University building strong foundations for all aspirations
The University of Ulster's new Belfast campus will put it at the heart of life in the province, says James Nesbitt
In 1983, the year before the University of Ulster came into being, I was student at Jordanstown. Fresh from Coleraine Inst, I was like any other first year - daunted initially, by the prospect of third level education, then flushed by my new-found freedom.
Jordanstown's main concourse was a fun place to be. But even then it was a pretty awkward campus to navigate and as time has worn on, Jordanstown has, as an educational facility, looked more and more dated and tired.
The way students learn in higher education institutions has of course changed radically since the day I first set foot in Jordanstown.
As we have moved into the 21st century, the didactic style of learning - where the lecturer imparted information to students in a lecture theatre, or seminar room - is no longer the only source of information.
Students also access information by the web under the guidance of their tutors and there is a much greater emphasis on collaborative learning.
There is a stronger focus on employability, with students replicating the workplace and gaining practical experience.
You only have to go to the top floor of the existing Belfast campus to grasp how much change has occurred.
With dramatic views of the Belfast skyline around them, design students in the Faculty of Art, Design and the Built Environment work creatively on models of buildings.
On the same campus, visual communication professor Greg Maguire, who was part of the creative team behind the films Avatar and Terminator Salvation, is passing on his skills and creative flair to a new generation in a digital animation lab.
Downstairs in the Academy Restaurant, which is open to the public and run by the Department of Hospitality and Management in the Ulster Business School, culinary and front-of-house students are learning their craft.
The Belfast campus has a remarkable buzz about it and it is with this creative endeavour in mind that the university has decided the time is right to relocate the bulk of activity from Jordanstown.
The university's decision to construct a new Belfast city campus is a bold statement of intent.
The University of Ulster is bringing 15,000 students and staff into the heart of the city and the region. That will present enormous educational opportunities.
Teaching and learning across a broad range of disciplines and research and innovation will be easily accessible to businesses and their staffs right on their doorstep.
It also presents significant business opportunities, not just for the city centre but for those communities that border on the campus, as well.
The stunning design for the new campus - by Fielden Clegg Bradley Studios - also sends out another very important message.
The University of Ulster has always had strong roots in the community. In the UK, the university sits seventh among all higher education institutions for its widening access activities.
Award-winning schemes, like Step Up, bring science into secondary schools in some of the most disadvantaged neighbourhoods in Belfast and Londonderry and Sparking the Imagination brings the creative arts into primary schools in communities which have tended to believe university is not for them.
As well as raising aspirations and providing lifelong learning opportunities, the University of Ulster also engages in a range of sporting and cultural outreach activities, which makes an enormous difference to people's lives and, hopefully inspires them to go on to third level education.
The design of the new Belfast campus reflects the university's commitment to raising aspirations by opening up the building to everyone.
It will provide a range of access routes into the city centre, including York Lane which was previously blocked off.
The university's vice chancellor, Professor Richard Barnett, has been adamant that all citizens, regardless of their backgrounds, will be encouraged to walk through the campus and use the facilities available to the public.
So this will not be a university which shuts itself off from the city it occupies by erecting iron railings and walls. This will not be the sole preserve of academics and students.
This is a university campus where everyone is welcome.
The campus also presents a huge opportunity for Belfast to re-imagine and rebalance the city. Development has always tended to be in the south and to some degree, the east of the city.
These are challenges for the university, for the Northern Ireland Executive departments, Belfast City Council, local communities and the business sector to grasp.
This is an opportunity to work collaboratively to reshape Belfast.
That is why the university is working in partnership with central and local government to ensure Belfast takes full advantage of this opportunity.
By strengthening our presence in the centre of Belfast, the university is signalling its commitment to play its part at the heart of an integrated region.
The benefits for business, for research and for access to higher education will affect the whole economy, driving development and growth on the same principles at Magee, Coleraine and Jordanstown.