Our survival depends on serving both masters

May 9, 2003

Greater collaboration is one benefit of devolution for Northern Ireland's universities, writes Richard Barnett

Elections to the assembly are postponed and the political process in Northern Ireland has stalled once again. What are the implications for the universities of Northern Ireland?

Devolution has provided the impetus and the opportunities for the University of Ulster and Queen's University Belfast to play a more active role in the economic, social and cultural development of the region.

To a large extent, the two are the research base of the area - there are no significant independent research establishments and relatively few large firms - and this has been recognised by government through increased research funding. It is interesting to note that, after a joint lobbying campaign, support for this increase in funding came from across the political spectrum.

While devolution brought greater opportunities for the universities to influence policy locally (although it should be recognised that under direct rule some opportunities did exist previously) it has also brought much greater political accountability. And quite rightly so.

Both universities have been supportive and tolerant of what has been a developing political culture among local politicians. Through the employment and learning committee of the assembly, they have regularly been asked to respond to questions about a range of activities, to do with policy issues and with internal university management issues. We might have responded by saying that the latter were not the concern of politicians, but we have not done so. As the political process matures it will be interesting to see if the nature of the questions asked will focus more on policy. The universities also demonstrated their commitment to the developing political process by electing to be governed by a consequent act of parliament that places substantial equality monitoring obligations on the universities. Section 75 of this covers public sector bodies, and since universities are not part of the public sector, they need not have elected to be covered by the equality legislation.

In an important respect the central work of universities does not recognise political boundaries. The two Northern Ireland universities have been engaged in activities that involve universities in Great Britain and in the South of Ireland. In this sense, they have been working ahead of the emerging political structures. Both are members of Universities UK and the Committee of Rectors of Universities in Ireland (with the vice-chancellor of Ulster currently its chairman); a significant proportion of external examiners in the North are based at universities in the South, and vice versa; collaborative research ventures are long established; and the Royal Irish Academy (the equivalent of the Royal Society and the British Academy combined) has always operated on an all-Ireland basis. A significant number of students have always moved between the North and the South for study.

But the Good Friday Agreement and the discussions that surrounded its introduction and implementation have influenced developments. This is especially the case in the social sciences but also in other areas, notably the humanities. The two governments have introduced two schemes to provide collaborative research between universities in the North and the South.

The Good Friday Agreement has brought to the fore the fact that Northern Ireland is shared by two communities whose culture and traditions deserve mutual respect. As such, it would be wrong to give the impression that the impetus has been wholly towards greater North-South activities. There is also a heightened awareness of what it is to be British or to be Ulster-Scots. And this has in some measure been a reaction to the establishment of the North-South structures. This is reflected in the Academy for Irish Cultural Heritages at Ulster. The plural is significant and deliberate and the academy includes the Institute of Ulster-Scots Studies. An undergraduate programme in British and Irish studies, which will examine what it is to be British or Irish from the perspectives of literature, history and the fine arts, is also being introduced.

The benefits that the two universities have reaped from the devolution aspects of the Good Friday Agreement are probably mirrored in similar benefits for colleagues in Wales and Scotland. It is the wider political aspects of the agreement that have presented us with the greater challenges and opportunities. This is especially the case in a local political environment in which every statement and every decision that we make is closely scrutinised. But, like the communities that we serve, we are both British and Irish and we shall fail if we do not continue to be so.

Richard Barnett is pro vice-chancellor (teaching and learning) at the University of Ulster.

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