Official Report (Hansard)

Session: 2008/2009

Date: Wednesday, 01 October 2008

Review of Teacher Education

Thursday 1 October 2008

Members present for all or part of the proceedings:
Ms Sue Ramsey (Chairperson)
Mr Robin Newton (Deputy Chairperson)
Mr Alex Attwood
Mr Paul Butler
Mr Alex Easton
Mr David Hilditch
Mr William Irwin
Ms Anna Lo
Mr David McClarty
Mrs Claire McGill

Witnesses:
Ms Katie Morgan ) National Union of Students – Union of Students in Ireland

Mr Andrew Curry )
Mr Sean McElhinney ) Stranmillis Student Union
Ms Gillian Chapman )

[The first eight minutes of proceedings were not recorded due to technical difficulties.]

Ms Katie Morgan (National Union of Students – Union of Students in Ireland):
St Mary’s University College was happy for Stranmillis University College to merge with Queen’s University, Belfast, but it did not want to be part of that merger. That was the long-term viability; St Mary’s was happy to be a stand-alone college. That means that there would be two major universities and a small teacher-training college, so we were worried that St Mary’s would be isolated and left out of discussions about the main issues in higher education. However, a merger is not an option for St Mary’s — it would rather be a stand-alone college.

The Chairperson:
The Committee has begun its own inquiry into teacher training, and the Minister has indicated that two-years’ conversion funding, space and money for research would be made available. Have those developments provoked discussion? Do any of the students feel that, had a decision on the merger not been made, there were two years in which to examine other options?

Ms Morgan:
There was no discussion about that. From the National Union of Students - Union of Students in Ireland’s (NUS-USI) viewpoint, the main aim of Queen’s University is to have a world-class centre of education based at Stranmillis. All of the education courses and teacher training for Queen’s University would be done on the Stranmillis campus, so it would have a minimal impact.

Mr Newton:
Despite the caveats about the business plan and the timescale, which the Chairperson mentioned, there seems to be support for the principles of the strategy among the student bodies. Do you see any downside to the strategy from a student viewpoint?

Ms Morgan:
We consult our members, and we do not take a stance until they tell us what that stance should be. We immediately asked both student unions for their views. I thought that it would cause controversy between the unions at St Mary’s University College and Queen’s University, with one wanting the merger and the other not supporting it. However, before the summer recess, the unions gained consensus from the students that there was support for the merger, and they were assured that St Mary’s University College would not be involved. In fact, Queen’s University students were concerned about Stranmillis students and how their degrees might be affected after the introduction of the new system. Stranmillis has no serious misgivings about the merger.

Mr Butler:
Thank you for your presentation, Katie. The satellite site at Stranmillis will be known as Queen’s University Belfast students’ union at Stranmillis. Has that process been concluded, or do you have to work that out with Stranmillis?

Ms Morgan:
That is up to the unions at Queen’s University and Stranmillis. The unions have a different strategy to ensure that the Stranmillis students’ union does not collapse and become incorporated into Queen’s University students’ union.

The University of Ulster is a four-campus site with satellite unions in each campus for councils and general meetings, and the same type of system will operate for Stranmillis. A satellite site will be directly linked to the students’ union, but it will also have a sabbatical officer in full-time paid position as a student representative specifically for Stranmillis students, and there will be additional staff support.

Mr Butler:
Will that happen?

Ms Morgan:
Yes.

Mr Attwood:
Thank you, Katie. I apologise for missing the early part of your presentation, but I got the flavour of it, and I have read the paper that you submitted. Last week, the Minister said that time was running out for him to receive a business case for the merger; yet Queen’s University and Stranmillis want it to come into effect by August 2009, which is only nine months from now.

Given that academic terms are short, is Queen’s University students’ union still keen for the merger to happen in the time frame agreed by Queen’s University and Stranmillis? Given the lack of a business case, the fall-out from the proposed merger, the Minister’s statement last week and the fact that the Committee has not completed a stakeholder review, can you see why that time frame is not feasible and should be reworked?

Ms Morgan:
I am here as a representative from the other unions, and I cannot give a direct answer on behalf of Queen’s University.

Mr Attwood:
You are the regional head of NUS-USI.

Ms Morgan:
In my view, nine months is a tight timescale, and it would be difficult to put in place a merger that would work properly. However, as long as student representation exists throughout, and can affect, the process, I support it.

Mr Attwood:
Given the concerns that you have heard this morning about the time frame, are you prepared to say to the students’ unions at Queen’s University and Stranmillis that that time frame of less than a year might not be very clever?

Ms Morgan:
I will report back to all the students’ unions to inform them how this meeting has gone, and I will relay members’ opinions directly to them.

Mr Attwood:
You outlined the view of St Mary’s students’ union in your paper:

“St Mary’s strongly opposes the idea of any merger between St Mary’s and Queen’s, and given the non-denominational charter within Queen’s, such a merger between St Mary’s and Queen’s would not be in keeping with current institutional ethics.”

T hat is a fair comment, but Queen’s University and St Mary’s University College reassured the Committee that the institutional ethic of Stranmillis would be retained in any future merger between it and Queen’s University. How do you reconcile the assertion that there is a non-denominational charter in Queen’s University — and that is true — with that reassurance?

I am not convinced by the arguments of Queen’s University and Stranmillis that the distinct institutional ethic can be retained. Senior members of Protestant Churches have been in contact with me, saying that they do not believe that it can be maintained. From what you have been told by the leadership of the unions, can you satisfy us that the institutional ethic of Stranmillis — which is distinct and unique — can be retained given that St Mary’s clearly believes that any merger between it and the University of Ulster would see that institutional ethic vanish?

Ms Morgan:
That is a major reason why Queen’s University does not want to move the school of education from Stranmillis to any other section of the University or to any other building. It is trying to preserve the ethos at the Stranmillis campus. I cannot go into any more detail: you will have to ask the institution.

Mr Attwood:
You are a leader of the student movement in the North. Queen’s University has a non-denominational ethic that must inform all aspects of its outworkings, including the school of education, wherever it may be located. How can Stranmillis retain such an ethic while being run by a university that is non-denominational? I do not understand how that can happen.

The Chairperson:
Perhaps you could check that out for us, Katie? It would be useful. The Committee will hear from representatives of Stranmillis student union next. We must try to get answers to these questions before we finalise our report. We could ask the governing bodies of Queen’s University and Stranmillis that same question. Does that cover it, Alex?

Mr Attwood:
I may return to that subject later.

I have a further question. I realise that these questions arose before you took over responsibility. However, I do not have the confidence in Queen’s that is evident in your paper. Queen’s University has joined the Russell Group and, over the next couple of years, that will involve it in issues concerning student fees. Your union has been effective in lobbying this Committee and getting its views across on that issue. My concern, which comes across in your paper, is that the Department for Employment and Learning (DEL) has been conducting a review of teacher training for five whole years, yet that work is in danger of going to the wall because two institutions involved in teacher training have decided that they know what is best. DEL has abdicated responsibility: it does not want to make the big decisions about the future of teacher training, and it wants to let Queen’s do that for it.

The student movement has a responsibility to look at the issue, stand back and ask what is best for teacher training. DEL has not got round to publishing a report on a review that has been ongoing for five years. Why has Queen’s University decided to usurp the role and authority of DEL — and the political institutions of the North — by going ahead with the merger with Stranmillis? It might be the right option: I do not say that it is not, though I have not seen sufficient evidence to convince me. However, I have seen DEL examine teacher training for five years and, in the last six months, the ground has been taken from under it. It is not a clever way to decide anything, never mind the future of teacher training.

The relevant people, at regional level and in the unions of Queen’s University and Stranmillis, should stand back and think about whether that has happened and whether it is the right way for the issue to be decided.

Mrs McGill:
Katie, thank you for your presentation and briefing paper. I will ask about the section that begins on page 6, entitled ‘Proposed merger of Stranmillis University College with Queen’s University Belfast’ and the last section, ‘Views of Queens University Belfast Students’ Union’, the first paragraph of which reads:

“As Queen’s works towards a world-class centre of education, the student experience for Stranmillis students will be improved as a result.”

Will you elaborate on that? What does it mean in practice, and how will it manifest itself?

Ms Morgan:
Queen’s University students’ union is one of the most successful throughout the whole of the North and the whole of Ireland with regard to student representation and student experience. It has been ranked highly for its facilitation of a full student experience; it has much more support, more staff, and provides more services for students than the Stranmillis student union can provide. Were the two to merge, obviously Stranmillis students would be able to take full advantage of the range of services provided by Queen’s students’ union.

To take the issue of representation as an example; Stranmillis students are awarded their degrees by Queen’s University, and the student complaints system operates at Queen’s. Students from Stranmillis cannot get proper representation from the Queen’s University students’ union’s executive sabbatical team because they are not students at Queen’s. Therefore, were the two universities to merge, students from Stranmillis would receive better representation, were they to make a complaint. They would also receive much more support from the Queen’s students’ union, as it has more structures in place to facilitate a full student experience.

Mrs McGill:
Is the issue specifically about representation?

Ms Morgan:
It is about representation and student experience.

The Chairperson:
After this session, the Committee will hear a presentation from representatives of Stranmillis student union, and it may be useful to ask the same questions of them.

Ms Lo:
Katie, it is very good to see you. As DEL has taken so long to publish its report — indeed it has still not been published — it is unfair to blame Queen’s University and Stranmillis for initiating the merger. They have been pressurised to do something to take account of the proposed funding formula. It is not the fault of Queen’s University or Stranmillis that DEL has still not published directions for the future of higher education. I am pleased to hear that students are very positive about the merger, as, ultimately, it is the students who count. If students are positive about the merger and see that there are opportunities and benefits for them, then I am all for it. I thank you for coming to talk to us.

The Chairperson:
As I said, the Committee will have the opportunity to deal with the specifics of the issue with the representatives of Stranmillis student union. Thank you, Katie, for coming to this meeting of the Committee, and providing a briefing paper. If required, The Committee may seek further clarification from you on particular issues. We will take on board the points that you have made and will ask the Department those specific questions.

Ms Morgan:
Thank you.

The Chairperson:
There will now be a briefing from Stranmillis student union on the review of teacher education. Members may be aware that Stranmillis student union is not currently affiliated to any larger union body. Members will have the opportunity to address specific issues, and it will be useful to repeat some of the questions that have already been asked. It would be remiss of the Committee to invite all of the other unions and not that of Stranmillis.

Welcome, Andrew Curry, Gillian Chapman, and Sean McElhinney, and I thank you for coming. You just heard Katie Morgan, president of the National Union of Students — Union of Students in Ireland. Y ou will be aware that a review of teacher education is being conducted in response to the merger announcement that was made by the chairman of the governing body of Stranmillis University College, the day after he met the Committee. That announcement caused some concern among people and, in my view, created a crisis. We are systematically working through the issues. It will be good to gain first-hand accounts of how students feel about the merger.

Mr Andrew Curry (Stranmillis Student Union):
Thank you for the invitation to address the Committee. This is the first, meaningful opportunity that we have had to express our views — as a student body — on the merger. We appreciate the opportunity. We have not been consulted, at any stage, by the university or any other party.

I plan to read through the paper that has been distributed, addressing issues as they arise. After that, Sean, Gillian and I will be happy to answer your questions.

The desires of Stranmillis student union’s executive are outlined in the paper. First, we want Stranmillis University College to be a highly respected educational institution whose graduates are suitably noted. Secondly, we want a beautiful campus that incorporates a high level of service provision. Thirdly, we want there to be strong internal links among the students and strong external links with the local community and the wider teaching body. We hope that we are on the way to achieving those goals.

In part, those dimensions to Stranmillis already exist. The university provides students with a highly respected degree in education. That is demonstrated by the fact that headmasters from England request the names and the contact details of Stranmillis graduates. We have a beautiful campus that provides a high-level service for students. Students at the college have forged strong internal links. The college has a school atmosphere because of the small number of students who attend and the close links that they forge with one another. Clubs and societies seem to blossom at Stranmillis, and a real sense of community spirit exists. The college also has links with the local community. Given that the majority of Stranmillis students become teachers, the college has very strong links with the teaching profession.

There is a real danger that those principles could be lost. Presently, about 800 to 850 full-time students attend Stranmillis. Part-time students bring that number up to about 1,000, but student numbers are in decline.

Apart from the benefit of financial investment, it is hard to comprehend how the merger will improve the student experience at Stranmillis. At present, Stranmillis students are enrolled as Queen’s University students; they are academically recognised with a degree from Queen’s University at the end of their course; they are given full access to Queen’s services and resources, such as Queen’s University clubs; they are given a Queen’s student card; and they are subject to Queen’s disciplinary procedures. If a student wishes to appeal a decision, he or she can go beyond the college structure and use Queen’s University’s system, to which he or she has full access.

Stranmillis students also have their own institution with specialised guidance and support. The college has a student-support centre with on-site counselling and specific careers advice about the courses offered. The college has its own students’ union, which is designed to specifically cater for the needs of Stranmillis students.

Owing to the introduction of formula funding and the reduction of the allowed student intake, it has been predicted that the college will become financially unviable. That is based on the present situation, which is unlikely to change. That situation will force a severe reduction in service provision for students and the provision of teaching staff, and it will prevent us from achieving the desires that we highlighted at the beginning of the presentation. That explains the sense of a need to merge with Queen’s University.

The student body has never been consulted in any meaningful way about the merger. Like the Committee, we found out about it through the media, on the night after the board of governors met. The students were, rightly, anxious and distressed about losing their “Stran” identity. They had chosen to go to Stranmillis over larger universities such as Queen’s.

I know that the “Stran” identity is a dubious term, and is hard to define, but it has something to do with the long-term links that the students have with each other going into a similar profession. There are community links, which are demonstrated by events such as the annual pantomime and the clothes drive that we had last year in aid of a local primary school. Many of the school’s pupils from overseas were in need of basic clothing, and the college, through its existing links with the school as a provider of English-as-a-second-language support, was able to meet the needs of those pupils.

Since the announcement of the proposed merger of the two institutions, there has been no formal attempt to determine whether the student body at Stranmillis accepts it. There has been no attempt to canvass student opinion. Instead, I have been asked to represent the student union at Stranmillis on the project implementation group, in which details of the proposed merger are discussed. In those meetings, my attitude as a representative of the student body has been to express a desire to achieve the same goals that we stated at the beginning of today’s presentation, with the assumption that a merger is taking place. That forum is not a place to discuss whether there will be a merger; it is a place to iron out a contract that will provide the best solution for our students.

During that process, the students’ union at Stranmillis has worked closely with its counterpart at Queen’s University. We have a united vision for the future should a merger take place. A proposal has still to be made to the project implementation group, and although we have reached an agreement, that will be the subject of a discussion in the wider group.

We hope that the merger will result in an enhanced student experience, financial investment to update our facilities, a greater student market on campus that will allow us to provide more extensive services, and an opportunity to evaluate and improve on the student experience that already exists on campus.

The fears surrounding the merger are that it may result in a loss of identity and a reduction in the services that are directly available to our students, because of the reluctance of the students’ union at Queen’s University to duplicate services. Instead of taking two minutes to obtain specific careers advice on the Stranmillis campus, our students would have to spend 20 minutes.

We believe that in the event of a merger with Queen’s University, the Committee should urge the Department for Employment and Learning to ensure that a satellite union remains on campus to cater for and represent the specific needs of the students in the new school, and to maintain the college’s existing community and internal links. The Department should insist that student opinion — and that of the larger teaching profession — on the proposed merger is properly collected and considered. The Department should also carefully consider other options that would preserve, and even enhance, Stranmillis University College as it currently stands, and do it quickly, because time is running out.

The current movement towards merger is a direct result of the introduction of formula funding alongside a decrease in intake numbers. That policy has put the college in its current situation where it feels the need to merge. However, that reduction in numbers has not limited the number of teachers in Northern Ireland. Rather, through students training in England and then returning to Northern Ireland, the Department is left with the same problem of oversupply of teachers. In fact, it has changed the problem in that the Department has lost control of its own training of teachers in Northern Ireland.

The ideal outcome of the merger would be a school of excellence with an international reputation. However, that could already be taking place at Stranmillis through careful planning, and Northern Ireland could be taking a lead in training, and influencing education further afield.

Stranmillis is constantly changing. Very recently, Dr George Beale, a lecturer, established links with the Malaysian Government and has teachers coming from Malaysia to do a semester at the college for additional training and support. That link was forged only this semester, and will, hopefully, be developed. That is an example of Stranmillis’s potential.

There is also the issue of the status of long-term temporary contracts. One might imagine that the figures speak for themselves when one sees how few of the teachers who complete their training get permanent jobs. However, due to the fact that headmasters have so many student teachers from which to choose, they hire them on long-term temporary contracts. Therefore, although their status is, perhaps, not full term, they are in employment throughout the year.

There is also potential for Stranmillis, through high-class provision, to satisfy the demand for teachers in England. Teaching boroughs from England are constantly coming over to our students’ union asking for names and contact details of students. Some of our students are hesitant about going to England to teach. However, that could change through increasing links with England. For example, doing teaching practice in a borough in England that needs teachers could, perhaps, remove the sense of stepping into the unknown. Another issue that affects job availability is that of retired teachers who are still subbing and playing an active role in education.

One can think bigger than the way Stranmillis is at present. All teacher training in Northern Ireland could be relocated to St Mary’s and Stranmillis, which would improve focus and facilities, while specialist staff could enhance the academic side of the college. Another option is the relocation of career entry profile (CEP) or early professional development (EDP) programmes to the college in order to bring in additional money and remove the financial difficulty that has brought about these negotiations in the first place.

Do Stranmillis students want to be part of emerging events? We do not know, because we have never been formally asked as a student body. The students’ representative council executive, on which we all sit, would not, ideally, wish for a merger with Queen’s University. However, as things stand, a merger is the only way to provide the necessary student experience and the quality of training that it is important to have in Stranmillis.

The Chairperson:
Thank you for your paper. You have asked a number of questions about the merger; the Committee cannot answer any of them, because we are still waiting for information on that issue. It is useful that you have provided key points for the Department to consider, and those will be examined by the Committee with regard to its report.

You said that the student body was never consulted about the proposed merger and that you learned about it in the media. In that case, the students’ union and the Committee are probably twins, because we heard about it only in the media. You said that you represent the students’ union on the project implementation group. How and when did that come about?

Mr Curry:
The project implementation group was set up following the agreement of the proposed merger. Its purpose is to iron out the details of the contract before a business case can be formally assessed and signed. Therefore, the group is a forum in which we can make proposals of what we would want for our students in the event of a merger. The group’s sole focus is the merger contract; it is not about whether we are happy about the merger.

It was only three weeks or a month after the merger was reported in the media that we found out that a group that would include student representation would be set up. The first meeting of the project implementation group took place in the middle of June. The next meeting did not take place until September; another meeting is due to take place before the end of October.

The Chairperson:
Is the group’s sole focus the implementation of the proposed merger?

Mr Curry:
Its focus is to iron out the details of the proposed merger contract. The project implementation group has got nothing to do with the college’s view on whether a merger should take place.

The Chairperson:
I assume that your role in the group is to support and fight for the rights of students.

Mr Curry:
Yes. We work very closely with Queen’s students’ union because, if a merger takes place, we will be a part of Queen’s students’ union. Together, we propose that there should be a satellite site on the Stranmillis campus in order to retain some of the Stranmillis University College identity.

The Chairperson:
Had the student body been involved in any formal discussion about the options for Stranmillis before the proposed merger was publicised in the media?

Mr Curry:
No. Our students learned of the proposed merger through the media, and many of them reacted very negatively. They have problems and questions, in the same way that the staff do. The problem in the interim is that, while efforts have been made to address the staff’s questions, students have been left in the lurch. It is our responsibility to let students know what is happening, but we have been asked to restrict the information that we give to our students.

Mr Sean McElhinney (Stranmillis Student Union):
Panic and anger set in within a couple of hours of the proposed merger being publicised. Quite a few people have our phone numbers because we are on the executive, and we received calls asking us what was happening. Even now, we are only been given snippets of information, and, as Mr Curry said, we are being told to keep that information under our hat, act responsibly and not give it to students yet. We have attempted to have an event to communicate what we know to students, but our attempts have been restricted so far.

Mr Curry:
Our aim right now is to minimise panic among students. We are trying to adopt an optimistic persona and give them information about what is happening. We are very pleased with the positive attitude and co-operation of Queen’s students’ union. However, that does not remove the risk that any merger will result in the loss of Stranmillis College’s identity, which students specifically chose to be a part of when they went through the University and Colleges Admissions Service procedure.

The Chairperson:
Is the project implementation group the only one that has student representation? There are a number of groups, according to papers that someone left on my desk.

Mr Curry:
The project implementation group is the head group, but there are subgroups within it. There is a group for resources, a group for —

The Chairperson:
Is there student representation on any of those groups?

Mr Curry:
We are only represented in the project implementation group, but we have been invited to other meetings. After raising the issue of a lack of communication with students in a meeting of the project implementation group, I was asked to attend the communication subgroup to discuss that matter the following week.

The Chairperson:
But you are not formally on that subgroup?

Mr Curry:
No. I attended that meeting as a guest.

Mr Newton:
Can you clarify what the CEP and EDP programmes are?

Mr Curry:
CEP stands for career entry profile; it is a course which everyone completes before entering the teaching profession, and EDP is an ongoing professional development programme for teachers. The EDP programme is outsourced, although I am not sure to whom. However, it could be managed within the college in order to generate more money.

Mr Newton:
Unlike other members at the table, who belonged to radical student movements, I have never been a full-time student —

The Chairperson:
However, he is a millionaire. [Laughter.]

Mr Newton:
Would you describe the Stranmillis student union as a tame union?

Mr Curry:
I do not think so, we —

Mr Newton:
OK. You were never consulted about anything — the students have still not been consulted — yet you are implementing the proposals.

Mr Curry:
We are not implementing the proposal. The purpose of the project implementation group is not to implement the proposal; it is there to iron out a contract for the proposal. Our board of governors is the forum at which the proposal will be agreed and accepted. The project implementation group assumes that a merger will take place, and it exists merely to iron out the details of what that might look like. Therefore, the group is not a forum at which we can discuss whether or not we want a merger. It exists solely to consider the detailed consequences of the proposed merger.

Mr McElhinney:
Stranmillis student union is far from tame. We have been verbally scrapping with senior management in an attempt to get things done. We are between a rock and a hard place. If we do not take our seat on the project implementation group, we face the possibility of walking away with nothing. Therefore, although there are few scraps from the table, we must take what we can get. We are getting nothing from the senior management team.

Mr Curry:
The forum at which we can express our opinion about whether a merger should take place is the board of governors, and it was at such a meeting that I raised our concern about not meeting the Department for Employment and Learning. Subsequently, senior management addressed that by alerting the Committee that we would not be present at the meeting with the Department. We are attempting to communicate.

Mr Newton:
So, is the title, “project implementation group”, inaccurate?

Mr Curry:
It is.

Mr Newton:
At what stage will you demand that your colleagues be consulted?

Mr Curry:
We are already making such demands from the college’s board of governors and senior management. In addition, the project implementation group will review the college’s service provision and gauge students’ aspirations for a future with more money and more options. The survey will not be dependent on the merger. Even if the merger falls through, the survey will provide valuable information.

Mr McElhinney:
There was one occasion on which we had an opportunity to meet the chairperson and vice chairperson of the board of governors and the college’s principal. We expected to be tackling serious matters, such as the reasons for the merger and other viable options. However, we heard utterances from the chairperson, Mr Costello, about leadership and being positive. It was a ridiculous excuse for a meeting, and that was the only opportunity afforded to us to meet one-on-one.

Mr Newton:
Ms Morgan said, and the general thrust of your submission indicates, that, in principle, you are in favour of a merger. Is that right?

Mr Curry:
If the current situation does not change, we are in favour of a merger, because, given the fact that finances are restricted, in the next three or four years, we will be forced to minimise our on-campus service provision.

That would result in the student experience being harmed. A merger seems to be the only viable option for protecting the student experience, unless bigger changes take place, which can only be made by Government.

Mr McElhinney:
As Mr Curry has already pointed out, the Department for Employment and Learning’s reduction of the number of students that can study for a BEd degree at Stranmillis has the effect of increasing the number of students who go to universities in England, for example, Liverpool John Moores University. After those students have completed their degrees, they come back and look for jobs in Northern Ireland. There is no method of controlling or capping the amount of teachers looking for jobs in Northern Ireland.

If Stranmillis were able to increase the number of students coming to the college and increase the cash flow, a merger might not be the best option. A merger is certainly not the most favoured option, if other options are available. Queen’s University charges higher rates for its degree than the University of Ulster and other universities. Other options were considered by the Taylor report in 2007, but to no avail.

The Chairperson:
To paraphrase, the only option given to you to join the project implementation group to protect the identity of the students. You will understand why some of us are confused — the implementation group was established to lead and manage the detailed planning and implementation of the merger. You need to balance that and make your position clear.

Mr Butler:
We have only received your paper this morning. It seems that you were never consulted on the merger, and that you see it as the only way in which students can be protected as numbers decline. You ask the Department to consider other options, but you seem to be in favour of the merger. I am conscious of the presentation from NUS-USI, which referred to a satellite centre. What do you see in the future for Stranmillis in the event of a merger?

Mr Curry:
Merger is not an ideal solution. If there were any other option, we would jump at it as a student body.

Mr Butler:
Do you have another option?

Mr Curry:
From the information that we have received, there are no other options through which Stranmillis can be financially viable, unless bigger changes are made outside the college. Positive discussions on the merger have taken place with Queen’s. The satellite site is the desired result, because that would allow us, hopefully, to maintain the identity and ethos of Stranmillis. However, when a merger takes place, it is always hard to fully understand how it will work out.

Mr Butler:
You referred to retired substitutes as a key point for the Department to consider. I assume that that is about the substitute teachers list. Can you expand on that?

Mr Curry:
Teachers can take early retirement and go on the substitute register and continue subbing. If more people are on the register, it decreases the opportunities for new teachers to get substitute work. If teachers who chose to retire actually retired, it would decrease the number of substitute teachers on the register and therefore increase the potential for newly qualified teachers to get work.

Mr Hilditch:
There is some confusion around the project implementation group. It appears to me, as a lay person, that the decision-making and the involvement lies with the board of governors. The project implementation group — can that be abbreviated to PIG?

Mr Curry:
Yes, that is its nickname.

Mr Hilditch:
Who established the group, and who sits on it?

Mr Curry:
After the original presentation, Stranmillis agreed in principle to merge with Queen’s. It was decided that the project implementation group would be the main forum through which discussions would take place. The group is made of up representatives from the Queen’s education site and its senate, members of Stranmillis’s senior management team, me, Ciarnan Helferty, who is the president of Queen’s student union, and the bursars for both institutes.

Mr Hilditch:
Does it include the board of governors?

Mr Curry:
No. The governors do not sit on that committee. It is made up of senior management. The board of governors took a conscious decision to force itself from the committee so that it could decide whether it was happy with the contract that was presented to it at the end of the discussions. Dr Heaslett, the principal of the college, is the only member of the board who is on the committee.

The Chairperson:
I have a list, but I have left it in my office. I am having it copied for members.

Ms Lo:
I am disappointed to hear that Stranmillis has not properly consulted its students. We were given the impression that there was student representation throughout the process. That is shameful. Students are the key in colleges; they are the main clients. If it were an outside organisation in the commercial world, the students would be the people receiving the services and the products and, therefore, they should be the key stakeholders who should have been consulted in the first place. The behaviour of the college has been disappointing, and it has been remiss of them. Have you conducted a survey to find out the opinion of students?

Mr Curry:
It is important to bear in mind that we were originally told that a merger was taking place only at the end of the academic year, when students were leaving the college. This is the first week of academic classes, so the students are only coming back now. We are planning to give them a briefing so that they have the information about why a merger is taking place and what it will look like. We hope to carry out a survey once the students have been informed. There is no point in carrying out a survey until the students understand the situation.

Ms Lo:
Do you see any positive aspects in joining up with Queen’s? You referred to international students. Queens’s has a large number of international students and links with others and could carry out research.

Mr Curry:
Stranmillis also has a strong relationship with international students. We have an Erasmus programme that brings students across from Europe, and we send our students back in their third year. In addition, we have an international programme that goes further afield across the rest of the world, which is another form of exchange. The college has strong international links.

There are positive points in a merger. We already have a lot of access to Queen’s, as we are already academically affiliated. As a student body we hold Queen’s student cards, which gives us access to the services at Queen’s. It is hard to see a change. The big change would be in financial investment in the estates, meaning that the facilities could be updated and improved, but that would be a short-term change and would take place only through initial investment. Outside that, I cannot see any major positive changes.

Mrs McGill:
I am disappointed that students have not been consulted. It is unacceptable, and other members have already made that clear. Do Andrew, Gillian and Sean, as officers in the Stranmillis student union, really know what the students want? Reading the paper submitted by Stranmillis Student Union, particularly the conclusion, it seems that they do not know what students want because, as Anna Lo touched on, the students have not been asked.

As members of the student representative council’s executive, are you saying that you are making the case for what the students want or, do you not know what the students want and, therefore, are not clear what their case is?

Is it a disadvantage that Stranmillis student union will be a satellite union? Obviously your student union is not affiliated at all to the bigger union, as Katie Morgan said in her presentation. Is that a disadvantage? Is Stranmillis determined, even at this early stage, to remain separate from that union?

Mr Curry:
Stranmillis is a very small college with around 800 full-time students and is, therefore, like a school. Our executive is made up of people from a cross-section of the college; it has members from different year groups and from different degree courses in order to be representative of different views. As a result of having that small number of students, we, as an executive, have very close links with the students, and we feel that we are connected to what they want. However, what I was trying to imply in the conclusion of our submission is that we have no backing for our view, bar informal talking with students. As yet, we have not been able to carry out a formal survey because students have not been on campus since we heard about the merger. What we have been able to do is talk informally to students and among ourselves, as a cross-section of the Stranmillis student body.

Mr McElhinney:
If I may add to what Andrew has said, some members might know about the “Stran” identity, “Stranny grannies” and so on. When students come into Stranmillis, some of them are overwhelmed by the phenomenal history of the place: in our college club there are pictures of rugby teams from the 1940s until the present day, and there are pictures of alumni, such as Willie Anderson.

Stranmillis is such a tight community, and so much goes along with being a student there. As Stranmillis is so small, it is like living in a wee town full of all your cousins, brothers and sisters. The general feeling is that we do not want to lose that feeling. We are not going to lose it; the three of us will probably not be students at the college by the time that this merger goes through. However, to think that future students will not have the experience that we have had is greatly disappointing to us. The students that we have talked to informally — and it does not take very long to send feelers out — are afraid of that too. There was a lot of disappointment when the announcement was made last year.

The Chairperson:
It would be useful to carry out a formal survey as quickly as possible. However, we have been told that the Stranmillis identity will not be lost in any merger.

Mr Curry:
We have been told that too, but it is always hard to know what will happen in a situation like this.

The Chairperson:
That is why it would be useful to do that survey.

Mrs McGill:
I asked a question about the disadvantages of being a satellite union.

Ms Chapman:
It would definitely be a disadvantage if Stranmillis was to lose its union. Everybody has to be on campus, and the union provides a place for home students to go to during the day. There is a TV lounge, so even the part-time students have somewhere to go to when they come up to Stranmillis. If that union were to be taken away, students would have to go to the union at Queen’s, and that is a 20-minute or half-hour walk away from the campus.

The union represents students on different levels, and, because there is such a close community on campus, we know what our students are thinking and how to represent them. That would not be the case if students were represented by the union at Queen’s. Students on campus would not have the same confidence in officers at Queen’s students’ union that they have in their own executive, which consists of people whom they have known since freshers’ week.

Mr Curry:
It is also important to note that their student cards entitle our students to use Queen’s University’s facilities. We have an additional service on site: an independent students union that is over and above what exists at Queen’s University. Queen’s University students’ union feels that it is important not to reduce the present provision. One of the merger principles is that the student experience must be maintained or enhanced, and that makes it important to keep a satellite site on campus.

Mr Attwood:
I thank the witnesses for their contributions. I concur with what Anna Lo and Claire McGill said about consultation with the student body at Stranmillis University College.

Sean said that your contact with the leadership at Stranmillis amounted to:

“a ridiculous excuse for a meeting”.

To meet people who knew what was going on and to draw such a conclusion, after initially being left out of the consultation process, tells a tale about some of the attitudes surrounding this issue.

Your paper cuts through a lot of the fog and asks fundamental questions that were also asked in submissions to this Committee by the University of Ulster and St Mary’s University College, but not in those from Stranmillis University College and Queen’s University. In particular, you acknowledge that the present situation has arisen due to of a change in formula funding and student numbers. DEL was responsible for that.

As I have told the Committee on previous occasions, a senior person involved in this issue has told me that those changes were made to “provoke a situation”. I believe that that is what has happened. Formula funding and student numbers have been used to “provoke a situation” to which Stranmillis University College and Queen’s University have reacted by suggesting a merger. To return to what Anna said; DEL had been sitting on a review for five years when it changed the funding formula and student numbers to “provoke a situation”.

That is an unhealthy and fundamentally flawed approach. Therefore, I have great sympathy for Stranmillis student union members, who must play the ball where it lies. At present, for some reason, Stranmillis University College’s governors have decided that the merger is where the ball lies.

However, your submission to the Committee raises other fundamental questions. For example, this Committee has not heard anyone else question how the long-term temporary contract influences the number of graduates who become, technically, unemployed teachers. I think that you have done a great service to this Committee, because those are fundamental questions that the Committee must include in its report.

I have two questions. Sean captured the ethos and ethic of Stranmillis University College. How can that be retained if the college merges with a non-denominational institution such as Queen’s University? How can Stranmillis College’s generally denominational ethos be reconciled with an institution that is non-denominational? I cannot understand how that can be done.

The difficulty is compounded by the fact that you do not know how the merger will happen. You have not been properly consulted, even though you are involved in the implementation group and may be involved in other groups. It does not seem to be a credible way to answer that key question.

Mr Curry:
You have raised a valid point, but it is important to note that, technically, Stranmillis College is non-denominational. The college comprises a wide student body that goes beyond one specific denomination. There is a severe danger that the ethos will be lost, because it is so difficult to define. We feel part of the “Stran” identity, as do members of the wider teaching body who have gone through the college. However, it is difficult to describe that identity fully when putting it on paper, because it is such an emotive issue.

Mr McElhinney:
I fully agree with those comments. Our fundamental concern is how that identity can be maintained if the merger takes place. Although we are part of the implementation group, we will not be allowed to make any decisions that will conflict with the Russell Group or with Queen’s University’s constitution. The merger seems to be a done deal, and it has been so since the issue was first announced on a news programme. As far as we are aware, there is no other option if the merger collapses before August 2009. Either the merger goes ahead or panic ensues. We must address that issue, but perhaps members are already aware of it.

The Chairperson:
You should get a copy of comments that the Minister’s made last week. You can be assured that the legislative process will not allow the merger to happen in 2009. Information, which the Minister must receive for the merger to go ahead in 2009, is outstanding, so there may be time to do some work on it. As other members have said, no one has raised the issue of relocating additional teacher training to Stranmillis College. The Committee is not simply dealing with the issue of the merger and saying that it is a done deal; we are examining all the issues around teacher training. I hope that that reassures you.

Mr McElhinney:
At the beginning of the week, certain members of our board of governors told us that August 2009 is the target date for the merger.

The Chairperson:
The good thing about having these sessions recorded is that you can get a copy of the comments that the Minister made last week, and you can bring them to your board of governors and your senior management.

Mr Attwood:
Do you have confidence in the leadership of Stranmillis and Queen’s University in their handling of the matter to date?

Mr Curry:
Queen’s University is acting effectively, as one would expect any large-scale organisation to work. If the merger takes place, Queen’s University will get brilliant grounds and facilities that it does not currently have, and, in some part, it will be able to dictate the terms under which it gets those facilities. Therefore, I can understand the mindset of those who represent Queen’s University, and if I were one of them, I would have a similar mindset. I can understand why our management made the decision in principle to merge with Queen’s University.

My worry, which we have brought up with senior management, is that, as Sean said, there has been no attempt to consider other options besides the merger. Such considerations must take place now. If, in August 2009, the project implementation group has organised the contract and is ready to put it before the board of governors, and the board will not consider any other alternatives, the group will be left with either a merger or panic. A wider process must be carried out.

Many of the college’s senior management are highly supportive of the student union. They have given us specific advice; particularly the principal, who is new to the job. She was told as soon as she took the job, in 2007, that the matter had suddenly come to the floor. She was, therefore, thrown in at the deep end.

Mr McElhinney:
Despite that, the principal has set about enhancing the college. It is almost as though she has looked beyond the merger and considered the possibility that it might not take place. For example, she has had wireless internet access installed in halls and has invested in the students’ union. Those are not the actions of someone who believes that the doors could be shut in a year’s time.

Mr Curry:
The principal told us that she has a legal responsibility to achieve a balance between organising the best contract possible and continuing to provide the best service possible for her students. We have a lot of respect for her because of that. The problem is that a grey cloud still hangs over the college. No one knows exactly what will happen. Staff, and everyone else, are obsessed with one issue; the merger. No alternative has been presented. Such a situation is bound to affect the atmosphere and staff relations in the college, which, in turn, impact on students.

The Chairperson:
Two members have indicated that they want to speak. I want to caution members about asking specific questions. The witnesses have given an answer to the last question. However, I must stop it there. Although there is protection in the Committee through parliamentary privilege, there is no protection if comments are repeated outside the meeting. I must caution members to be careful when asking specific questions that require specific answers.

Mr McClarty:
Thank you, Chairperson. I am glad that you raised that point. We must be extremely careful.

I will be as brief as possible. I share the disappointment — indeed, disgust — with the lack of communication and consultation between the board of governors and the student body.

In your paper, you have outlined your concern about the reduction of student numbers at Stranmillis. You referred to John Moores University, where many students now choose to go — as my son did. Do you have any specific figures that indicate that, had places been available at Stranmillis or other local colleges, students would take local places, rather than go to similar colleges in England?

Mr Curry:
The application process provides that information. There are 20 applicants for every place at the college. In Northern Ireland, there is serious demand for places at Stranmillis. Those figures indicate that students at A level and those on access courses are certainly interested in coming to the college.

Mr McClarty:
You mentioned that young teachers have a problem becoming substitute teachers. Surely, young teachers have a distinct advantage over retired teachers when seeking work as substitutes, because they are much cheaper to employ.

Mr Curry:
They do. However, people always trust their friends. Often, schools are happier to employ people that they know, rather than a stranger.

Mr McElhinney:
Someone may have taught in a school for 20 years before he or she retires. If another teacher in the school were to be off sick the following Monday, and the principal must choose between a newly qualified teacher from Stranmillis who is 22 years of age, or the teacher who retired the previous Friday and who knows the school, there is no competition. That is a hard fight for a young substitute in his or her first year of teaching.

Mr Easton:
I am new to the Committee and, therefore, do not know much about the issue. Please forgive my ignorance. It is disappointing that you were not consulted, and I hope that the college retains its identity.

You mentioned the proposed merger. In my experience, merger usually means cutbacks, or — as they are sometimes called — efficiency savings. How confident are you that the funding and skill base in your facilities will remain the same? If consultations show that students oppose a merger, will you oppose it?

Mr Curry:
We will oppose the merger through the means at our disposal. Initially, we will speak to the board of governors and represent the students’ views. Thereafter, we will consult students about the next step. Those are our main options.

Mr Easton asked how confident we are of protecting our services. Queen’s University has a policy to avoid duplication of services. For example, the student-support centre that is located beside the Queen’s University students’ union is the university’s main support centre. There is a support centre at Stranmillis already, and a student can access specific career advice within a minute’s walk of his or her class. However, relocation will mean that the student will have a half-hour walk to such services. That will not enhance student experience.

Mr McElhinney:
Queen’s University students’ union is a large organisation that does not have the same personal aspect as that of Stranmillis students’ union. For example, last week, while two members of staff manned the office, first-year students walked into the students’ union and were permitted access behind the till to buy stationery. Furthermore, students who are short of change can return with the outstanding cash later. That informal approach enhances the student experience. To me, that — rather than deriving income — is the essence of a students’ union.

Mr Easton:
Chairperson, does the Minister decide whether the merger will take place? If so, will the Assembly have to approve that decision?

The Chairperson:
It must go through the Assembly. There is a legislative process.

Mr Easton:
That is good to know.

The Chairperson:
However, the Committee should keep an eye on it.

Mr Easton:
Members are concerned about the lack of consultation with the board of governors. In order to give the board of governors a shot across the bow, should the Committee write to it and explain that we expect consultation with students at all times?

The Chairperson:
That is fine. Do members agree?

Members indicated assent.

The Chairperson:
Thank you for your presentation; it has been useful to hear the information from the horse’s mouth. You have highlighted the human aspects of the proposed merger and the time frame. It would be useful to the Committee if you were to carry out your survey as quickly as possible. Although the union’s executive has voiced its opinions, we need to hear students’ opinions.

You mentioned figures. I suggest that I write to the Minister of Education and ask her to allow officials to attend the Committee to detail those figures. That was one of the key issues outlined in your paper. Do members agree?

Members indicated assent.

The Chairperson:
Thank you. The Committee is always open to approach; if you have any information, feel free to contact us.

Find Your MLA

Locate your local MLA

Find MLA

News and Media Centre

Read press releases, watch live and archived video.

Find out more

Follow the Assembly

Keep up to date with what's happening at the Assembly.

Find out more

Subscribe

Enter your email address to keep up to date

Sign up