Drop in students choosing Derry campus due to Brexit uncertainty
‘I would say we are no wiser than the day we got the result of the referendum vote’
Paddy Nixon, vice-chancellor of Ulster University. Photograph: Nigel McDowell/Ulster University
There has been a drop off in students selecting the Derry campus of Ulster University as their first preference for third-level studies, and a decline in job applications for posts there since the Brexit vote.
Magee – as the university’s Derry campus is known – is Ireland’s only Border university.
The most westerly of any UK campus and situated less than five miles from the Border with Donegal, almost 10 per cent of its more than 4,000 students and 20 per cent of its staff come from the Republic of Ireland.
This is the philosophy behind much of Magee’s recent expansion.
Ulster University’s long-planned graduate medical school, scheduled to open next year, will be the only such facility north of Galway, or west of Belfast.
In February the university – along with the North West Regional College in Derry – signed a memorandum of understanding with Letterkenny Institute of Technology and the Donegal Education and Training Board to improve access to higher and further level education and training in what is increasingly referred to as the “North West City region”.
The reality, says Nixon, is that Derry is a cross-Border city – and Brexit represents a huge challenge for both the city and its university, and its impact is already being felt.
“During this uncertain period, we are seeing a drop off in a whole range of applications for jobs, requests for us to lead European grants, and students choosing us as a first preference,” he says.
There are concerns over the continuation of research and other funding, and there has been a “significant exodus” of EU staff on fixed-term contracts.
An associate head of school has already left to take up a position in Sligo; another academic the university tried to recruit from the Republic turned down the post because of uncertainty over pensions, exchange rates, and concerns over the UK’s attitude towards Europe post-Brexit.
“Our competitors are not actually the universities in the UK, they’re the universities in the South,” Nixon confirms.
“100 miles down the road you’re in Galway or Dublin and the staff get good research funding and a good living and working environment.
“We’ve got the same, but those universities remain in a European context. It’s a huge challenge for us.”
While student numbers will not be affected – any vacant places will be filled by students from Northern Ireland – he is concerned the lack of diversity would be detrimental to the nature and identity of the Magee campus.
“It wouldn’t be negative in terms of the finances of the university, but I think it would be negative in terms of the culture of the university.
“For people who go through the Northern Ireland system, more often than not further and higher education is the first time it is a truly open and diverse and culturally accepting space for everybody, and we as a university will always fight to maintain that.”
Much of the difficulty for the university lies in the lack of clarity.
“That’s the killer at the moment – we don’t have clear, unequivocal statements,” he points out.
Brexit is one of the top two issues on the university’s risk register and its Brexit readiness group is at work preparing the university for all scenarios.
The university has appealed for clarification regarding the future mobility of students and staff, for Erasmus students to be considered on an all-island basis, and for the introduction of post-study work visas for students – a measure which already exists in the Republic.
“I would say we are no wiser than the day we got the result of the referendum vote. It’s limiting the ability of the universities in the UK, but particularly in Northern Ireland, to compete on a global basis.”
Lack of leadership
This is exacerbated by the lack of political leadership in the North.
Northern Ireland has been without a functioning government for more than a year, since its Assembly at Stormont collapsed following a scandal over a botched renewable energy scheme.
“At this point in time Northern Ireland is challenged because it doesn’t have that clear leadership in terms of an Executive, and we absolutely, unquestionably need that political leadership,” says Nixon.
“I’m even more worried that there’s nobody in there lobbying for the best interests of Northern Ireland in this debate.”
While Nixon is clear that the university was opposed to Brexit – it was among the signatories of a letter from UK universities stating that they wanted to remain in the EU – he is also concerned that the “vacuum of leadership” prevents Northern Ireland accessing any of the potential benefits of Brexit too.
“If Brexit goes ahead then Northern Ireland is uniquely placed to be perhaps a halfway house between the EU and the UK, and there are some opportunities in terms of economic or inward investment that could flow from that,” he says.
In the longer term he is not convinced it will have a significant effect on the university except that “we’re part of a global community and – real or perceived – there’s an isolationist piece to this Brexit debate, and if we are perceived to be isolating ourselves from a global research community then it will be significantly detrimental to us.
“But at this point, it’s all guesswork.”