Education: Books instead of bullets: On a site better known for murder, a new campus may bring jobs and reconciliation to Belfast's sectarian divide. Fran Abrams reports

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The Independent Online
Professor Wallace Ewart could go down in history as a visionary whose efforts helped to reunite one of Northern Ireland's most divided communities and stem the flood of young people leaving the province to study. On the other hand, if his plan to put a campus of the University of Ulster across west Belfast's 'peace line' fails, it could be seen simply as a foolhardy bid to attract students to one of Europe's least desirable seats of learning.

The idea for the university campus came to Professor Ewart, dean of the University of Ulster's faculty of business management, during a meeting of the West Belfast Enterprise Board early this year. It has taken off rapidly. The Government is making encouraging noises and no fewer than four feasibility studies are planned.

There are several good reasons for putting a university campus in west Belfast. The first is that if it were built anywhere else, there would be no government money for it: most universities are expected to fund their expansion from endowments or borrowing.

The proposed site, which spans the Springfield Road with Protestant estates to the north and Catholic areas to the south, is in line for special treatment. As a result, the pounds 100m cost of the project could be met jointly by the education, environment and economic development departments of the Northern Ireland Office. The European Community would almost certainly be asked to contribute.

Second, Northern Ireland urgently needs more university places. At present, four out of 10 students - some 3,800 this year - leave the province to study, some by choice but some because no places are available for them at home. They take with them an estimated pounds 65m in fees, loans, grants and parental contributions.

The proportion of school-leavers going on to university has grown faster in Northern Ireland than elsewhere, from one in five in 1987 to more than a third last year, and it is expected to rise to more than 40 per cent by the year 2000.

A third reason is the desperate need for economic and social regeneration. In this district of west Belfast adult male unemployment is about 60 per cent.

In the past two years there have been only three deaths in the area related to the Troubles - two shootings, and a man who died while throwing a grenade at an Orange parade - but it has a reputation for violence and intense paramilitary activity. Lanark Way, near the proposed campus, became known as 'murder mile' and was closed because the paramilitaries used it as a route in and out of the district. Houses that would sell for pounds 200,000 in parts of the south of England go on the market for less than pounds 10,000.

Planners estimate that a campus of 4,500 students would directly create 600 permanent and 400 temporary construction jobs. In the local community, a further 300 could be created. Last week, only 10 days after the proposal was announced, the owner of an empty local shop rang the university to say he had had an inquiry from a developer hoping to buy the shop cheaply and make a mint if the campus were built.

Professor Ewart is confident that his idea will be a success, and does not think that the campus, which would share a site with business and housing developments, would be unpopular with students. He hopes that 500 students from other parts of Northern Ireland, England, Wales, Scotland and the republic would live in accommodation on campus.

'The thing we find about attracting students is not the location but the courses. That is what they come for. But I want this to look like a university, I want a few turrets and towers,' Professor Ewart says.

He points to the success of the university's Magee College in Londonderry, which opened in 1984 with 2,000 students and now has 3,800 from many parts of the world. The college has been given some of the credit for economic growth in the city and for breaking down barriers.

Professor Ewart quotes a Derry lawyer who told him: 'A few years ago when someone arrived here we would know within 48 hours who they were, where they came from and what they were doing here. When your lot arrived it became impossible. Then we realised that it didn't matter.'

The University of Ulster's vice- chancellor, Professor Trevor Smith, is more cautious than Professor Ewart. If the feasibility studies do not come up with the right answers, he says, the project will be dropped. The campus must provide a 'safe haven for higher education' and the university cannot be expected to foot the bill.

'Supposing the paramilitaries say they don't want it there. That would be the biggest pressure on us not to go ahead,' he says.

Despite this, he talks about the effect the plan could have if it was a success. Referring to the UN Secretary-General, he says, 'We are addressing Boutros Boutros-Ghali's agenda for peace: preventative diplomacy, peace-making, peace- keeping and peace-building. The contribution a higher education institution might make in a conflict situation has lessons for Gaza, South Africa and Eastern Europe.'

(Photograph omitted)