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Protestants and universities: the students hit back

Student leaders have slammed claims that Northern Ireland’s two main universities are putting off Protestants.

Speaking as the Assembly prepares to debate the migration of school-leavers today, student representatives have rejected DUP suggestions that a religious imbalance in Northern Ireland’s academic institutions is because Protestants do not feel welcome.

Gareth McGreevy, student campaigns officer at QUB, said: “To suggest that Queen’s is a house for republicanism is an unfounded suggestion.

“The Students’ Union at Queen’s welcomes students from all cultures, race and backgrounds. Statistics show that students from a unionist background are well-represented in the running of the Students’ Union through the Students’ Union Council.

“There are a large number of clubs and societies at Queen’s, including the Ulster Unionist Society, The Orange Society and many more.

“Steps have been taken over the past 30 years to eradicate any form of any religious or cultural discrimination that was once speculated to have existed. The Students’ Union Council is now dominated by students who are ‘politically’ independent and they are debating and forming policy on student issues.”

Last year a study published by the Equality Commission found that two-thirds of students from Northern Ireland do not return to the province in the short to medium term.

Added Gareth: “There are so many outside factors why people migrate for higher education. The employability factor and what comes next. There is also the prestige factor of other universities who maybe offer something that is not offered in Northern Ireland.”

The study’s findings, which were published in May 2008, showed that in 2005/6, 29% (2,736) of Northern Ireland’s school leavers migrated to study in Britain.

The total number of Protestants (1,217) and Catholics (1,148) migrating was broadly similar. However, when expressed as a proportion of all Protestants or Catholics, Protestant school leavers (34%) were more likely than Catholic school leavers (23%) to migrate to study in Britain.

The DUP wants Employment Minister Sir Reg Empey to do more to attract and retain those Protestant students who are more likely to migrate away for higher education.

North Down MLA Alex Easton said: “The figures speak for themselves; more Protestants leave Northern Ireland for a university education on the UK mainland. The main problem lies with the institutions. Queen’s and the University of Ulster in the eyes of Protestants are a home to republicanism. Protestants therefore do not feel welcome.

“We need to retain our own students here, many of whom go on to lead excellent careers elsewhere.”

Meanwhile Lagan Valley MLA Jonathan Craig, a former UU student, said: “We need to correct this imbalance. For far too long violence and the politics of republicanism has overshadowed our universities here.

“We need to see our universities promoted to Protestants and not just seen as a home for the politics of republicanism.

“A major aspect of this is equality. Universities should be aiming to correct the religious imbalance that exists in Queen’s University and University of Ulster.

“They have a responsibility as organisations that are essentially publicly funded.”

Officials from both QUB and the UU have rejected the DUP claims.

Insisting it had a “pluralistic environment”, a statement from Queen’s said: “Queen’s is a non-denominational university which promotes a pluralistic environment for its students and staff.

“The university’s student population is broadly in line with available census data. UCAS, the national application system, does not collect information on the religious background of students but, in 2008-09, of those who declared a religious affiliation, 43.9% of full-time undergraduate students at Queen’s identified themselves as Protestant, 56.1% identified themselves as Catholic. The School Census data for 2007-08 showed 40% of Year 13-14 school pupils were Protestant and 60% Catholic.”

Meanwhile, the University of Ulster has invited both MLAs to “refresh” their understanding of the university environment by visiting a campus.

A statement said: “The University of Ulster has in place rigorous equality protocols in all areas of its academic, administrative and social operations to ensure that students and staff can work and study in a welcoming, non-partisan environment.

“We meet all legislative requirements to ensure as far as possible a fair representation of the entire population at our multi-campus university and strive to promote harmonious relations across the wider community of Northern Ireland.

“We encourage people from all traditions in Northern Ireland and beyond to come to our campuses to work and study, and make all welcome.

“Of course, we are concerned that any MLA should hold negative perceptions of the university, and we would like to invite both Mr Easton and Mr Craig to meet senior staff to refresh their understanding of the university and its working environment.”

The Department of Employment and Learning said “widening participation in higher education in Northern Ireland” by students from groups that are under-represented was a “key” strategic goal.

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