By Dr Edward Cooke
Within QUB and UU there are two very different ways PhD scholarship applications are processed. The UU invites PhD candidates to submit PhD proposals for consideration, however, the range of research subject areas are determined by the research schools to fit into the research profiles of the academics. The simple question to be asked, is, would I as a Unionist orientated academic invite students to submit research proposals for a PhD on, say, Republican parades? If I am likely to be consciously, or subconsciously biased, what mechanisms are there in place to correct my bias?
As the demographics of the university lecturing staff changes, these questions become increasingly urgent. QUB however invite students to formulate their own PhD subject areas and if these student (orientated) proposals find favour with the academics, then research funding is awarded. However, FOI data indicates that fewer Unionist students are progressing through the master’s courses at UU and QUB which then impacts upon the PhD applications. There is, I suggest, an ethical onus on academics recognising that if there has been an historical diminution of scholarship proposals addressing one paradigm, or one particular academic discourse, then there is then an ontological or pedagogic obligation to correct the literary void and to invite proposals for subject areas that are devoid of research. There is however a self-fulfilling prophecy, as academia changes, then the research output changes. Within the context of NI, local Unionist studies only have relevance to outside academics when there are contentious or there are civil disorders to be addressed.
If local Unionists are marginalised in recruitment to lecturing posts at UU and QUB, (recruitment which depends on having as a pre-requisite, a doctorate), then any skew against local academics in favour of international academics, disadvantages disproportionately the Unionist community. If international academics are only interested in the negative side of Unionism, there research output is reduced in times of stability. If, NI resident Unionist students cannot access DfE PhD scholarship research funding, they cannot enter the NI university sector and the network disadvantage argued by Baroness Hoey is perpetuated.
The formation of knowledge, I suggest is contingent upon a plurality of research studies and publications, however, from my observations of the annual UU scholarship invitations and my knowledge of the current research subjects ongoing within QUB’s Schools of Law and HAPP, my observations suggest that academic subjectivity biases are being funded by DfE scholarship funding. If so, this could also be interpreted as a further breach of S.75 screening obligation. After writing to the Department and various statutory bodies since 2017, I am unaware if my evidenced concerns have been subject to any form of independent investigation?
In 2018, the DfE confirmed that the NI university sector had not been collecting the statutory S.75 screening data obligated within the GFA. In effect PhD funding in Northern Ireland was ultra-vires, it was outside the law, and it was unsustainable. Over nearly 2 decades, the DfE had failed to monitor where large amounts of PhD research funding had been distributed to. The DfE suggested, that they had no S.75 screening monitoring obligations and the DfE instead blamed the NI universities. Any such argument, if true, invites new legislation to ensure that NI government departments screen where funding is actually distributed to by those parties trusted to redistribute the funding. From my research the Castlereagh Foundation was included in the New Decade New Approach deal, but two years later, no action has been taken to introduce this Foundation.
As a consequence of my habitual complaints, in 2018, the DfE wrote to QUB and UU and compelled the universities to start keeping S.75 screening data from 2019. This, I suggest was a blatant admission of historical S.75 failings, however, the DfE refused to determine the impact of two decades of S.75 equality screening failings. The NI universities had been granted approximately, £200 million in government research funds between 1998 and 2018, all spent without S.75 screening monitoring. Given the expertise within the NI university sector, this failing, is staggering. The universities had redistributed the research funding without undertaking the legal requirements of screening that all government funded programmes, polices and projects are obliged to undertake and without being noticed by the NI Equality Commission during its periodic equality reviews.
In effect, hundreds of different university lecturers over 20 years were taking decisions on the subject areas and applicants that they would allocate funds of around £50,000 to. The paradox is stark. I worked in a NI housing association sector, where the DfC auditors removed community based housing associations from the housing programme for insignificant financial oversights. The absence of centralised monitoring of the PhD research funding by the universities was one reason for the prolonged nature of the S.75 legislative breach. Between 2017 and 2019, QUB and UU were unable to provide me through FOI Act replies with historical equality screening information. No records had been kept of the community background of the scholarship applications and no records existed of all those who were rejected for funding. For two decades, PhD scholarship funding, was allocated by QUB and UU without proper screening processes in place. Whereas QUB and UU were obligated to collecting data on; research applications, their community backgrounds and indeed their proposed areas of research, no information was kept. Without keeping this information annually and by not monitoring it periodically, no checks were in place between the university equality centres and the numerous individuals allocating of research funding. The NI university sector can have no confidence in the absence of S.75 screening and monitoring that PhD scholarship funding was distributed fairly to Unionist and Nationalist applicants. At the same time, over the same period, the number of NI resident, Unionist academics in some of these academic disciplines falls to worrying levels. The systemic nature of the university monitoring failings was open to individual biases, more so, in those disciplines which are politicised. Centralised monitoring of where PhD funds were being allocated, was not undertaken, if it had been undertaken, then a fail-safe mechanism could have corrected any skewing of funding. No centralised S.75 monitoring mechanisms were in place in 2018-2019 and I’m unsure if they are now in placed
In order to further determine if PhD research funding was available, after my first unsuccessful attempt to obtain funding in 2016, I made 28 different PhD funding applications for six different unionist subject areas between 2016 and 2019.
These subject areas had current academic research relevance an included; different Unionist views to Brexit, S.75 screening failings within the NI university sector and comparing different parading communities (e.g., trade union, loyal order, and ethnic minority parades). All my funding applications were rejected. In 2016, I discovered from FOI Act replies from UU and QUB that my PhD research competitors were far less academically qualified and none of my competitors had my research or professional background. I also discovered that in terms of my age and sex, I was being marginalised in the award of PhD funding. Based upon my own applications, and feedback, I believe that I was discriminated against when QUB and UU rejected my Orange PhD scholarship proposals. Proving discrimination within the NI university sector however is practically impossible, so thereafter, I turned to providing the NI Unionist political parties, within S.75 and demographic information that I believe they have failed to make use of.
S.75 screening obligations are in place to protect various minority classes or protected groups such as older people, single mothers, transgender people, people with caring responsibilities and disabled people. Paradoxically, within the NI university sector, and within some university sub-sectors, Unionists have been a distinct numerical minority community at QUB and UU for the last decade. In some of the UU campuses and disciplines, the marginalisation of Unionists demands urgent investigation.
The failure by the UU and QUB to adhere to statutory S.75 screening obligations and the disinterest in the DfE and NI Equality Commission to address the impact of two decades of screening failure then prompted me to ask about other S.75 equality screening obligations within the university sector. My continued investigations into the S.75 screening undertakings in the provision of the new, £400 million, York Street UU campus and in the abolition of the Union Theology College led me to the opinion that those agencies charged with monitoring NI government equality measures and spending had failed. The NI university sector has for 20 years failed to address the obvious S.75 screening problems in the provision of student housing accommodation. This failure sees, 1,000 Nationalist students pay rents of £60-£70 per week in and around the Holyland, when by contrast, only 50 Unionist students felt comfortable living in the Holyland and availing of cheap accommodation. The difference between paying £70 per week and £130 per week in student halls, over a three year period equates to £7,000-£8,000 in accommodation fees. Thousands of Nationalist students in the Holyland and surrounding HMO neighbourhoods, receive a substantial financial subsidy, occasioned by their own anti-social behaviours.
I suggest, that the inability of QUB and UU to address the student accommodation problem further marginalises and disadvantages Unionist students moving through the University sector. In addition, the continual media coverage of the periodic Holyland civil disorders, encourages NI Uionist school leavers to leave Northern Ireland, never again to return.
Whilst I reported my FoI Act findings continually to all the NI Unionist parties during the period Stormont was suspended (2017-2020), the problems within NI for anyone, for any whistle-blower, making assertions about unlawful government spending, is that the NI MLAs sitting in the NI Assembly and in the Committees have no history of holding their own Executive Ministers to account. There is not only a democratic void within NI, but also an accountability void, within which the elected parliamentarians will not hold their respective government ministers to account! Rather than face the embarrassment of public disclosure, senior civil servants and government ministers will work together to obscure historical spending failings. I believe this culture of preventing transparency was documented within the RHI Inquiry report.
Within the NI university sector, I argue from my own PhD applications, FOI Act replies on the changing demographics within the sector, and acknowledged S.75 equality screening failings, have for the last 2 decades marginalised NI residents, university students, researchers and academics. Importantly, this marginalisation has a major impact on the university subjects that are taught, the academic research output and nature of social science and legal reports sent to NI government offices. That the NI Equality Commission and NI Audit Office have declined to address government funds being spent ultra-vires in this sector, asks major questions about NI government spending.