Northern Ireland's two universities have stressed their commitment to equal opportunities despite uncertainty as to whether they will fall under new equality legislation in the province, writes Olga Wojtas.
The Equality Commission for Northern Ireland has called on the government to clarify urgently which public bodies will be subject to the legislation, which is a key part of the Good Friday agreement. All designated organisations must produce an equality scheme by June 30, but the government has not yet set out a definitive list of "public bodies".
Mary Bunting of the Equality Commission said: "We are particularly concerned to ensure that higher and further education are fully brought within the scope of the legislation because we believe they have significant implications for equality of opportunity."
Peter O'Neill, manager of the National Union of Students - Union of Students in Ireland, admitted some people feared that academic freedom could be threatened by universities being designated as public bodies.
"But we believe these arguments tend to fall away in view of the important role that the universities play in the labour market. We firmly believe they should be designated, and we would encourage them to act as role models."
Gerry McKenna, vice-chancellor of Ulster University, said universities had a special responsibility in offering equal opportunities.
"Whether or not higher education is governed by the legislation is to an extent irrelevant," he said. "If we are not, we must apply it in the spirit of equality for all."
A spokesman for Queen's University, Belfast, said it would make a full contribution to discussions about possible designation as a public authority.
"Queen's University is completely committed to the principle of equality and fair treatment for all who can benefit from it, regardless of their religion, class, sex or ethnic background."