Higher education postcard: Magee College

This week’s card from Hugh Jones’ postbag takes us to a contentious campus

Hugh Jones is a freelance HE consultant. You’ll find a daily #HigherEducationPostcard if you follow him on Twitter.

Let’s go back to the mid-nineteenth century.

The entirety of the island of Ireland was part of the UK, the English invasion of 1169 having culminated in the union of Ireland with Great Britain in 1801. (Yes, I have missed out a lot of detail about the intervening years.) It’s a society where religion plays a significant role in identity; and where nationalist thoughts and sentiments have led to political action, and will do so again.

And on a less grand scale, two bequests enabled the foundation of a college.

Martha Maria Magee had married a presbyterian minister; he had died in 1800 and her two sons had both died young, leaving her in straitened circumstances. But her two brothers had had very successful careers serving in the East India Company’s military forces, and they left Martha Magee with a considerable fortune. In her will, she left £20,000 – just shy of £2m in today’s prices – to establish a college for Presbyterian ministers that would teach both theology and arts.

But like many Victorian wills, its terms provoked controversy. Where to site the new college? Belfast would have been the obvious choice, except that in 1850 the Queen’s University of Ireland had been established to award the degrees of the Queen’s Colleges in Belfast, Cork and Galway. Eventually, Derry was identified as the location, and using Martha’s bequest, and that of the Reverend Richard Dill (one of the original trustees of Martha Maria Magee’s will), Magee College was established in 1865.

The initial appointment of professors was not without controversy. There were moves to require all of the professors at Magee College – not just those teaching the theological disciplines – to subscribe to a religious test, effectively meaning that only Presbyterian ministers could be appointed. This was defeated. Public interest was such that the Newry Telegraph on 4 July 1865 published a “tolerably accurate” list of candidates for the seven professorships. Eventually, professors were appointed. Five ministers, for the chairs in theology, church history and pastoral theology, oriental literature and hermeneutics, logic, belles lettres and rhetoric, and Latin and Greek. Two lay appointments to the chairs of metaphysics and ethics, and mathematics and natural philosophy. (You will notice that arts meant something quite different in 1865.)

By 1867 things had settled down, and courses were being advertised in the literary and scientific department and the theological department. There were bursaries, scholarships and prizes too.

The college had hoped to be made a university in 1866, but this did not happen. From 1880 it was a college of the Royal University of Ireland: this meant that its students could gain degrees. This arrangement lasted until 1909, when the Royal University of Ireland was dissolved. Magee College turned to the very ancient and protestant Trinity College, Dublin: its students could now graduate with Trinity degrees.

In 1953 the college underwent a major upheaval: the theological subjects separated, becoming Magee Theological College and eventually moving to Belfast. The remainder of the institution became Magee University College. It had been receiving funding from the government for its arts activity for some time now, and it was hoped that it would become Ulster’s second university. But the Lockwood committee, which was formed to advise the Stormont government on higher education in Northern Ireland, recommended in 1965 that a new university be opened in Coleraine, and that Magee be closed.

This was contentious, not least to the people of Derry. The University for Derry Committee was established, chaired by John Hume, with cross-community support (in the Northern Irish context, cross-community meant it included both Catholics and Protestants) to protest the decision.

In the event, Magee was not closed. But it was, in 1969, incorporated into the New University of Ulster: the institution which had been established in Coleraine. Coleraine was the main campus, and the scale of activity in Derry shrank. In 1984 the New University of Ulster merged with Ulster Polytechnic to form the University of Ulster. The Magee College site is now one of four campuses of the university.

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