INTERGROUP CONTACT IN A NORTHERN IRISH UNIVERSITY SETTING:

A Report to the Central Community Relations Unit

by

Ed Cairns, Tony Gallagher, Seamus Dunn

Centre for the Study of Conflict
University of Ulster
Coleraine, BT52 1SA

SUMMARY

While contact in educational situations in Northern Ireland is now being researched this work has to date neglected one important setting in which at least some of Northern Ireland's young people have the opportunity to experience, for the first time, integrated education - the local universities.

The present research was carried out as a first attempt to determine, in general terms, if the universities in Northern Ireland are indeed truly integrated or merely desegregated (Pettigrew, 1971) and to examine the impact university contact is having on those who experience it.

A total of 84 students, with approximately equal numbers from each year of study , and with equal numbers of Catholics and Protestants and men and women in each year group, was selected for study. All were students at the University of Ulster, on either the Jordanstown campus or the Coleraine[1] campus.

Each person was interviewed by means of semi-structured interview during the academic year 1991-92.

The results suggested that:
a. the two University campuses studied are indeed functionally desegregated.
b. contact is an option open to individual students who feel that this is neither encouraged nor discouraged by the university authorities. (The major organized sports are, however, seen as barriers to contact)
c. while mixing does occur for the most part it is probably relatively superficial consisting of casual rather than intimate contact. Where less casual contact does take place it is more likely to involve exchange of information on religion but not politics.
d. some students report a change of attitude by the end of their third year as a result of the contact which takes place but it is not clear if this generalizes to non-university settings.
e. off campus contact is more likely at Coleraine where students see the environment as less sectarian compared to Belfast.

Based on these results a number of brief recommendations were made in order to stimulate debate in the short term and in the hope of informing policy in the long term.


INTRODUCTION

During the current period of political violence in Northern Ireland there has been a renewed interest in the role of education both as a possible cause of intercommunity conflict and as a potential vehicle for the reduction of such conflict (Darby, et al 1977; Dunn, et al 1984).

A positive outcome of this debate has been the organization of groups, mainly of parents, firmly committed to the establishment of integrated schools. These are schools which are attended by both Protestant and Roman Catholic children, in roughly equal proportions and which stand outside the formal structure of the effectively segregated school system. Recent educational reforms included a commitment by Government to support initiatives towards the development of integrated schools. In addition parents of pupils in segregated schools may now vote to change the school to integrated status.

The move towards greater integration in schooling it would seem, is based primarily on the idea that contact between groups will lead to changes in outgroup perceptions and attitudes.

The contact hypothesis is attractive to those working to restore peace to Northern Ireland because it has high face validity in a society where children and young people are divided in many ways and where research suggests that, perhaps as a result of this separation, children in Northern Ireland develop relatively negative intergroup attitudes, differing cultural values, and markedly different sociopolitical identities (see Cairns, 1 987 for a recent review).

The contact hypothesis (as it is known) has of course been examined in many settings (see Hewstone and Brown, 1986 for a recent review). This reveals, however, that the contact hypothesis has virtually never been tested outside of a setting where race and skin colour are important variables. Certainly little work relating to the contact hypothesis has been done in Northern Ireland with only a small number of unpublished studies whose remit has been almost totally limited to short-term contact situations (Trew, 1986).

Surprisingly, this research has neglected the one arena where at least some of Northern Ireland's young people have the potential to experience, for the first time, integrated education - the local universities. Both of these are entirely integrated and therefore this raises the possibility that for those young people who attend such institutions the educational environment may have an impact, not just on individual values, but perhaps ultimately on the wider political and economic environment.

The first question is whether the university setting in Northern Ireland provides the necessary conditions favourable to the reduction of prejudice (Amir, 1969).

This may be assessed by means of a direct examination of the attitudes, values and behaviours of Northern Irish students attending local universities.

For example, it is a clear assumption of those who advocate integration in education in general that contact between Catholic and Protestant young people will occur when those from both communities are brought together in the same educational environment. And while it is true that physical contact is bound to occur in such circumstances it is not clear that 'psychological' contact will occur. Indeed given the suggestion (Taylor et al., 1986) that intergroup contact is often avoided this remains an empirical question.

A primary objective of the present research therefore was to determine if the universities in Northern Ireland are indeed truly integrated or merely desegregated (Pettigrew, 1971). Further even if contact is occurring this may not be enough to change attitudes and values. One of the important conditions for the reduction of prejudice (Amir, 1969) is that contact should be of an intimate nature and it is not clear that intimate contact will automatically occur simply because young people are brought together in the same institution or indeed even in the same classroom. The present study therefore aimed to examine these two questions in some detail - that is, is contact actually occurring between the two groups and is this contact intimate rather than simply casual?

If the universities in Northern Ireland are meeting the above criteria then one would expect to see positive outcomes in that young people attending them would be expected to develop less negative intergroup attitudes during their three or so years as university students. In particular one might expect that such changes would occur progressively with increasing time spent in a university environment.

The aim of the present research therefore was to attempt for the first time to determine, in general terms, if the universities in Northern Ireland are indeed truly integrated or merely desegregated and to examine the impact university contact is having on those who experience it.


Research strategy and Methods

Respondents

84 students were interviewed, with approximately equal numbers of Catholic/Protestants (45:39), women/men (46:38), first years/third years (44:38) and students from Coleraine/Jordanstown (44:40) as shown in Table 1 below.

Table 1
Breakdown of participations by religion and campus

Sex
Religion
Female
Male
Total
ColeraineRoman Catholics
Protestants
12
12
12
8
24
20
JordanstownRoman Catholics
Protestants
11
11
10
8
21
19


No attempt is being made to claim that the students were representative of the general student population, but they included young people who previously were educated in Protestant, Roman Catholic and mixed-religion settings as well as variations in terms of regional and class variables. All those interviewed were volunteers who understood the general nature of the investigation.

Each person was interviewed by means of semi-structured interviews. All the interviews were carried out by four different interviewers, tape-recorded and then fully transcribed for further analyses.


The interview:

The interviews were preceded by a series of pilot interviews. These were used to establish the fact that students were willing to talk, in general terms, about the issues involved and in an attempt to provide some consistency across interviewers. Given limited time and resources, and because this was the first time that research of this kind had been carried out in Northern Ireland, it was decided to use interviews that covered a wide range of issues as opposed to focussing on a limited number of issue in depth.

The interviewers were all postgraduate students who had themselves been students on the campus on which they were employed.

Following analysis of the pilot interviews slight adjustments were made to the interview schedule. Jhe final interview schedule covered the following broad topics:
a. The student's previous educational environment: this section explored the type of school attended (segregated/integrated) before coming to university, the student's perception of his/her home community and the general attitudes in both school and community to intergroup contact. An important issue raised here was the degree to which the student maintained a connection with his/her home environment since coming to university.
b.opportunities for intergroup contact at university: here the principal emphasis was upon the amount of contact the student perceived as available in the university setting.
c. actual Intergroup contact at university: this section examined the ways in which the student was making use of the opportunities afforded for intergroup contact including the type of clubs and societies joined.
d. changes in attitudes and values as a result of contact: in this part of the interview the student was invited to discuss any attitude changes that may have occurred as a result of intergroup contact since attending university. An important aim of this section was to tap pre-university intergroup attitudes and values as will as existing attitudes and values.


Form of analysis

The present study used qualitative methods in an examination of how the participants view opportunities for contact with 'the other side', and to provide insights into how these opportunities are being used and how they may vary between students according to previous educational environment, denomination, sex and year of study. Given the fact that this was ground breaking research particular care was taken not to attempt to identify over-elaborate interpretative frameworks. Instead it was the intention of the authors to allow, where possible, the respondents to speak for themselves.


Footnote:
[1]That part of the study carried out at the Coleraine campus was funded by the McCrea Research Fund of the University of Ulster.