A top academic has launched an outspoken attack on Sinn Fein after the party claimed the University of Ulster is holding up the expansion of its Magee campus.
The UU’s Provost of Magee and Coleraine, Professor Deirdre Heenan, accused Sinn Fein of using “smoke and mirrors” tactics to disguise its own ineptitude.
She lambasted the party’s “unhelpful spirit of rancour” and questioned why more wasn’t done to facilitate the expansion of Magee despite it being in the driving seat at Stormont.
“Our critics in Sinn Fein speak as if they have no influence in society, as if they are a powerless, marginalised Opposition. They are not: they are the Government of Northern Ireland, and sit at the Executive table,” she said.
Her comments come after a petition signed by almost 3,000 people was handed to the Assembly yesterday by Foyle Sinn Fein MLA Maeve McLoughlin calling on the Government and the University of Ulster to develop Magee.
Among high-profile supporters of the Sinn Fein-initiated petition are the Londonderry Chamber of Commerce and University for Derry (U4D) lobby group, made up of influential business and educational leaders in the city.
Ms McLaughlin said that it was shocking that university bosses had, to date, failed to provide a business case to expand Magee.
She also claimed that the only real plans submitted to the Department for Employment and Learning was a six-page strategic outline plan dating to 2010.
“There are thousands of people who have now let their voices be heard. It’s clear the University of Ulster must step up to the plate and produce a business case,” the Foyle MLA said.
Ms McLaughlin said that “even if someone wanted to buy as much as a box of paper clips they would need a business plan”, but “it hasn’t materialised”.
But Professor Heenan said that the university had already made the case and was on target for securing the 1,000 students it had committed to Magee by 2015. She added that department officials had told it there was no need for a business case at this time. She also warned that it was in the gift of politicians and not the university to lift the maximum student numbers cap on the number of undergraduate places.
Prof Heenan added that the university was “fully committed” to the expansion of Magee and was “working to increase student numbers, implement its physical development programme and strengthen the research and development portfolio on the campus”.
She said: “In Scotland, higher education is at the top of the devolved administration's agenda: their slogan is ‘A Smarter Scotland'. Why can a similar objective not be a strategic priority for NI, given our need for economic growth?
“We are delivering for Derry, but we cannot do it on our own. We are proud of Magee, proud of its students, staff and alumni, and I call on Sinn Fein and people from Derry and beyond who signed this petition to talk to us and work with us.”
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The expansion plans for Magee are detailed in the One Plan and are seen as the single most important factor in ensuring Derry and the north west becomes an economic benefactor to the Northern Ireland economy. The One Plan, which has been adopted in its entirety by the Executive as part of its Programme of Government, plans for undergraduate student numbers at Magee to be doubled to around 9,400 students by 2020. Experts predict this would in turn create 2,800 jobs for the north west region by 2020. The university has put down a non-returnable deposit on the Foyle & Londonderry College site, and will expand into it when the school relocates in 2016.