Ulster University Magee medical school plans delayed again

By Robbie Meredith
BBC News NI education correspondent

Image caption,
Ulster University had initially hoped to welcome the first intake of medical students in 2019

Plans to open a graduate medical school at Ulster University's Magee campus in Londonderry have been delayed again.

The university has abandoned plans to recruit medical students to begin studying there in 2020.

In a statement, Ulster University (UU) blamed the absence of a ministerial decision on funding the school for the delay.

The university said it was now working towards a target of recruiting students for September 2021.

However the project has been beset by problems and delays.

According to a previous review by the Department of Health, Northern Ireland needs at least 100 more medical students a year to meet the increasing demand for doctors.

In a statement, a DoH spokesperson said expanding student numbers to that extent would have a projected cost of £30m a year and require cuts to services.

The spokesperson said: "It is for Ministers and the next Executive to decide on strategic spending priorities and take the required steps to free up the necessary funding".

The DoH said it will continue to work closely with the university and is currently progressing a Business Case to consider the best ways to address future medical training needs across the Health and Social care in Northern Ireland.

In September 2019, the head of the civil service, David Sterling, also cast doubt on the school's future in a letter to Derry and Strabane District Council.

He said UU could not pay to run the medical school itself.

"Significant ongoing funding will be required from government if this is to proceed," he wrote.

"We cannot spend money we do not have."

Image caption,
The Magee campus is on Derry's Northland Road

Ulster University has now said a business case for the medical school had been taken "as far as possible, in readiness for the political decision on funding".

"The Department of Health has consistently confirmed the business case requires ministerial decision making to progress further," it added.

"With the continued absence of the political infrastructure to enable the required funding decision, the opportunity to recruit a 2020 intake to the graduate entry medical degree programme has now passed."

UU vice-chancellor Prof Paddy Nixon said the university had taken all possible steps within its control to open the medical school.

"The continued absence of political decision making for NI is a source of significant frustration and is time lost in educating the doctors we urgently need in our hospitals," he said.

"This adjustment to our operational plans for the first cohort of medical students in 2020 is very disappointing for the healthcare sector locally and for prospective medical students keen to embark upon a rewarding and vital career path with us."

UU previously said it had submitted a business case to the department on 21 October but it remains at an outline stage.