Youthful hope springs from Belfast

April 17, 1998

An historic peace deal and the long-awaited go-ahead for a new campus promise exciting times for Ulster's higher and futher education.

Readers of the massively detailed document that emerged last week as a potential blueprint for peace from the multi-party talks in Northern Ireland have to search for some time to find any mention of education.

On page 13 of the 30-page booklet being sent to every home in the province, in an annexe to the section on a north/south ministerial council, it states: "Areas for north/south co-operation and implementation may include I education - teacher qualifications and exchanges." Until now teachers from Northern Ireland have had to have a qualification in Irish to teach across the border, which has severely curtailed the level and nature of exchanges.

The potential for education as a spur to increased cross-border contact was signalled in the Downing Street document three years ago. But the new paper instructs representatives appointed to the north/south council to draw up a work programme by the end of October of "such areas where co-operation and implementation for mutual benefit will take place".

Queen's and the University of Ulster, as well as the 17 further education colleges, could also be affected by the document's placing of a statutory duty on the Department of Education to encourage and facilitate the Irish language.

The importance of education was further underlined when the government gave the long awaited green-light to a new campus at Springvale in west Belfast.

The government will provide Pounds 40 million of a Pounds 70 million Ulster educational village project at Springvale. The project will provide 3,000 places to be shared between the University of Ulster and the Belfast Institute of Further and Higher Education. The university and BIFHE must raise the remaining Pounds 30 million from other sources.

The announcement had been deliberately held back to form part of a campaign to create a "feel good" atmosphere in the run-up to the joint north/south referendum on the overall peace package.

Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams, one of the main architects of the multi-party talks since his breakthrough pact with SDLP leader, John Hume, was the first to talk up the Springvale scheme, unsurprisingly as he is the area's MP. But he said: "The next task is to get the detail. We have to make sure this doesn't become an ivory tower."

The government has already spelt out the potential of the project to tackle social exclusion and the high levels of school-leavers with low and no attainment and only basic literacy skills.

A report by Edinburgh-based consultants, DTZ/Pieda, set out a series of options and is likely to recommend that a community outreach centre and applied research centre should be located at the Springvale site. The main part of the scheme, however, is now being linked to an existing private finance initiative at BIFHE's Millfield campus.

Links between further and higher education would be strengthened and routes of progression more systematically planned.

Belfast Institute director Paddy Murphy has lobbied hard to fit the pared-down scheme into the post-Dearing world and to convince a government determined to keep a tight rein on spending.

Sources have claimed that siting the entire project at Springvale would add Pounds 15-Pounds 20 million to the cost. But other reports have priced dealing with drainage, chemical contamination and the rocky surface of Springvale at a more affordable Pounds 6 million.

Mr Adams, who pointed out that the project had initially been mooted during his first term as an MP in the late 1980s, said: "We would have liked to have had a proper university, but this scheme between BIFHE and UU is very imaginative and innovative. It should benefit all the people of Belfast, and not just west Belfast." Mr Adams could become a minister in a Northern Ireland assembly.

The hearts and minds of new and young voters could prove a key factor in achieving a clear "yes" vote in the referendum. Last month a large poll of 15 to 24-year-olds showed young people are highly politicised and disenchanted. More than one in five - 22 per cent said they felt they had encountered obstacles in their education.

Education minister Tony Worthington believes however, that the enviable record of the universities and colleges in combating sectarianism bodes well for a fuller role in reconciliation in the future.

"Success in the further and higher education sector will make a valued contribution to shaping a society free from inter-communal conflict," he said. "Although progress towards better community relations can often be slow and difficult. Education in the third level sector has a vital part to play."

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