Greater cross-border collaboration on higher education will be fundamental to “peace and prosperity” in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, academics say.
A taskforce set up by a pan-Irish learned society, the Royal Irish Academy, calls on the Irish government and the Northern Ireland executive to use closer ties on research and education as a way of overcoming historic political and regional challenges, as well as the problems caused by Brexit and the coronavirus pandemic.
A series of reports proposes the creation of an all-island charter on equality, diversity and inclusion that would combine existing targets and initiatives such as the Republic’s framework for consent, which addresses sexual harassment and misconduct, with an advisory council that would set targets, make recommendations and monitor progress.
Such a coordinated strategy would eliminative discrepancies in the relative focus on gender, religion, race, language, ethnicity, disability and LGBTQ+ issues, the academy argues.
They also call for the establishment of an all-island research and innovation advisory council, providing independent policy advice and evaluation across both jurisdictions. This could help avoid duplication of “expensive resources and capital infrastructure,” allowing universities to instead build on their strengths. Under such a system, institutions would be expected to declare their priorities and their hubs of research expertise “so as to enable clarity.”
The advisory council could also consider establishing an all-Ireland higher education and research area, facilitating greater student mobility, the reports say, suggesting that this could draw on the experience of Nordic countries that established similar arrangements between European Union and non-E.U. states.
Another recommendation is a planning body for the northwest of the island, an area that has been historically underfunded. Potentially this could involve the creation of a cross-border university, which was initially proposed in 2020.
Alongside these cross-border initiatives, the papers also call for more investment in research from both governments and for the establishment of a body to oversee postsecondary education in Northern Ireland, since it is the only British region without one.
Both parts of Ireland have faced funding squeezes over the past decade. In Northern Ireland, fees are capped at 4,275 pounds ($5,707), compared with £9,250 ($12,349) in England.
Universities in the Republic, where tuition is free, had faced a decade of budgetary constraints even before COIVID-19 hit vital income from international students and commercial revenues.
Cross-border initiatives elicited very strong support across the submissions to the academy’s consultation, according to Gerry McKenna, senior vice president of the Royal Irish Academy and former vice chancellor of Ulster University. While some cross-border initiatives already exist, a stronger commitment was needed, he said.
“By its very nature, higher education and research doesn’t really respect borders. It is an international activity,” McKenna said. “Within a relatively small island, such as Ireland, any false division that inhibits cooperation and collaboration is to the detriment of both parts of the island, irrespective of one’s political perspectives. Universities are an important player in terms of promoting social cohesion, promoting political tolerance, and support for democratic institutions themselves. This is not something that we should take for granted. A higher education system that embraces the entire island and all its regions is an important factor in promoting not just prosperity, but also peace and stability.”