Northern Ireland's "most vicious killers" could prove role models for community involvement in the country's first post-Dearing campus, an Ulster University professor has claimed.
Wallace Ewart is director of the university's Springvale project, which has at last won government backing. The Pounds 70 million education village scheme has been scaled down from Ulster's original plans, conceived five years ago, for a new campus in west Belfast.
But Professor Ewart said the provision of 3,000 full-time equivalent places, to be shared equally between the university and the Belfast Institute of Further and Higher Education, was in line with the Dearing report's wish to widen opportunity.
The Springvale site straddles the divide between the Roman Catholic and Protestant communities in North and West Belfast, one of the most economically depressed and politically violent neighbourhoods in western Europe.
Professor Ewart said the project had a key role to play in social and economic regeneration.
"In that part of Belfast, there is a series of role models - some of the most vicious killers in the Maze jail - saying it's worth it," he said. They've taken advantage of Open University courses and distance learning courses and said 'We've had time to reflect and we see the way forward as knowledge-based industries, and you need education for that'."
Professor Ewart said it would be possible for students to take courses ranging from National Vocational Qualifications to PhDs on one integrated campus. This would give the local community, which had not been heavily involved in education, a tangible sign that it was for them.
The government is providing up to Pounds 40 million towards the project, and Professor Ewart said he was confident that UU and BIFHE could raise the remaining Pounds 30 million from other sources.
The Queen's University of Belfast has praised its sister institution for the initiative, and said it supported any scheme, that aimed to increase access to higher education. Springvale would provide a much-needed boost to West Belfast and would complement Queen's own activities in the area, a Queen's spokesman said.
"We are discussing partnerships with BIFHE which will enable students from disadvantaged backgrounds to study at Queen's," he said. "We have successfully negotiated with St Mary's on the Falls Road to make it a university college of Queen's, with a view to diversifying its teacher training skills and qualifications."