News and Views

Long read: ‘Who learns here…belongs here’

18 Jan 2018
Dr Karl Kitching, lecturer in Education and Director of Equality, Diversity and Inclusion, UCC.

“Who learns here belongs here” – the sentence is slowly and carefully delivered by Dr Karl Kitching as if to emphasise its simple but powerful message.

By Graham Clifford

Karl, a lecturer in Education and Director of the soon-to-be-launched Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Unit at UCC, was one of the key actors in the successful bid for University of Sanctuary status.

UCC became the third Irish University to acquire University of Sanctuary to the delight of the University’s Senior Vice President, Professor Caroline Fennell, who reacted to the award by saying: “Universities provide a key space in which to challenge societal assumptions and to support and highlight work aimed at fostering a culture of welcome for asylum seekers and refugees.

“Through the range of initiatives cultivated over many years in UCC, we are dedicated to providing spaces to learn about what sanctuary means, to develop a sustainable culture of welcome and to share our practices and initiatives with communities and other higher education institutions”.

Along with UCC colleagues, such as Mike Fitzgibbon and Dr Jacqui O’Riordan, Karl Kitching is eager to do what’s necessary to practically assist young people caught up in the Direct Provision system and to whom access to third level education has been denied for almost two decades.

“The very thought that these young people can work hard and get their Leaving certificate or FETAC Level 5 qualification - only be told they can go no further in education is inhumane. To see your friends alongside whom you have studied for years celebrating their CAO points while you cannot progress with your education must be so hard to accept. It must be incredibly demoralising, especially at a young age,” he tells me.

And so, at the start of the next academic year seven young students who have grown accustomed to having gates and doors being shut and locked behind them will walk through the gates of UCC and into a world of possibilities.

Any student who is resident in a Reception, Integration, and Accommodation Centre, within a reasonable commuting distance from Cork City, can apply for the new University of Sanctuary scholarship at UCC. Students with Programme Refugee Status who are not yet eligible for the Free Fees Scheme are also eligible to apply. The scholarship will cover full fees and tuition, with a bursary made available to cover travel and other expenses. The scholarship is aimed at those who are aged under 23, on January 1st of the year in which they have applied.

“So, the CAO application route is that which we will use. Even if a student completed their Leaving Certificate exams in a previous year they can still apply for the scholarship once they are under 23 on the year of application. And as February 1st is the initial deadline for CAO applications we’re eager to spread the word that this scholarship programme has been created and will start at the beginning of the next academic year,” explains Karl Kitching.

Karl’s enthusiasm for the scholarship programme, and what it says about UCC’s attitude to diversity and equality, is palpable.

As a former primary school teacher, and now an academic who has studied the role education plays in the identity and life chances of young people, he believes that offering these scholarships opens a new chapter in UCC’s rich history of inclusion.

He explains: “Protecting the educational rights of people is so incredibly important. To have doors opened to you at that age can have such a positive impact. Young people in Direct Provision centres might not have legal citizenship but they should be able to express their cultural citizenship – and cultural and learner citizenship is vital on so many levels. As we live in educational societies where qualifications are vital ingredients to success it’s so important that these opportunities are open to all. After all higher education is a place where social capital and networks are built. Where people can get the chance to shine.”

And Karl believes the general perception of asylum seekers and refugees in Ireland must be challenged. “They make an absolutely massive contribution to Irish society, but it goes unseen. If you think about it you have adults and young children living in confined spaces with people from completely different cultures, from different religious and ethnic backgrounds, sometimes even in the same room, and they are the ones doing the intercultural work of Irish society much more so than anyone else. And Asylum seekers and refugees are involved in so much active citizenship and volunteer work, it too goes unnoticed and isn’t appreciated across the wider society.”

UCC follows in the footsteps of Dublin City University and the University of Limerick in becoming a University of Sanctuary.

And the benefits will be felt not just by those students who are awarded University of Sanctuary scholarships but also by their fellow students at UCC as Karl explains:

“The generation coming into University now are so used to living in a more demographically diverse society than those who went before. That diversity can be seen in every Irish city, town and village so it’s very important that we, as a University, show leadership and mirror that.  Some of our students will be coming to University meeting people from ethnic backgrounds they’ve never encountered before, and this is a great and natural space in which that should happen. Where people can learn from each other about each other. This is a form of civic and community engagement and our new students will become part of a local community in a University with a strong global outlook.”

In addition, UCC is working with the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission with regard to Section 42 of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission Act of 2014.

It places a legal duty on public sector organisations to have regard to the need to eliminate discrimination, promote equality, and protect human rights, in their daily work. It requires public bodies to take proactive steps to address the equality and human rights issues that affect the people who use their services, people affected by their policies and people employed in the organisation which is exactly what UCC is doing.

“Effectively the Act means we, as a society, will be moving from an ethos of ‘let’s do no harm’ to one of ‘let’s do better.’ We’ll be taking a proactive stance in terms of equality for all which is crucial in the development of our society,” says Karl Kitching.

With the new Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Unit set to be launched on March 6th – as part of Equality week – Karl is keen to hit the ground running.

He tells me: “The Unit will reach across all areas of the University and feed into the Student Experience offices such as UCC PLUS+, the Disability Support Service and more. It’s important that equality is not seen as a discrete thing – that it’s across all facets of the University. My job will be to coordinate that vision and, with the help of others, make it happen.”

So why is this unit and the need to be proactive, in terms of promoting equality and diversity, needed?

“Well obviously, there’s the moral and social justice case but it’s also good for the University. We have a very diverse student body, both in terms of minority ethnic students who are Irish and also International students who may, or may not, be staying in Ireland for a prolonged basis and we need a diverse staff to cater for them. Also you need diversity in terms of ideas. Studies show that more diverse research teams tend to generate higher-ranked publications and, of course, this creates advantages for Universities which embrace and promote the message of equality. A proactive approach helps to create and innovate and that can only be a good thing for everyone,” explains Karl Kitching – himself originally from the far-off lands of County Mayo.

And while UCC has been successful in the annual Athena Swan Awards (which recognises best practice towards the advancement of gender equality, representation, progression, and success for all) the plan is that each department will take home three awards annually in the years ahead.

It’s clearly a busy time for the lecturer seconded to Direct the EDI Unit, who believes passionately in the power of enablement, support and education– and he wouldn’t have it any other way.

From February 5 to 9, UCC will host Refugee Week during which the film 'Sorry I Drowned' by Studio Kawakeb and Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), will be screened in the Glucksman Gallery.

And on February 6, Alison Phipps, Professor of Languages and Intercultural Studies and UNESCO Chair in Refugee Integration through Languages and the Arts at Glasgow University, will present her keynote lecture titled ‘What is Refuge, Who Decides and How?’

On the Wednesday UCC President Patrick O'Shea will launch a foyer Exhibition of 'Blueprint' film and artworks by young refugees and asylum seekers. Sam Taylor, Director of MSF in Ireland, will hold a public discussion on the Thursday of that week on the film ‘Sorry I Drowned’.

For Dr Kitching, weeks such as this continue to raise awareness amongst the student and academic body about the need to show leadership when it comes to caring for, assisting, understanding and standing with those who arrive in our country seeking shelter, protection and a better life for themselves and their families.

In January of 2017 the UCC STAR Society was born. STAR, or Student Action for Refugees, is a United Kingdom-based charity, but this is the first such University group on this side of the Irish Sea. They too were vocal in calling for University of Sanctuary status for UCC.

“We’re at an important moment in Irish society now. Ireland has been through a lot in recent years but people coming here seeking asylum or refuge have been through an awful lot more – we need to show leadership as a country but also through our public institutions,” explains Karl.

He continues: “You know we’ve had 18 years of Direct Provision and very little has changed in that time. We can’t be complacent about the need to struggle for equality for race and ethnicity and in our efforts with the University of Sanctuary Scholarships I believe we’re leading from the front – just as UCC has always done.”

Remember “Who learns here belongs here”.

For media queries, contact Lynne Nolan, Media & PR Officer, UCC: 089 233 1066.

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