The North West region of Ireland has suffered from historical underinvestment that spans both jurisdictions on the island.
This is reflected in the quality of transport and other infrastructure compared to other parts of the island.
The European Commission recently downgraded the north and west of the republic to a “lagging region” due to its relative decline in GDP per capita. per capita compared to the country and Europe as a whole (from 82 per cent of the EU average to 71 per cent in the past five years).
The infrastructural deficit in the north-west and west of Northern Ireland is less quantifiably measured, but obvious to see.
The reasons for the infrastructural deficit relate to political and geographical peripherality in both jurisdictions. This has been exacerbated by the recognized disadvantage associated with border regions across Europe and the world.
While there is undoubted goodwill towards the North West in both Belfast and Dublin, the concentration of political, governmental and financial structures in these capitals, together with the associated lobbying power of vested interests, has inevitably tended to treat planning for the more remote areas. areas as a subsidiary of capital development plans.
Nowhere has this capital focus been more evident than in the distribution of higher education places in Northern Ireland. More than 70 percent of university students are concentrated in Belfast.
This is in stark contrast to the figures for other capital cities in the UK (London, 21 per cent; Edinburgh, 25 per cent; Cardiff, 33 per cent) and the Republic (Dublin, 40 per cent).
While the distribution of student places in Northern Ireland may to some extent reflect student preferences, it is clear that other regions have given due consideration to the long-term economic, social and cultural impact of higher education in spatial planning and economic development.
This is exemplified by the growth of regional civil universities in the UK and the establishment of technological universities in the south, including the Atlantic Technological University.
Capital investment in further and higher education in Northern Ireland has not yet benefited the North West to the extent required. Furthermore, Northern Ireland is the only region in these islands that does not have a tertiary education regulatory body to provide independent advice to government.
The Royal Irish Academy and the John and Pat Hume Foundation are hosting a conference on ‘The Future Development of Higher Education in the Greater Northwest of the Island of Ireland’ in Derry-Londonderry on 11 October.
A major spur to the conference was the publication in November 2021 of a series of reports from the RIA Taskforce on Higher Education Futures following an extensive island-wide consultation process spanning the public, private and third sectors.
The taskforce report made a number of recommendations regarding the greater North West region, which it defined as an Atlantic Rim stretching from Galway through Derry-Londonderry to Coleraine, including the associated hinterland. The recommendations include the need for:
· A co-ordinated and independent planning body supported by development funds and a major joint UK-EU-Ireland-NI initiative to plan future higher education and research provision, including cross-border provision, in the North West of the island of Ireland. Such a body is necessary to oversee the development of the collaborative, institutional structures, governance and funding necessary to alleviate the effects of historical under-resourcing and achieve the significant up-scaling of economic, social and cultural development in the Northwest.
· A separate higher education regulator for Northern Ireland to advise the Department for the Economy NI, help define sector remit and ensure greater co-ordination, regional distribution and efficiency within the university and further education (FE) sectors.
· Joint collaborative programs between the Further Education (FE) sectors in the border regions of Ireland and Northern Ireland must be actively developed to meet local needs and reduce the disadvantages associated with peripherality.
· A smart focus applied to leading regional HEIs and FEIs working together to specialize and deliver a more comprehensive offering that reflects the strengths and needs of their regions.
The task force did not specify an optimal long-term structure for the higher education sector in the greater Northwest, but envisioned that the 15-plus campuses currently operating would need to be coordinated to ensure maximum synergy and efficiency. A cross-border federal structure is an obvious long-term potential outcome.
Tackling the long-standing underinvestment in the greater North West is overdue. There is a real opportunity for cross-border planning and operational development to deliver a specific model of tertiary education planning for the region.
This should be designed for and focused on the region’s unique needs, opportunities and strengths, unconstrained by jurisdictional constraints or centrally derived priorities.
It will require the UK and Irish governments and a future Northern Ireland leader working together to enable the entire North West region to develop to its full potential for the benefit of both jurisdictions and the island as a whole.
Relatively recent history in Ireland and elsewhere amply testifies to the need to ensure that no region is left behind.
Prof Gerry McKenna is senior vice-president of the Royal Irish Academy and Prof Seán Farren is chairman of the John & Pat Hume Foundation.
The Academy and Foundation are jointly organizing a conference on ‘The Future Development of Higher Education in the Greater North-West of the Island of Ireland’ at the Playhouse Theatre, Derry-Londonderry on 11 October.