Moving on

Like the communities they serve, Northern Ireland's two universities have put inclusiveness and cohesion at the top of the agenda. But some elements of the past linger, Hannah Fearn finds

May 28, 2009

The University of Ulster's Jordanstown campus is a fitting place to consider what changes have come to Northern Ireland's higher education institutions in the wake of the peace process and the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. The gargantuan 1970s grey concrete building at the centre of the campus, evocative of bleaker and more violent times, is now facing demolition.

But while there can be no doubt that the worst days of the Troubles are over, in Northern Ireland's two universities many believe that sectarianism has not yet been completely consigned to history. A recent issue of Ufouria, the University of Ulster students' union magazine, includes student-penned articles focusing on the killings of two soldiers in Antrim and a policeman in Craigavon, the mass public protests against those acts, and the need for greater integration on campus.

Engagement with these issues in Northern Ireland's universities is nothing new, of course; indeed, both institutions have figured in the history of the Troubles. When the civil rights movement gained momentum in Belfast in the late 1960s, it was a demonstration held at the student union of Queen's University Belfast that accelerated tension in the city. Later, the wider community often blamed Queen's, in particular, for exacerbating conflict.

And today, despite widespread agreement on the benefits of the peace dividend to the province, the state of integration in Northern Ireland's universities still echoes stubborn divisions in society as a whole. Neither university is the cultural melting pot seen on many other campuses in the UK; in the 2007-08 academic year, more than 90 per cent of full-time undergraduates at both Queen's and Ulster were Northern Irish, and they largely come to university in existing friendship groups formed at school. Because Northern Ireland's school system is one in which, by 2003, only 5 per cent of pupils were educated in integrated schools, Protestant and Roman Catholic divisions are entrenched early and often continue throughout higher education.

A contributor to Ufouria, Laura Brown, observes: "A friend of mine commented only the other week: 'Isn't it awful that it takes us to come to university to mix with people from all walks of life.' It is true. Very few of us going to the University of Ulster went to integrated schools and the majority of us, if honest, are ignorant of most cultures bar our own."

In Northern Ireland, even sport echoes the divide. Protestants traditionally play rugby, while Catholics play Gaelic football or hurling. Students arrive at university practised in one or the other, and even the wearing of sports shirts betrays their background.

Bob Osborne, director of the Social and Policy Research Institute at the University of Ulster, says he witnesses these divisions every day. "It's not manifesting itself in huge explosions of violence or aggressive behaviour, but it's manifested in segregated friendships and segregated sporting activities."

Research carried out by Osborne and published in 2006 in his paper "Equality in Further and Higher Education in Northern Ireland" reiterated this point. "The absence of widespread physical violence (at Northern Ireland's universities) does not mean that sectarian tensions do not exist. Relationships between students from the two communities are no better or worse than those of the wider community," he writes.

The same research concludes that the role of the students' unions at the two universities has been crucial in breaking down barriers. However, some undergraduates contend that student groups may also serve to exacerbate existing problems.

Huw Nesbitt, a recent graduate of Queen's - a non-denominational institution founded by Queen Victoria in 1845 - believes that student politics during his time at the university did little more than "echo the stalemate of politics in Northern Ireland".

"They're playing out the politics in a smaller role," he says. "A lot of these people are opportunists and careerists. They don't give a fuck about what's best for the students' union. They just want to sharpen their own axes."

Nesbitt, now a freelance journalist and writer, says he was so put off by the polarisation that he steered clear of the student newspaper despite his career ambitions. It, too, he says, was dominated by "stale debate".

Henry Patterson, a professor of politics at Ulster who acknowledges that by his very specialism he is part of what he calls "the Troubles industry", says he has noticed a shift in student attitudes, but not for the better. Most young people now entering higher education were born in the early 1990s and have known nothing but the peace process, he observes; paradoxically, some are becoming more, not less, radical. They pick up the divisive rhetoric, he adds, without having lived through the worst of its impact.

"A lot of them see Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness as statesmen," Patterson says. Among his students, he makes efforts to break down divisions. "I have made it clear that I'm not interested in banal narratives."

In reality, today's students' experiences may not be that different from those of undergraduates in the 1970s and 1980s, negotiating the legacy of sectarianism while at the same time adjusting to an intellectual environment where a degree of integration offers hope.

Peter Robertson, pro vice-chancellor for research and commercialisation at The Robert Gordon University in Scotland, studied for his PhD in the late 1980s at Ulster, which was created in 1984 from the merger of the New University of Ulster and Ulster Polytechnic, institutions founded in 1968 and 1971, respectively.

"We had some very active people and very politicised attitudes," Robertson says of his time at Ulster. "The society you lived in gave you that extreme view. Most people were growing up in a divided society. They lived in sectarian areas, and they went to sectarian schools. They were unlikely to come across people of the other religion. University was quite often the first experience people had of people of the other community. It was the first place that we started seeing that these people were the same as us.

"There is always a potential risk of there being an issue when the wider society is still essentially divided. The problem is that the university is still embedded in that society."

Nevertheless, argues Robertson, the University of Ulster did what it could to improve relations between the two student communities. "It had a culture in which sectarianism wasn't acceptable in the lecture theatre or the laboratory, (with integration) engineered by the academics and the senior management. Having that culture in mind, we were on equal terms with people and more likely to interact and get to know them."

That many of the academics at Ulster at the time were either Scottish or English also helped to mitigate prejudice, he believes. In fact, the teaching environment was inclusive enough that Robertson, a middle-class Protestant, met his Catholic republican wife at university.

Whatever the persistence of division among the universities' students, the past three decades have seen great strides in terms of more demographically representative participation in higher education. Although data on students' religious background are not collected by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, other measures suggest that by the middle of this decade, the student bodies of both Ulster and Queen's were about 60 per cent Catholic, a reversal of the picture just 30 years earlier, when both were dominated by Protestants.

The growing equality of opportunity for Catholic students has been helped along over the years by the universities seeking to position themselves as havens from the conflict, some observers suggest. John Brewer, a professor of sociology at the University of Aberdeen, worked at Queen's for many years. His experiences of living and working in Belfast during the Troubles inspired him to research the sociology of peace and forgiveness.

Although Queen's was overwhelmingly Protestant when he was there, Brewer says that it was an "island of civility" in a time of conflict and fear. "Living in the midst of a divided society made us extremely sensitive towards issues of social division. It didn't inhibit or distract us," he says. "One of the reasons why I think Queen's was an excellent place to work is because while people did have political differences, on the whole these didn't become professional or personal differences. People found ways of working together."

While many felt that the universities should take on a political role, he recalls, the academy was content to keep a critical distance from the Troubles. "There were many of us who saw working at Queen's as an opportunity, and we benefited from its hopeful values and its mission to facilitate reflective scholarship. I never saw working at Queen's as problematic."

Yet to talk of "islands of civility" is perhaps to overlook the impact that the Troubles had on academic lives and careers. Many longstanding members of staff at both universities have known a colleague or a student killed or injured in sectarian violence. Bombs have rocked both campuses, and academics have received death threats. "I think there were some staff at Queen's who tried to live life as if they were living in the Home Counties, but you couldn't," Brewer acknowledges.

Moreover, well-intentioned attempts to create a centre for calm and reflective thought also meant that the issues surrounding the Troubles were overlooked by the universities - a naive approach, Osborne argues. "It meant that they turned their back on certain public policy issues. At the same time as they created islands of civility, the result might have been that they misjudged where they needed to take action."

Indeed, it took the two universities until 1999 (when legal responsibilities were introduced under the Northern Ireland Act) to address inequality in the workplace. Where universities could have been leaders of change, they were followers instead. But progress has been made in the ensuing years. Osborne's research reveals that 42 per cent of academic staff at Ulster were Protestant and just 18 per cent Catholic in 1992; by 2001, 46 per cent were Protestant but 32 per cent were Catholic. Queen's has also seen a demographic change in its staff: in 1992, 13 per cent of its academics were Catholic and 41 per cent Protestant, but by 2001 almost 26 per cent were Catholic and 44 per cent Protestant.

Although some see these data as a measure, however crude, of the success of integration across sectarian lines, Patterson argues that there is "something artificial" about conducting a census because the universities do not always recruit from the local labour market. But the change, say many, has been obvious on the ground.

Renee Prendergast is the president of the University and College Union at Queen's. She has been an active union member since she joined Queen's 26 years ago, first in the Association of University Teachers and then in the UCU, which was created from the merger of the AUT and the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education (Natfhe).

"There has been a huge change within the universities. In the 1980s there were quite a lot of fair employment cases, but there are hardly any these days," she says, referring to employment tribunals in which university staff sought redress for perceived sectarian bias.

But she argues that Northern Ireland's universities did not accept that there was an internal problem until outside society forced them to change. "The figures (on an integrated workforce) in those days weren't particularly good," she says. "There was a certain amount of denial. Queen's was part of a wider community with the same problems. It may not have been active discrimination, but people from Catholic backgrounds did feel that they didn't have equality."

When I came to the university, I thought we were living in the Dark Ages. No other UK university would have been playing the National Anthem at graduation, but Queen's was still doing it. And those sorts of signifiers are quite important to how welcome people feel. I certainly felt as a newcomer to the AUT committee that some of the officers were in denial that there was even a problem."

Prendergast adds: "People didn't want to talk about politics. They preferred to leave it alone. That was part of the problem, and I think it was very unhealthy. People were uncomfortable talking about these things and they didn't want to be challenged. I think people wanted to be left to enjoy their prejudices in peace."

It may be that well-meaning attempts to create neutral spaces away from the conflict in the wider Northern Irish community only served, paradoxically, to embed discrimination in higher education, a legacy that Ulster and Queen's are still tackling today.

An influential report by employment lawyers Beverly Jones and Fiona Cassidy in the late 1990s helped to explode the myth of employment equality between religious groups at the institution and Queen's was forced to act. Since then, recent high-profile appointments at the institution, including that of the registrar and the director of human resources, have been drawn from the Catholic community.

For some academics, the change in culture brought about by the Northern Irish academy's belated admission of inherent problems has served to revolutionise their careers. Tony Gallagher, professor of education at Queen's and a Catholic, was a student at Queen's in the late 1970s and early 1980s. After a spell working as an academic at Ulster, he returned in 1990 to a post at Queen's. "But I never really felt part of the institution," he says of Queen's. "I didn't recognise my tradition there," he says.

According to Gallagher, at the height of the conflict, Queen's academics were steered away from conducting research on the Troubles - a situation that has clearly changed in the ensuing years at both institutions in the province.

"There were problems with academic freedom. There was no critical voice on society. The first critical voices emerged from among the student body," he says. As an academic, "if you got too much of a public profile there was always a risk that something might happen". The result might be criticism from academic peers or the public; but in dark and violent days, there was always a fear of something far worse.

"So there was a general reluctance to deal with these issues explicitly. But if you're in the middle of a society that's tearing itself apart, it seems to me incredible to try to pretend it's not happening," Gallagher says.

But rapid change came to Queen's during the 1998-2004 vice-chancellorship of George Bain, a Canadian with no personal baggage to colour his decisions. "He made it clear from Day 1 that Queen's was a diverse institution," Gallagher says. "It was almost like he was opening the windows, and saying we have moved on, the world has changed and we have to be a different sort of place. It did change the whole atmosphere. And by the time he left Queen's, I really did feel part of it."

Northern Ireland has made a huge effort to move on from its past, but what place now for universities in helping to ensure lasting peace and integration in a still-divided society? Historic reluctance to engage with social cohesion has left the two universities in a difficult position, says one Ulster academic who asks to remain anonymous and who deems the institutions' current efforts to support community cohesion "tokenistic and minimalist".

"Senior management take the view that if we start campaigning for greater integration, there is a danger we may provoke things," says Osborne. "There is still low-level sectarian influence, just as there is in the wider society."

He firmly believes that universities should acknowledge their responsibility to play an important role in fostering cohesion. "They're keen to speak out about their economic role and their regeneration role. But why won't they take on a role in building a new community?"

There is still much to hold such an agenda back. As Osborne points out, politicised student factions and social divisions still exist. And Stephen Brown, professor of marketing research at the University of Ulster, says the sector's slow progress in recruiting students and academics from outside the province has also hindered attempts to look beyond culture and background.

"The reluctance of mainland academics to take up positions at Northern Irish institutions has meant that we've been forced to grow our own talent," he says. "This has been beneficial for people like me, although there's the ever-present danger of parochialism."

Other academics take the view that the peace process and the improvement in community relations in Northern Ireland are so advanced that universities can do little but stand aside and watch history unfold. "I'm not convinced any more that there is a special role for universities to play," says Brewer. "I did think in the past there was such a role, but it's gone beyond that now."

But most believe that society will still look to the academy to offer models of community cohesion, and it is a role that Northern Ireland's universities should now feel confident to take on. "They should continue to create an environment where people work together, since, in the core business of the university - learning and teaching - there is no place for sectarianism," Robertson urges.

Osborne's research suggests that the expectations placed on higher education in terms of building communities are high - and, he believes, correctly so. The conclusion to his 2006 study is a fitting message to the two universities struggling to meet the challenge of sectarianism within their own walls and in the wider community.

"The jury is still out", he writes, "in deciding whether those expectations are going to be disappointed, but the time for a conclusive verdict cannot be long delayed."

LESSONS FOR THE WHOLE WORLD: ULSTER CENTRE WORKS TO BRIDGE DIVISIONS BOTH AT HOME AND FARTHER AWAY

Over the past 30 years, Northern Ireland's universities have welcomed a host of academics with personal and professional experience in conflict resolution and community relations.

In 1993, the University of Ulster established its own centre of expertise, Incore (International Conflict Research Institute). Now headed by Brandon Hamber, it reaches out to strife-torn communities across the world, offering advice on how to broker a lasting peace.

"Over the past five years, Incore has hosted some 40 study visits by delegations from around the world coming to learn lessons from what Northern Ireland has achieved, despite some of the ongoing problems," says Hamber. In recent years, Ulster has received high-profile visits from the Burundian Prime Minister and the president of Spain's Basque region.

In 2006, Gillian Robinson, the former director of Incore, was asked by the Catalonian Ministry of Institutional Relations and Participation to assist in setting up the International Catalan Institute for Peace. The invitation was widely considered to offer international recognition of Incore as a skills centre for peace and conflict resolution. "We were asked to give advice and opinions on the Basque peace plan by the outgoing Basque president," Robinson said at the time.

Incore's work continues across the world. Last year, academics from the university joined a Northern Ireland delegation of political and civil society leaders that travelled to Beirut. "We met with members of the Lebanese parliamentary blocs to discuss experiences in peace building and the complexities of power-sharing in a divided society," Hamber says.

The centre has also worked with communities within Northern Ireland to bring the academics' knowledge to bear on the lingering divisions within the province. "We have engaged in policy and practice programmes that actively build connections between communities and challenge sectarianism in Northern Ireland," Hamber notes.

The initiative's flagship scheme is called Journeys Out. As Hamber explains: "It brings together people from different communities, not only exposing each other to the different views within Northern Ireland, but also focusing on sharing lessons from and to Northern Ireland."

The project involves taking residents of Northern Ireland to different countries for this purpose. The last programme took community members to the Middle East. Next year, groups will travel to South Africa to discuss issues of peace and reconciliation there.

Incore also has a diversity programme working with young people in Northern Ireland's schools. Academics work with schoolchildren to educate them about the impact of sectarianism, hate crimes and prejudice. In just two years, almost 2,000 pupils have taken part in the programme.

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments