Academics back creation of pan-Irish higher education area

Greater cross-border collaboration key to peace and prosperity, says learned society

November 22, 2021
Nationalists and Loyalists riot against one another at the Peace Wall interface gates  to illustrate Academics back creation of pan-Irish higher education area
Source: Getty

Greater cross-border collaboration on higher education will be fundamental to “peace and prosperity” in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, academics say.

A taskforce set up by a pan-Irish learned society, the Royal Irish Academy, calls on the Irish government and the Northern Ireland executive to use closer ties on research and education as a way of overcoming historic political and regional challenges, as well as the problems caused by Brexit and the coronavirus pandemic.

A series of reports propose the creation of an all-island charter on equality, diversity and inclusion that would combine existing targets and initiatives such as Athena Swan and the republic’s framework for consent, which addresses sexual harassment and misconduct, with an advisory council that would set targets, make recommendations and monitor progress.

Such a coordinated strategy would eliminative discrepancies in the relative focus on gender, religion, race, language, ethnicity, disability and LGBTQ+ issues, the academy argues.

They also call for the establishment of an all-island research and innovation advisory council, providing independent policy advice and evaluation across both jurisdictions. This could help avoid duplication of “expensive resources and capital infrastructure”, allowing universities to instead build on their strengths. Under such a system, institutions would be expected to declare their priorities and their hubs of research expertise “so as to enable clarity”.

The advisory council could also consider establishing an all-Ireland higher education and research area, facilitating greater student mobility, the reports say, suggesting that this could draw on the experience of Nordic countries that established similar arrangements between European Union and non-EU states.

Another recommendation is a planning body for the north-west of the island, an area that has been historically underfunded. Potentially this could involve the creation of a cross-border university, which was initially proposed in 2020.

Alongside these cross-border initiatives, the papers also call for more investment in research from both governments and for the establishment of a body to oversee tertiary education in Northern Ireland, since it is the only UK region without one.

Both parts of Ireland have faced funding squeezes over the past decade. In Northern Ireland, fees are capped at £4,275, compared with £9,250 in England, and Stormont – which only just re-emerged from political paralysis over power-sharing between unionists and republicans – has proved unwilling to make up the difference.

Universities in the Republic, where tuition is free, had faced a decade of budgetary constraints even before Covid-19 hit vital income from international students and commercial revenues.

Cross-border initiatives elicited very strong support across the submissions to the academy’s consultation, according to Gerry McKenna, senior vice-president of the RIA and former vice-chancellor of Ulster University. While some cross-border initiatives already exist, a stronger commitment was needed, he said.

“By its very nature, higher education and research doesn’t really respect borders. It is an international activity,” Professor McKenna said. “Within a relatively small island, such as Ireland, any false division that inhibits cooperation and collaboration is to the detriment of both parts of the island, irrespective of one’s political perspectives.

“Universities are an important player in terms of promoting social cohesion, promoting political tolerance, and support for democratic institutions themselves. This is not something that we should take for granted.

“A higher education system that embraces the entire island and all its regions is an important factor in promoting not just prosperity, but also peace and stability.”

anna.mckie@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (1)

In Ireland tuition fees are not quite so free at €3k per year for first u/g degree and €€€€for p/g. Still cheaper than NI but not free.

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