Stephen Farry defends halting expansion of Magee campus

Magee campus
Image caption A petition signed by thousands of people calling for the expansion of Magee was presented to the assembly in 2013

Employment and Learning Minister Stephen Farry has defended his announcement that plans to expand the University of Ulster's Magee campus have been put on hold.

On 8 August, Mr Farry said plans to expand the Londonderry site were "off the table" due to budget cuts.

The decision was criticised by Derry representatives of Sinn Féin and the SDLP.

Mr Farry met University of Ulster representatives on Thursday.

Speaking on BBC Radio Foyle on Thursday, Mr Farry said it was "impossible" to increase the number of student places in the context of overall cuts.

"Any (additional) places can't be considered at the same time as we're making cuts in terms of a higher education budget," he said.

"You can't simply expand and cut at the same time - those are contradictory actions."

'Crisis meeting'

The minister said he had "always supported" expansion at Magee, but because his department faced cuts of £34m he had no choice but to halt plans.

He said: "It's on hold because there is no money available to progress it any further. I have to, first of all, ensure my budget is sustainable, I have to ensure the entire sector is sustainable. I'm not going to stretch my budget."

Mr Farry made it clear that the meeting would not focus only on the future of Magee.

He said: "This is not a crisis meeting for Magee, this is a meeting for the overall budget of the University of Ulster.

"In terms of Magee, I will make clear that we will look at the business case when it arrives but we can't process anything until we have certainty in terms of our budget."

'Budget mess'

A business case for the project is due for publication in September.

Prof Deirdre Heenan, the university's pro vice-chancellor, said she expected "a full and frank discussion" at the meeting.

Mr Farry was also meeting a delegation of representatives from Sinn Féin, Derry City Council and a university lobby group on Thursday afternoon to discuss the future of the campus.

Mr Farry said Northern Ireland was in a "budget mess" and that the Magee expansion plans and higher education budgets generally would suffer until the situation was resolved.

He said: "It is due to the politics and failures of the SDLP and Sinn Féin. We have to face reality, we have no option but to process welfare reform and we're potentially facing a worse budget next year.

"People have to see the logic of where the situation lies."

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