#LoveHE: Bleak walls, bright futures

James Nesbitt contrasts Thomas Hardy's vision of wasted potential with the academy's ability to nourish talent

June 10, 2010

About 14 years ago, I appeared in Jude, Michael Winterbottom's film adaptation of Thomas Hardy's classic novel Jude the Obscure.

It's the story of a stonemason who not only marries the wrong woman, but also struggles to realise his ambition to become a university scholar. It is a novel about potential and failing to fulfil that potential. There's one particular scene that captures the terrible plight of his life and the tragedy of wasted potential. Jude finds himself working outside the walls of a university where he should be studying.

Hardy observes: "Only a wall divided him from those happy young contemporaries of his with whom he shared a common mental life; men who had nothing to do from morning till night but to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest. Only a wall - but what a wall!"

When I was approached earlier this year by the University of Ulster to become its chancellor, I was deeply honoured. Coming from a family where teaching is in the blood, I know only too well the value of a good education.

I was raised in Coleraine, where Ulster has one of its four campuses, and I know how much it has contributed not just to the town but to Northern Ireland as a whole and to UK higher education. And as someone who spent a year studying French on the university's Jordanstown campus, I also have a strong appreciation of the critical role that Ulster and other universities play in shaping their students.

Like Patrick Stewart when he accepted the chancellor's post at the University of Huddersfield, I didn't want my role to be purely ceremonial. I want to do whatever I can to promote the value of higher education and especially Ulster.

I am joining it at a hugely exciting time. In March, the Northern Ireland Executive approved plans for the relocation of 12,000 students from Jordanstown to a new campus in the heart of Belfast. That development will have a huge impact on the city's educational, economic, cultural and social renaissance. Ulster is also planning the expansion of its Magee campus, where it is playing a central role in Derry/Londonderry's development as a knowledge city and in its bid to become the UK City of Culture 2013.

Ulster was in the top third of UK universities in the final research assessment exercise, with biomedical sciences, nursing and Celtic studies in the top three in their fields nationally. It has also been a leading light in widening access to higher education to people from deprived backgrounds, with its Step Up programme for science students receiving particular plaudits and a Times Higher Education Awards nomination last year.

As we enter an era of belt-tightening in Whitehall, Cardiff, Holyrood and Stormont, schemes such as Step Up show why it is vital that those with their hand on the public purse do not lose sight of the need to properly fund higher education. It is an investment in our future. Universities are incubators for new ideas, new technologies and the new businesses that will help the UK on the road to recovery. Future graduates will drive that recovery, and research will identify procedures that could save our health service millions of pounds.

What a shame it would be if we allowed this age of retrenchment to erect more walls barring people like Jude who have so much to give this country!

As I embark on this role, I am proud to be the chancellor of a university that has demonstrated its commitment to research excellence, cultural development and widening access. I am also proud to be part of a sector that, like Jude, is full of potential - potential our political leaders must not waste.

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