Saturday 21 April 2018

In my opinion: Cross-Border collaboration is essential for enduring peace

Malcolm Skilbeck

Twelve years on from the Good Friday Agreement, links between the schools and universities of the Republic and Northern Ireland are closer than ever before.

A recent report from the Centre for Cross Border Studies estimated that more than 150,000 young people have been involved in cross-Border exchanges over the past 10-15 years.

In higher education there are two major programmes: Universities Ireland, a consortium embracing the seven universities in the Republic and the two in Northern Ireland; and the Standing Conference on Teacher Education North and South (SCoTENS), which brings together those involved in the formation of teachers across the island.

A secretariat for these activities is provided by the energetic Armagh-based Centre for Cross Border Studies. For Director Andy Pollak, education has a key role in achieving the goals of the peace process.

SCoTENS was established in 2002 to bring together university education departments, colleges of education, teaching councils and other educational agencies in both jurisdictions.

SCoTENS has ambitious aims: strengthening the quality of teaching and learning North and South, equalising opportunity and ensuring high levels of public involvement in schools.

It holds annual conferences and sponsors research projects, garnering funds through institutional subscriptions, government grants and foundations.

Reports from conferences and projects are published and widely distributed across the education sector. It regularly briefs relevant ministers and government departments.

Co-chairs Professor Teresa O'Doherty of Mary Immaculate College in Limerick and Dr Tom Hesketh, Director of the Regional Training Unit in Belfast, feel an enduring structure is needed to move beyond the first generation of achievements.

Established in 2003 after a meeting of university presidents and vice chancellors, Universities Ireland has taken collaboration into the international arena.

Its most significant initiative has seen the enhancement of research capability among members in association with four African universities. Workshops have been held in both Ireland and Africa on research management, training and capacity building, dissemination and community relevance.

Looking to the future of these initiatives, there are several issues to resolve. As the Good Friday Agreement and its priorities for implementation fade into the past, will staff in the universities, colleges and government agencies remain committed to contribute collectively to a new civic order transcending national boundaries and historic divisions?

Then, in a period of third-level reconstruction, and with public finances constrained, will there be the required capacity to sustain this effort? In short, is cross-Border collaboration likely to be seen as core business?

Because universities and colleges must respond to increasing demands, diversification of funding is required, as are increased efficiency and more applicable research programmes.

The readiness of universities to effectively address such issues will determine their ability and willingness to contribute to making peace, nationally and internationally, both constructive and enduring.

Malcolm Skilbeck is a former Deputy Director for Education of the OECD and Vice Chancellor of Deakin University in Australia. He is the author of the influential 2001 report on the Irish university sector: The University Challenged.

Irish Independent

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