“Ulster” – as we call our alma mater – is a regional University, and furthermore a regional university that serves a region of the United Kingdom with specific economic problems which may be broadly epitomised by the words backward and underdeveloped. By backward – or even backwards – I mean that it has a knack of regressing in historical time and throwing away its relative advantage, and by underdeveloped that it has enormous potential which has simply been neglected in a fit of distraction caused by failures of social imagination – or else too much imagination in a socially-destructive sense.
There is no novelty or outrage in saying so: this is the sub-text of the first page of the University’s Corporate Plan for 2011-16 in which its leaders profess themselves to be “mindful of the economic and political climate in which we are operating over the planning period” while implicitly identifing sectarian divisions as the dominant reality in a preface which speaks of “fully […] rebalancing Northern Ireland’s economy and society”. (Ask yourself, what is out of balance in that economy and society at present?)
As everyone knows, the Titanic sank in 1913 and Harland & Wolff ultimately suffered a similar indignity when shipping manufacture moved to other points on the globe where the relative advantages of manual skills and low wages formerly enjoyed by capitalists in Ulster were newly available at points of the compass other than the UK. Not to mention the diminished importance of hemp as the raw material for sheets (maritime and marital), shirts and ropes- all finally trumped by cotton and afterwards synthetics in still more recent times.
Leading and Creative
One of the symptoms of the current craze for corporate-speak at the University of Ulster is the wearisome repetition of the words “dynamic”, “innovative”, “modern”, “inclusive” … &c., &c. – all of which appear on the refurbished University web-site and are echoed tirelessly in public speeches and in interviews with the Executive. A case in point is the clever cascade of ideological prompts on the new Greater Belfast Development pages:
“innovative – creative – inclusive – vibrant – leading – regeneration – excellence – contemporary – collaborative – modern …” [See “UU – Greater Belfast Development” – online]
This reflects a systematic effort on the part of the Senior Executive to re-brand the University as a “can-do” institution with the capability of lifting the Northern Ireland economy to a new performance level through its increasingly “professional training” orientation. As Vice-Chancellor Barnett has often said, “If you want to contemplate the meaning of life, go somewhere else. This is a technical university.”
There’s something wearisome about the perpetual resort of Senior Executives at the University of Ulster to the loaded phrase “work ethic”. It strikes a marmish tone which, in spite of good intentions, implies the moral superiority of the teacher to her students. On reflection it seems likely that the phrase is being consciously bandied as part of an earnest attempt to modify the ethos of the University and hence Northern Ireland by positioning the former as an exemplary institution.
Men at work
While the pragmatic aim is to sell the Greater Belfast Development to its political stake-holders in the Northern Ireland Assembly as a lever of change in an economically- and socially-challenged region, the trick is to represent the new campus as a mini-Reformation with the same transformative power on the social plane as those shiny new buildings will purportedly have on the other.
Unfortunately this is also a matter of religious histories and more specifically the traditionally-perceived differences between Catholics and Protestants since individualism and hard work are stereotypically regarded as Protestant while sociability and “craic” are deemed to be a salient part of the Catholic heritage.