is a point that I have made before. The Derry City Council area has the lowest economic activity in the North at 55%, with the Northern Ireland average being 67%. We have the highest percentage of Job Seeker's Allowance claimants across Ireland or Britain. We are second only to Strabane, our new council partner, in the number of long-term claimants that we have. This is not an argument about a university just for the sake of having an argument about a university; it is an argument about the economy. Every economist in the world I have talked to, read about or listened to understands that, without real investment in skills, you can never reach your economic potential.

We have heard a lot of discussion about corporation tax, which many people have described as a game changer. If you ask the business people, the community sector and the political activists in Derry, the game changer for us is Magee's expansion. Corporation tax is one fiscal tool in any government's armoury. However, if you were to ask anyone who is looking to invest, they will tell you that the most important thing when they look at different cities and sites across the world is skills. Skills are the number-one thing when you are seeking to attract foreign direct investment and encourage entrepreneurs to set up companies and create jobs.

North East Donegal has had a 12·5% rate of corporation tax for over 30 years. However, they have had no real university provision and no motorway provision, and, unlike the rest of the South, they have suffered unemployment as Derry has. The Southern Government understood that they needed to put universities into Galway, Cork and Limerick with the right kind of courses, whether pharmaceutical or IT courses, and that they needed a decent road network. They also understood that corporation tax would be beneficial, but that it would not work without those other fundamentals.

The expansion of Magee as detailed in the One Plan is an issue of such importance that the decision on it has to be taken by the Executive as a whole. The One Plan was barely mentioned in the Programme for Government. There certainly was no specific commitment to the expansion of Magee to 9,400 places by 2020. That is why we do not have it yet. If you do not have a commitment in a Programme for Government or a Budget, it will not be delivered. We all know the history of that, but we now need to begin to change things for the future.

That is why the SDLP supports the North West ministerial subgroup. In fact, we supported it four years ago when we proposed it to the First Minister and the deputy First Minister in a meeting. We understood that, without a proper ministerial and Executive commitment to deliver the One Plan, it would never happen. I am glad that it has now taken shape, and we think that it is the right place for those types of discussions.

This is not just a discussion about Derry; it is a discussion about the economy and skills across the North. We send 5,400 students to Britain every year. Many of them have to go across the water to find a place because England abolished the MaSN cap whereas we kept it. Fewer than 20% of them return to live and work here. That runs contrary to any argument about trying to develop an economy and you cannot do that unless you make a real governmental commitment to fund higher education places. Fewer than 20% of them ever come home after they do that.

The Executive must commit to investing in university places in Magee - expanding the numbers and providing the right type of courses to attract the right type of investment so that our young people do not have to go to Glasgow, London, Manchester or Australia and never come back. That is a legacy that we have been left with; it is a legacy that we have to address. If we do not do it, we will have paid a disservice to the people of our city and the people of the North in general.

Magee expansion, Ulster University, Lockwood report, North West economy