The University of Ulster has put a deposit down on the 30-acre Foyle College school site in Londonderry to progress its expansion plans in the city.
University chiefs yesterday handed over £50,000 after securing an additional 322 full-time undergraduate places from Learning Minister Stephen Farry.
All of the new university places, plus a further 28 part-time places, will go to the Magee campus and will be added to science, technology, engineering and maths departments.
What was yesterday described as a gentleman’s agreement has existed for several years with ministerial approval.
The agreement involves Magee expanding onto the school’s junior and senior sites along Northland Road, once Foyle College is given the go ahead to relocate to a new site at Clooney.
Education Minister John O’Dowd has yet to decide on the plans for a joint Foyle College and Ebrington Primary School campus, which were unveiled by his predecessor Caitriona Ruane almost two years ago.
Minister Farry said that he had no funding to increase the Maximum Student Numbers (MaSN) cap to facilitate the large-scale increase.
And in early October, an Assembly motion calling for the move was defeated by 49 votes to 27 at Stormont.
It has now emerged that 700 additional student places will be shared out, with Queen’s in Belfast getting 308 and other providers getting 70 extra places.
University of Ulster vice-chancellor, Professor Richard Barnett, said: “We remain disappointed that the number of additional places are so few, given the strength of the case we have made for a substantial increase in student numbers at Magee.
Speaking about the acquisition of Foyle and Londonderry’s split campus on Northland Road, Mr Barnett said: “Demonstrating our confidence in and commitment to the city and campus, the University will buy the Foyle College lands that we require if major growth at Magee is to take place.”
Foyle College school principal Jack Magill said: “We need to get off this site and free up the land for the university to expand and create the student places, and beyond that the jobs the city really needs. That is the great prize at the end of all this.”
SDLP employment and learning spokesman Pat Ramsey welcomed the new places at Magee.
“It is a morale boost for the city and shows the continued commitment to grow Magee, and the University’s confidence in Derry as a city where education is at the heart of planning for the future.”