Ballooning online petition shows there is a real problem for Protestant students in our universities

A petition circulated on Facebook is asking for people to sign up to ‘End the Sectarianism towards Protestants and Unionist Students at QUB’.

Thursday, 5th March 2020, 8:00 am
A Sinn Fein placard held by a student at Queen's University Belfast; unionist students have complained that there is a dominant republican ethos among students at the institution

Since the spring of 2017 I have been arguing that the university sector in Northern Ireland alienates, marginalises, and discriminates against Protestants and unionists.

My views have been supported by numerous Freedom of Information Act responses and have been widely (and regularly) circulated by me to all unionist political parties, the NI Equality Commission, the NI Audit Office, two Parliamentary committees at Westminster – and most recently I sent it as an external whistle-blower to the NI Public Accounts and Economy Assembly Commissions.

My belief is the lack of application of equality screenings under Section 75 (of the Northern Ireland Act 1998) in the university sector, and the failure by government departments and agencies to audit and monitor the statutory screening requirements of QUB and UU, has disadvantaged an already-marginalised unionist community in the NI university sector.

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Dr Edward Cooke

Year on year, the media become concerned about the possibility of discrimination in the NI university sector when there are issues surrounding activities of the students unions at QUB and UU.

However, it is also my contention that the activities of the students’ unions, no matter how the universities try to distance themselves from them, are also linked to systemic Section 75 equality screening failures and the bias exposed in the media within the QUB and UU students’ unions are simply symptomatic of the malaise that has been allowed to continue without investigation since 1985 (the last time there was an official equality examination of the NI higher education system).

The activities that arose within UU student unions were previously the subject of a Equality Commission intervention several years ago; a very focussed probe looking at the unions, not the university.

That well over 2,000 people have signed the online petition seems to give some support to my 2017 thesis.

It suggests to the departments of the economy and education that any further public expenditure provided by the Assembly to UU and QUB needs to be circumspect and related to (1) an equality review of this sector and (2) immediate measures and funding to address the historic failure of Protestant working-class school children to gain access to university.

Dr Edward Cooke is an academic and researcher who recently taught in QUB