Lord Adonis raised the issue of a lack of a university in the city in the House of Lords.
Lord Adonis said Derry is the only place of its prominence in the UK that doesn’t have a higher education institution with its main campus in the city.
The decision was made 50 years ago to locate Northern Ireland’s second university in Coleraine, rather than Derry, where the Magee campus of Ulster University has seen courses and student numbers recently decline to 4,300 students – a drop of 300 from 2014.
Lord Adonis – a former adviser to Tony Blair when he was prime minister – said: “Derry doesn’t have a university whose main campus is in the city – the only city of its prominence in the UK which doesn’t have its own higher education institution.”
He said that is why he called for a House of Lords debate on “this long-running social and sectarian scandal”.
The former transport secretary and education minister said he had “witnessed the great strength of feeling about this first-hand when I visited Derry/Londonderry last year and saw how inadequate the current small campus of Ulster University there is”.
He added: “It is high time that the young people of Northern Ireland are given the chance to pursue higher education in this great city.
“It is deeply unfair that Derry continues to lose out because of the historical decision to base the headquarters of Ulster University in Coleraine following the Lockwood Report in the 1960s, particularly since this was made in the context of deep sectarianism that the young people of Northern Ireland do not recognise today and should not continue to suffer from.”
Garbhan Downey from the Derry University lobby group welcomed Lord Adonis’s intervention, describing it as “highly significant”.
He said: “We met with the Labour Party here in Derry three weeks ago and they were very engaged and were keen to help Derry establish its own independent university.
“They understood the levels of alienation that the city had felt and the historic inequity and they went back and asked questions about this in Parliament, which was great.
“But this move by Lord Adonis is highly significant because I don’t think this has been raised in such a forum before. I think an independent university for Derry is the only realistic option to providing higher education.
“Magee expansion under Ulster University has completely failed and it is now impossible because they showed us.”
He said that at the time of the Good Friday Agreement “there was hope for the expansion of Magee but instead all the money went to Belfast” and the multi-million-pound development of a new campus there, while “Derry’s case was completely ignored”.
“I am not sure in this case whether that was a sectarian decision as it was in the 1960s, but it was a pro-Belfast and anti-Derry decision and it was an appalling decision.
“I don’t think Stormont has ever delivered for Derry, I don’t think the Ulster University has delivered for Derry and it won’t because it has no money left.
“I think it is not beyond the bounds of possibilities that the British Government will help establish an independent university in Derry because the British Government will be looking at ways to mitigate against the effects of Brexit on Derry.
“Derry is already the most Brexit-impacted city in these islands and I think they will be looking at their obligations, which they do have, and I do think they will be looking at ways to best protect a border city like Derry and I think there are responsibilities there.”
However, Lord Adonis’ suggestion that the failure to establish a university in Derry was “sectarian” rankled with East Derry MP Gregory Campbell, who called on him to explain himself.
Mr Campbell said: “Lord Adonis’ commitment to the facts previously saw him tweet that Derry was “denied its own university”.
“Having previously not even been aware of the existence of the Magee campus in Derry, he has now taken to describing the fact it isn’t the main campus as a “sectarian scandal”.
“It is highly unlikely that Lord Adonis has bothered to furnish himself of any of the details surrounding the location of the University of Ulster in Coleraine, and the fact that people from both sides of the community were involved in lobbying for Derry.
“The opening of a medical school at Magee is key to the expansion of the campus there, but this is something that cannot progress because there is no minister or Executive in place for the necessary decisions to be signed off.
“While there are a number of us campaigning not just for a medical school for Derry but also for a veterinary school for Coleraine, using his logic, is the failure to deliver a veterinary school there also ‘sectarian’?”