Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 31 August 2014

Nothing obscure about benefits of education

As he is installed as Chancellor of the University of Ulster today, actor James Nesbitt says third-level education has a vital role to play in the province's economic future

About 14 years ago, I appeared in Jude - Michael Winterbottom's movie adaptation of Thomas Hardy's classic novel Jude the Obscure. It's a novel about a stonemason who not only marries the wrong woman, but also fails to realise his ambition to become a university scholar.

It is a novel about potential and the barriers which prevent Jude from fulfiling that potential.

There's one particular scene which captures just how Jude's potential has been wasted. 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 'til 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 to be asked - and a little stunned.

As a proud Coleraine man and a former student of the university - I studied French at Jordanstown for a year before I decided to pursue a career in acting - I know the value Ulster brings to the region only too well.

And with teaching in my blood - my father Jimmy was the headmaster of Broughshane Primary School and my sisters are also teachers - I know the value of a good education.

Nevertheless, it was truly humbling to be asked to take on such an important role at a time when Ulster is embarking on a bold period of change and at a time when investment in higher education will be critical for the success of Northern Ireland's economy.

The university's plans for a new campus in the heart of Belfast and for the expansion of the Magee campus are hugely significant for both cities in which they are located.

In March, Employment and Learning Minister Sir Reg Empey announced his department was investing £16m in the new Belfast campus, whose business case was approved by his officials and by the Department of Finance and Personnel.

The new York Street campus will facilitate the relocation of around 12,000 students from Jordanstown into the city centre, but it will also have a positive knock-on effect academically, culturally and economically.

The university isn't moving to Belfast on a whim. There are compelling reasons for the move - not least a Department for Employment and Learning-commissioned study of the higher education estate in Northern Ireland which revealed the main Jordanstown building had reached the end of its economic life and was not fit for purpose.

Far from abandoning Jordanstown, Ulster is keen to build on the success of its £20m Olympic-standard High Performance Centre for athletes and develop the site as a cutting-edge sports campus.

Just as York Street will play a critical role in the development of Belfast, Ulster's expansion of Magee and its application to DEL for additional student numbers in the areas of science, technology, engineering and mathematics is hugely significant in the development of Derry/Londonderry as a knowledge city.

As a Coleraine man, I am delighted to see the university's commitment to that campus remains undiminished with the opening this year of a state-of-the-art pharmacy facility.

I have been impressed by the commitment the Vice-Chancellor, Professor Richard Barnett and his team have shown to ensuring access to higher education is widened to those communities which have tended to shy away from a university education.

Universities are incubators for the new ideas, new technologies and new businesses which will drive Northern Ireland on the road to recovery and future prosperity.

In Northern Ireland we are lucky to have two very strong research universities which, according to the last national Research Assessment Exercise, are in the top third of all UK institutions.

Ulster made great strides in the 2008 exercise, with biomedical sciences, nursing and Celtic studies among the top three universities in their respective fields nationally and the university jumping 18 places to 43rd on the rankings - just six places behind QUB.

As we enter an era of financial retrenchment when it comes to public spending, the Stormont Executive must have the vision to commit funds to projects which, in the long-term, will benefit our society and our economy.

That is why investment in higher education is essential. Investment in our graduates is an investment in our intellectual capital.

Investment in research and innovation and in teaching and learning is an investment in a vibrant economy and a workforce equipped to meet the challenges of the knowledge economy.

As I embark on my new role, I'm proud to be the Chancellor of a university which has demonstrated its commitment to research and teaching excellence, cultural development and social inclusion.

I am also proud to be part of a university sector which, like Jude, is full of potential - potential which our political leaders must not squander.

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