A new report published by the Royal Irish Academy last week has highlighted that the north-west of the country is underserved in terms of higher education. The report is entitled: ‘Finding common ground, building community: strengthening and stimulating tertiary regional collaboration in the north-west of the island of Ireland’.

This forms part of an ongoing interaction with stakeholders in the north-west, Scotland and Wales, exploring the role that higher education can play in ensuring that regions offer an attractive location for people to live, learn and work for the overall economic, social and cultural well-being of the regions.

Challenges facing the North-West

The report shows that the north-west has persistent challenges in terms of:

  • Infrastructure deficits relative to other regions on the island of Ireland
  • Low levels of student mobility to campuses
  • Lower levels of economic performance and population growth
  • Lower levels of overall educational attainment
  • Lower levels of participation in higher education
  • Infrastructure

    The absence of major transport networks in the north-west is an infrastructure factor that affects higher education distribution and access.

    For example, there is no rail line between Letterkenny and Derry, the two largest regional north-western towns/cities of Ireland and Northern Ireland.

    Professor Gerry McKenna, President of the University of Ulster says, “We made the point that higher education in itself is not a solution for curing economic deprivation but needs supporting infrastructure to fulfil its potential.”

    “We did note the important initiatives that have taken place, particularly from the Irish government, including the establishment of the Atlantic Technological University. But we felt that most of the developments have been reactive rather than proactive.”

    Professor Gerry McKenna former Dean of Science, Pro Vice Chancellor (Research), and President of the University of Ulster.


    According to Professor Gerry McKenna, the development of a cross-border federal institution with its own governance, oversight and planning for the region would serve the needs of the north-west.

    “We believe that’s essential. Northern Ireland does not have any effective oversight of higher education or tertiary education generally, that is out of kilter with any of the other regions within this island.

    “We think that is an anomaly that ought to be dealt with. We noted, for example, the skewed distribution of higher education numbers in Northern Ireland, where 80% of the students are in Belfast

    “We do feel that there needs to be major affirmative action taken and it needs to be done in collaboration involving the two sovereign governments but also the executive working together to develop a model that will deliver for the region in a way that has never been attempted before.”

    In short

    • Consideration should be given to significantly expand the role of further education as part of a coordinated tertiary education strategy for the north-west region

    • The distribution of higher education student places in Northern Ireland with over 80% being based in Belfast is unduly concentrated in the capital city

    • Potential models for future planning and strategic development of higher education in the greater north-west include an expansion of the Tertiary Education Cluster with strong independent oversight

    • A more ambitious option would be the development of a federal cross-border tertiary education institution made up of the existing institutions and campuses based in the greater north-west

    • A feasibility study examining the options available should be commissioned by the Irish and UK governments and the NI Executive as an important next step.

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