With recent polls in the North showing near-equal support for reunification and for union with Britain, it is important for those of us studying in the Republic to consider the effects a united Ireland might have on third-level education here.
As has already been reported in this paper, the number of students from the North studying in Trinity has been falling since the Brexit vote with significant 20 per cent drops in 2018 and 2019. This is no surprise given lingering uncertainty surrounding questions of a hard border and clearly worsening relations between the Republic and the UK. Reunification might very well therefore be of benefit to third-level institutions such as Trinity, as the settling of the “Irish Question” would likely cause more and more Northern students to look south and not east when considering their educational prospects.
The decision of the Irish government to fund the Erasmus programme for students in the North (regardless of the passport they hold) is an important one here, as it reminds Northern students of Dublin’s commitment to them at a time when Boris Johnson’s Westminster government is revoking the very same privilege (To the ire of students UK-wide, but particularly in Scotland, where polls now suggest a consistent majority for independence).
How the post-reunification Irish state is structured is integral to understanding how reuniting the island will affect third-level education in the Republic, as it is now generally accepted by supporters of reunification that a reunified Ireland will not be a continuation of the 26-county state but rather an entirely new beast. It therefore seems less likely that the six counties will be ruled directly from Dublin and more likely that the Stormont Assembly will continue to operate within a more federal republic.
How the post-reunification Irish state is structured is integral to understanding how reuniting the island will affect third-level education in the Republic
While talk of the setup of a reunified state may seem premature here, this is relevant for students given the different system for grading used in education in the North. Northern students coming south have long been disadvantaged because of the conversion system from A-level grades to leaving certificate points that leaves them with lower points than they might have sat exams in the Republic. It is therefore important to ask whether education policy would be a national responsibility post-reunification, as differences in policy between Dublin and Stormont could leave students with an uneven playing field when competing for points.
Another example here is the question of the Irish language’s status. Would unionists be expected to sit mandatory Irish exams in order to reach higher education? It is true that universities currently offer an Irish language exemption to students from the North, but in a united Ireland would this remain the case? It is not difficult to imagine dissatisfaction among some in the 26 counties when they see Northern students receiving an exemption only available for special reasons to those elsewhere.
While higher-education institutitons like Trinity are poised to benefit from any influx of students from the North in the case of reunification, one might also expect increased attendance in Northern colleges and universities from students in the 26 counties. The option to study in institutions such as Queen’s University Belfast or Ulster University without moving between jurisdictions and needing to change currency or learn new rules would surely make Northern universities more attractive to students in the rest of the country.
In fact, large-scale movement of students between the 26 counties and the six counties could in itself contribute to bringing about more harmonious feelings in both regions post-reunification, thereby aiding the process of bringing the country back together while also providing more options for those wishing to study at a third-level institution.
It is therefore important to ask whether education policy would be a national responsibility post-reunification, as differences in policy between Dublin and Stormont could leave students with an uneven playing field when competing for points
It is, of course, impossible to know at such an early stage exactly what a reunited Ireland would mean for students in both jurisdictions. It is imperative, however, that those of us who avail of higher education on this island begin to question what reunification might bring and recognise that there must be a place for students in debate around the issue.
Students have always been at the forefront of change in Ireland (one need look no further than in the role of students both North and South when it came to liberalising abortion laws) and given that we are the generation that will build any new, united Ireland, we must ensure our voice is heard.