Labour politician Lord Adonis recently tweeted that he finds it “scandalous that Ulster’s second city is still denied its own university”. He later acknowledged that Derry-Londonderry had its own campus as part of Ulster University, however its headquarters are in Coleraine. The university used to be called the New University of Ulster (NUU), which opened 50 years ago, and could have been based in Derry-Londonderry.
The New University of Ulster
In the early 1960s, there were calls for a second university in Northern Ireland. In the aftermath of the Robbins report on the future of higher education in the UK, a committee led by classicist John Lockwood was introduced to investigate the needs of higher education in Northern Ireland.
Four candidate sites were considered by Sir John Lockwood and his committee: Armagh, Coleraine; Craigavon (yet to be established), and Magee College in Derry-Londonderry.
The committee’s report, released in the beginning of 1965, recommended establishing a second university and suggested Coleraine as the location, overlooking Magee College. The ins and outs of this story of this second university and the role of Magee College is described in a chapter of a book written by Gerard O’Brien.
Both Nationalists and Unionists found the report’s conclusion to be controversial. The University for Derry Action Committee (UDAC) was founded and organised a public protest demonstration at Stormont, supported by the City and County Borough of Londonderry on 18 February 1965.
However, by 4 March 1965, after long discussions with opposition outside and within the Unionist Party, the Northern Ireland Parliament endorsed the Government Statement on the Lockwood report: “The Committee has recommended the Coleraine area as the most suitable location for the new university and the Government accepts this recommendation.”
What about Magee College?
A cabinet meeting in January 1965 revealed that “a straightforward acceptance of the Lockwood recommendations on Magee … would produce a storm which could capsize the entire Report”. The Government Statement therefore states that Magee College should not “cease to exist”, and that they will look for “a continuing use for the College within the field of higher education”.
Northern Ireland’s Attorney-General, Edward Jones, came from Derry-Londonderry. He accepted Coleraine as the location for the new university, but proposed that some faculties could be sited at Magee College. In 1969, Magee College was incorporated in the NUU and became the location for Continuing Education.
The Lockwood report claimed that the Coleraine area “satisfies our criteria better than any of the other areas considered”. One of the main reasons given was that Magee College was considered too small to maintain the required number of students and was ill suited for expansion. Coleraine could provide a 300 acre site.
But others saw different reasons. Gerry Fitt MP used his maiden speech in Westminster to say that “in Londonderry, Catholics and Protestants banded together to have the university sited there”, but “the only consideration which activated the minds of the Unionist powers in Northern Ireland was that two-thirds of the population of Londonderry were Catholics”.
There is a documentary film about the construction of the Coleraine campus, recorded by Bob Allard and commentary by Registrar, W. T. Ewing:
Towards Ulster University
In the early 1980s, a new report on higher education in Northern Ireland was published by the Chilver Committee. It noted “the population of Magee College halved in size and became almost exclusively local in origin” since its incorporation into the NUU. By 1972, undergraduate studies became exclusively concentrated in Coleraine and ceased on the Magee campus.
The report proposed the merging of the NUU with the Ulster Polytechnic to create a new institution — the University of Ulster (UU) — spread across four sites. The White Paper based on this report states that Magee University College should be treated as an equal campus. Because it was the only campus of the new institution located in a large concentrated population, the full range of higher educational facilities was to be provided at Derry-Londonderry. The University of Ulster (Northern Ireland) Order became law in 1984.
Magee Campus now
In January 2016, Ulster University submitted a plan to the Department for Employment and Learning and the Northern Ireland Executive: “The intention is that by 2025 the overall provision at the Magee campus will rise to 9,400 full time equivalent students. This includes increasing full time undergraduate places by 2,636, bringing the total to 6,000 by 2024. A partnership with the North West Regional College will achieve an additional 750 full-time undergraduate places by 2024.”
Today, the plan still remains with the Department of the Economy, awaiting the appointment of new Northern Ireland Executive ministers. UU plans for a graduate medical school at the Magee campus have also been delayed due to the lack of a functioning Executive.
A new university for Derry?
Some voices within the city argue that a new institution — independent of UU — should be established, to bring 7,000 students to the region. A leader column in the Derry News from January 2018 explains: “The city must urgently start considering alternatives to UU. The Derry University Group has, for the past five years, argued strongly that the lands and finances at Magee should be handed back to the city to allow it start its own third level institute.” It suggests that “Derry consider lobbying to become a constituent college of the National University of Ireland”.