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We must be welcoming for all, says QUB vice-chancellor Professor Ian Greer amid 'cold house for unionism' row

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Queen’s University

Queen’s University

Professor Ian Greer

Professor Ian Greer

DUP MLA Christopher Stalford

DUP MLA Christopher Stalford

Queen’s University

The vice-chancellor of Queen's University Belfast has called for assistance from politicians to change the perception of the university as a "cold house for unionism".

Addressing the Economy Committee at Stormont on Wednesday, Professor Ian Greer said there were concerns over the way the university is viewed by some sections of society and that he did not wish for Queen's to be seen as an unwelcome place for any group.

Earlier this week it emerged that social media posts by new Students' Union president Grian Ni Dhaimhin appeared to signal her sympathy for militant republicanism.

DUP committee member Christopher Stalford documented his own Queen's experience as university representatives faced questions.

"I will always support Queen's, but there is an issue of perception. Queen's needs to be seen as a university of Northern Ireland, for Northern Ireland," he said.

"In my first year I was assaulted. In my second year I was followed home by a group of people after leaving the library.

"In my third year I had to be escorted by security staff from the Students' Union for my own safety - all because I was a prominent unionist supporter.

"My niece has been offered a place to study law at Queen's. My sister is of the impression she should go to the mainland to continue her studies. There is a unionist chill factor affecting decisions here.

"The Students' Union is the problem and we have seen that played out in the media in recent days," said the MLA.

Freedom of speech is important and we are utterly committed to a diversity of opinion through open and respectful debate Professor Richard English

"I have encouraged my niece to go there, and while I know there is a semi-detached relationship between the university and the Students' Union, a loud and clear message needs to be sent to encourage young people from my background to go."

Professor Greer said he would be "very concerned" if that was the case.

"We do not want a chill factor felt by any group in society," he told the committee.

"We have a very middle ground road and it's very disappointing to hear of the personal experience.

"But I assure you, as far as the university is concerned, it is not a cold house for protestants."

Professor Richard English said Queen's University was "utterly committed to making the university a comfortable place for all".

"Wider society can help to encourage people that their voices are valued," he said. "Freedom of speech is important and we are utterly committed to a diversity of opinion through open and respectful debate."

The university has also called on Stormont to look at ways of addressing the funding imbalance between Queen's and other academic institutions across the UK.

Currently the university receives €100 per student, while in Scotland the funding is €300 per student and rising to €400 per student in the south of England.

Professor Greer asked ministers to consider the value of university graduates to the economy rather than the cost.

"In total Queen's contributes £1.9 billion per year to the economy and with the proper structure of funding we have the ability to make a real impact to the economic development of Northern Ireland," he said.

"Our student numbers are capped, and year on year we have 31% of Northern Ireland students leaving for GB to pursue their further education.

"Only 30% (of those) will return and that's a very serious inequality of distribution.

"The Republic of Ireland universities received €2.2 billion in investment and that saw a dramatic rise in the number of undergraduates. We need to level up to that."

Committee vice-chair Sinead McLaughlin said she was well aware the university is "operating with arms tied behind its back".

"We are exporting students to curtail costs," the SDLP MLA said. "The Treasury is paying students to go away. It's a policy of self-harm."

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