Soaring 40m above the roof of St Anne’s Cathedral in central Belfast is a thin stainless-steel needle known as the Spire of Hope.
Installed in 2007 more than a century after the church was built, the sleekly modern Spire was intended to reflect a city looking to leave behind its troubled past and establish itself as a vibrant urban centre.
But a second symbol of Northern Ireland’s promising future is set to take its place just a few yards away from the Spire: the University of Ulster’s new £250 million campus.
If all goes to plan, by 2018 this ambitious project in a run-down quarter of Belfast – home to the “Ring of Steel” Army checkpoint during the Troubles – will hum with student activity once a series of imposing glass-fronted academic buildings are completed.
The prospect of regenerating a large swathe of Belfast’s city centre is one of the reasons that the European Investment Bank has committed £150 million in loans to the project. However, the new campus is far more significant to the city than that, said Richard Barnett, Ulster’s vice-chancellor.
Establishing Ulster’s Belfast operation firmly in York Street, where its Faculty of Art and Design and the Built Environment is now based, will help the university to achieve key objectives far more successfully than it currently does while located at its edge-of-town campus in Jordanstown, he explained.
“The move to Jordanstown in the 1970s only happened because there was some land available away from the city,” said Professor Barnett.
“But travelling to evening classes there can be difficult because you’re heading seven miles out of town in rush hour traffic as everyone is trying to get home,” he added.
A city centre campus will also help Ulster to bolster its already considerable links with local businesses, heavy industry and local hospitals, Professor Barnett added.
“The move will rejuvenate a historic part of Belfast which has been neglected for years, but it is an education project foremost and we can carry out our mission much better in the city centre,” he said.
Alternatives to constructing the ultra-modern new campus were proposed to Professor Barnett, an economist who joined Ulster in 1990 and became vice-chancellor in 2006.
One proposal was to renovate the Jordanstown campus, but this would have cost at least £100 million and would have been impractical. Ulster was also offered more historic buildings in Belfast for potential refurbishment, he said.
But Professor Barnett explained that these options would not have opened up the university, which also has campuses in Coleraine and Londonderry, to the people of Belfast in the same way.
“The whole of our ground floor will be open access and a natural place for the community to walk through, stop and meet,” he said.
“Many universities sit behind iron railings and the community walk past them.” Such an approach, he added, “is trying to exclude the public, rather than involve it”.
With this in mind, Professor Barnett said he was excited about how the new campus might support Ulster’s efforts to engage young people in some of Belfast’s poorest districts, which lie less than a mile away across the River Lagan.
Their success in this aim is crucial to improving the economic fortunes of deprived communities and, by doing so, to help to secure the peace in Northern Ireland, he suggested.
“When you have excluded communities, you will not get a peaceful region – it’s not good for stability or security,” Professor Barnett said. “We still have a big job with many communities, particularly working-class Protestants.”
That community had the largest stake in shipbuilding and other traditional industries that have disappeared from Belfast, and it has been slower to re-skill through education, he added.
“Catholics invested in education early because they did not have jobs in those industries. It may take a generation or two until other communities realise that their future lies in education.”
Talk of the sectarian divide highlights some of the challenges faced by Ulster, even after more than 15 years of relative peace following the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.
Despite being Northern Ireland’s largest university, it has largely avoided being dragged into sectarian arguments. However, some politicians have raised concerns that Ulster’s Catholic students outnumber its Protestant cohort – an imbalance that is most marked at its Magee campus in the largely nationalist area of Londonderry.
But the establishment of a thriving new student quarter in the heart of Belfast will surely help Ulster in many different ways to secure a long-lasting peace for the people of the province.
Estimated cost of new central Belfast campus
In European Investment Bank loans to support the project
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