Official Report (Hansard)
Date: Wednesday, 10 September 2008
Review of Teacher Education
10 September 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
Ms Anna Lo
Mr David McClarty
Mrs Claire McGill
Mr Alastair Ross
Mr Jimmy Spratt
Mrs Doreen Bell )
Mr Steve Costello ) Stranmillis University College
Dr Anne Heaslett )
Ms Mae Watson )
The Chairperson (Ms S Ramsey):
The representatives of Stranmillis University College are here to brief the Committee as part of its review of teacher education. I welcome Mr Steve Costello, the chairman of the governing body of Stranmillis University College; Mrs Doreen Bell, the vice-chairman of the college’s governing body and chair of the ad hoc group; Dr Anne Heaslett, the principal of the college; and Ms Mae Watson, the vice-principal.
This is the third briefing that the Committee has received from key stakeholders as part of its review of teacher education. As members will know, Mr Costello and Dr Heaslett appeared before the Committee on 16 April to talk about their work and their areas of concern. On the day after that meeting, it was made public that Stranmillis University College and Queen’s University had agreed in principle to merge. That in turn led to several issues being raised in meetings of this Committee, which led us to agree to review teacher education in general. As members are well aware, this evidence session will form part of the Committee’s report, which is why I have asked Hansard to produce a record of the proceedings.
Mr Steve Costello ( Stranmillis University College):
Thank you, Chairperson. We welcome the opportunity to answer any questions that members of the Committee may have. Mrs Bell has spent her entire career in education, mostly at secondary level as a head of department. Mae Watson has been the vice-principal of the college for some 24 years, and Dr Heaslett has just completed her first year as principal.
We are here to represent the board of governors of Stranmillis, which consists of the chairman and the vice-chairman; three members of staff — the principal, a member of the academic staff and a member of the non-academic staff; a student representative; three school principals, all of whom were trained at Stranmillis and have been connected with the college throughout their careers; and three others, including a Church of Ireland minister and a businessperson with long-standing family connections to the college.
The board is supported by the college’s senior team, three members of which are here today. Those three members of staff have between them amassed 117 years of service with Stranmillis, and the board has taken their advice throughout this process.
From the outset, I wish to point out that this has been a pressurised situation for the board. Stranmillis is in the DNA of the board and, therefore, the emotional impact of the brand and what is happening to the brand has weighed heavily on our minds. However, we fully understand that our statutory duty is to provide strategic leadership for the university college.
The members of the board understood the context under which we were working when the Taylor review began in March 2007 — issues such as demography, formula funding and diversification. All of those factors were impinging upon the board, and we felt under pressure that we were entering a period of rationalisation that could perhaps result in a death by a thousand cuts.
It was our duty to attempt to find a mechanism to build upon the 85-year history of Stranmillis, while having a vision for the development and growth of the college. This is about students who may not even have been born yet. It is their experience that is really important. It is also about the academic and research careers of our staff. We have a duty to teacher education and to society, while remaining within our budget and providing value for money. The board set out to do the right thing, in the right way.
Much has been said about this being a done deal. However, the process from the start was owned by Stranmillis University College. The principles and value systems were ours. We called the shots and made the decisions. In the first instance, the board had a duty of care for our staff during the negotiation, but we also had a responsibility to honour the confidentiality of those who we were negotiating with, and up to 17 April we did that.
From the outset, the board understood that the process was simple in that it was for us, as the governing body, to make the decision as to where Stranmillis was going. Following that decision, it would be up to us to put a proposal to the Minister and support that proposal with an economic appraisal — and we are now in the process of doing that. The board understood and fully accepted that accountability for the issue would then switch from the board to the political arena: to the Departments, the Minister, and the Assembly and, if required, to legislation.
The board fully accepts that it will not be making the final decision on the matter. That decision will be down to the Assembly. There is no difficulty in that. That is where we started off in March 2007 and we believe that that remains the same today.
I do understand that following my evidence to the Committee on 16 April and the board meeting on 17 April, things moved very quickly — some might say, far too quickly. However, I am very willing to give a full account of how we have arrived where we are. I accept and apologise for the fact that my press statement to the BBC was less than wholesome. If I had my time again, I would certainly make some changes and insert a few extra words to keep everyone happy. There was no intent. We were in a difficult situation.
Ms Mae Watson ( Stranmillis University College):
As Mr Costello has said, Stranmillis University College has over 80 years of proud tradition and is among the foremost providers of teacher education in the United Kingdom. However, that is not what the Committee wants to hear today. We are here today to tell the Committee about the context and the events leading up to the proposed merger with Queen’s University.
The future sustainability of Stranmillis has been under consideration for a number of years — since, in fact, the beginning of this decade, when intake numbers for initial teacher education (ITE) began to fall. Since then, we have been seeking guidance and direction from the Department of Education (DE) and the Department for Employment and Learning (DEL). Members will be aware of that background from evidence presented recently by other providers. However, it is important for Stranmillis to present its own case.
In June 2003, DE commenced a review of teacher education in Northern Ireland, Teacher Education in a Climate of Change, and that has been ongoing. However, no report has yet been published. In June 2005, DE commissioned a policy review of teacher education in Northern Ireland, known as the Osler report, which covered all aspects of teacher education and drew on six previously commissioned reports. The review focused on, among other things, demographic trends and the cost of the ITE estate. The Osler report claimed that it is hard to argue that an area the size of Northern Ireland requires four traditional institutions, particularly when three of those institutions are in Belfast and the number of school-aged children is in decline. A review of provision was recommended and several options were put forward. Even then, the Osler report stated that the status quo could not be supported.
In September 2006, J M Consulting was commissioned to provide a report for DEL on future needs for capital grant funding in higher education in Northern Ireland. It concluded that the two university colleges, St Mary’s and Stranmillis, would benefit from being brought into a more strategic capital planning and funding environment, and recognised that that might raise issues of sustainability.
In April 2007, when financial projections became more critical as a result of another decrease of 25 in the primary BEd intake, a detailed and robust case for the virement of places to the Bachelor of Arts in early childhood studies and the BSc in health and leisure studies was made to DEL. We were told that there were no further MaSN (maximum student number) places. The college was again asked to put a case to DEL identifying and charting a vision for its future. It put forward a robust case, but acknowledged that it was subject to an external policy climate which was extremely challenging. The Minister for Employment and Learning visited the college in the autumn of 2007 and repeated that there would be no more full-time undergraduate places.
Several policy drivers led to the commissioning of the Taylor report. There was an over-supply of teachers in Northern Ireland and a notable decline in the percentage of beginning teachers who secured posts after completing initial teacher education. Between 2003 and 2007, the proportion of teachers who secured permanent posts declined from 23% to 13%. Almost 7,000 teachers are seeking jobs, and approximately one third are under 30 years of age. Many of the current students at Stranmillis have no real expectation of securing a permanent job. Research shows that it takes, on average, at least three years before a graduate of Stranmillis or St Mary’s achieves a full-time appointment.
The intake quota for the BEd at Stranmillis has been reduced significantly over a five-year period. In particular, the quota for primary teachers has been reduced by around 50% from 150 to 70. However, the figure was increased slightly, to 80, by the Minister of Education at the end of June.
Due to a change in policy, a postgraduate certificate in education (PGCE) course in educational psychology ended in 2007, and there was a reduction in the number of students permitted on the PGCE early-years course. As a result of the demographic downturn, the Department of Education sent a letter dated 8 February stating that the decline in pupil numbers would continue until 2012.
Other policy drivers were the impact of the Bain Report, the issue of sustainable schools, and changes in the infrastructure of schools in Northern Ireland. As I have already said, we have received clear statements from DEL that no further diversification will be permitted. That figure was capped at 260 over a three-year period until June 2008, when there was a slight increase of 17 for the short-term strategy.
Uncertainty has been caused by the delay in the establishment of the proposed education and skills authority, and the possible future role of the university college in the provision of early and continuous professional development.
The new funding formula limited directly to student numbers has had a financial impact, although we are grateful for the transitional arrangements that DEL has put in place. However, that is significant in the long term. For example, a reduction of 100 in student numbers has the impact of reducing the income of the college by £1 million. Currently, we have a £2 million deficit in our estates strategy. Consequently, financial predictions indicate that while we may get through the 2008-09 financial year, the college will move into a serious and increasing deficit thereafter.
The student experience, which depends to a considerable extent on human and physical resources, will suffer. There will be staff cuts, an adverse affect on the widening of access, poor quality indicators and a crumbling campus. Most of all, the college’s academic integrity will be diminished.
Therefore, after lengthy discussions with, and debates among, staff and governors — and given the stated positions of both DEL and DE, more recently, when the strategic position of the college became increasingly vulnerable — the governors decided that the college would become proactive in charting its long-term, sustainable future. Thus, the Taylor report was commissioned in March 2007 and published in July the same year.
The report’s strategic options were: status quo; stand alone; increased collaboration with other providers; a merger with another provider; and a federation, or Northern Ireland institute, of education.
Mrs Doreen Bell ( Stranmillis University College):
I welcome the opportunity to be here today and to share with the Committee the process that we have followed during the past year.
Following publication of the Taylor report, the board unanimously decided last September that the first option — the status quo — was not right for Stranmillis University College. Given the constraints placed on the college by Government regulation, maintaining the status quo would leave Stranmillis facing continuing decline. Ms Watson warned about reaching critical mass — you can reduce so much, you can reduce staff, until the quality of education and the experience for students becomes absolutely critical, and, ultimately, you may face very serious financial problems.
Therefore, for all of those reasons — even though Stranmillis is vastly oversubscribed and can only take in its allocated quota of students — the governors decided to follow through on the other options.
At that meeting last September the ad hoc committee was set up. Our submission makes clear the representative, across-the-board nature of that committee. It includes the chairperson of the executive committee, the chairperson of the audit committee, the principal, a primary-school principal and the chairperson of the board of governors.
The stand-alone option would require the college to diversify in order to enrol a high percentage of students and to become a degree-awarding body. That is unlikely to happen without a change in Government policy. The governing body and senior staff discussed diversification with Sir Reg Empey, the Minister for Employment and Learning, when he visited the college on 27 September 2007. The Minister made it plain that further diversification would not be permitted and that the MaSN cap for Northern Ireland would be maintained. Therefore, it was clear that the second option was not feasible for Stranmillis University College.
The ad hoc committee’s role then became to explore the remaining three options — increased collaboration with St Mary’s University College, merger with Queen’s University Belfast, or merger or partnership with the University of Ulster. The idea of a federation was a political issue and, as such, outside our scope. The ad hoc committee has focused on those three options over the past year. I will describe the process, before returning to the communication that we have had with staff and other stakeholders.
As a first step, the chairperson of the board wrote to both the University of Ulster and Queen’s University to invite their vice chancellors to confirm the accuracy of, and respond further to, what was stated in the Taylor report. I believe that you have copies of the Taylor report, the Queen’s University proposals and the letter from the University of Ulster.
In the autumn term, representatives of the ad hoc committee visited the three prospective partners. The first meeting with Queen’s University took place on Tuesday 23 October. Mr Costello, Dr Heaslett and I met the vice chancellor and Mr James O’Kane, chief operations manager. At the start of the meeting, we explained that our approach was exploratory. We wanted to discuss in detail the university’s proposals and to air our concerns about a merger with any institution. The concerns focused on governance, staffing and the Stranmillis brand, sense of identity and ethos. Those issues were explored at that meeting.
Then, on Tuesday 6 November, we had a meeting with St Mary’s University College. There has always been a good relationship between the two university colleges. The principals meet fairly frequently, and the two institutions have been involved in collaborative work for a long time. Of course, the two colleges share the same concerns about numbers, finance and survival. At that meeting, the principal of St Mary’s expressed the desire that the two colleges would maintain their current good relationship. He said that it was very important for St Mary’s to maintain its independence. St Mary’s feels that it has a particular mission to protect the Catholic ethos in education, and a significant role in the cultural life of west Belfast. There was not the opportunity for amalgamation or closer links between the two colleges than those that already exist. However, we are, of course, very happy to continue with the collaborative arrangement that has existed to date.
On Wednesday 7 November, we met the vice chancellor of the University of Ulster to discuss his proposal. The proposal was not detailed, but the main idea was that the University of Ulster would transfer its entire education department to the Stranmillis campus. Stranmillis would retain its independence as a university college but would also become the education faculty of the University of Ulster. The proposal was predicated on the University of Ulster being able to replace its ITE students with other students.
We then had a discussion of the vice chancellor’s ideas about a professional school of education, and, again, we raised our concerns about any merger with another institution. We had a follow-up meeting that November to tease out further the vice chancellor’s ideas and some concerns about the financial effects of such a merger. There was a full report to the board after each of those preliminary meetings, and we then met representatives from DEL and DE on 6 December. The full ad hoc committee met the permanent secretaries and deputy permanent secretaries of both Departments to seek further clarification of their policies and to be absolutely sure that there was no change in those policies. We again discussed the possibility of increasing the quota or the MaSN and of further diversification. The answer to all those questions was that current policy had to be maintained. We also gave a verbal briefing on the Taylor options and outlined the proposals that we had received from Queen’s University and the University of Ulster.
The officials had some concerns about the proposals. For example, it is legally not possible to be an independent university college and a faculty of a university at the same time. That was one of the problems with the University of Ulster proposal. We were also told that it would not be possible for the MaSN cap in Northern Ireland to be raised — it would be maintained — so there would be problems with the proposal if it was predicated on replacing the teaching students with other students.
We were advised to go back to the universities to discuss these issues with them and to seek further discussion and clarification. On 13 December 2007, the reports of all those meetings were given to the board. A full discussion of the proposals took place, and it was decided that we would seek permission from both universities to carry out due diligence. DE and DEL had advised us to seek the permission of the universities and carry out due diligence on both proposals.
Having made that decision, we sought further interviews with the universities. We had a further interview with Queen’s University on 8 January, but we had great difficulty in getting a further meeting with the University of Ulster. Eventually, we learned that the University of Ulster might not be going ahead with its proposal. As the Committee is aware, invitations were sent to both universities to give a presentation to the board on 17 April. Queen’s University accepted that proposal, but the University of Ulster declined our invitation by a fax which we received on 15 April.
At the meeting of the ad hoc committee on 8 January, the principal — who was in her first year at the college — asked for further time to go through all of the areas again, with the senior staff, to find out whether there was any possibility that a Stranmillis option could be viable. The ad hoc committee was happy to agree to that. That was when the decision was taken that all three options would be presented on 17 April. Those three months were to give our own senior staff and the principal the opportunity to put forward a Stranmillis option, if that were possible given the constraints on the college. Both the universities were informed of that. The idea was that all three options would be presented on 17 April and that, after that meeting, due diligence would be carried out on all of those options. From January until April, we were of course exploring those proposals through our own committee and consulting with staff, which I will deal with in a moment.
Our submission includes brief notes on the second meeting with Queen’s University on 8 January, at which we raised the issues that were concerning us. One of the issues discussed that day was our identity. We were concerned that the Stranmillis brand and name should be retained in any merger. We also discussed our ethos and values, including our strong commitment to the BEd degree. We are very keen that, in any merger, the BEd degree should remain as it is. Issues about staffing and the estate were also discussed. It was a detailed discussion.
Once we heard from the University of Ulster that it was not putting forward a presentation, we received the presentation from Queen’s University. Despite their best endeavours, the principal and the senior staff were unable to put forward a model that would ensure the long-term sustainability of Stranmillis University College. During that interim period, in February, the new quotas for the following year were announced, which were more severe than we had expected.
Formula funding was also introduced, and, although we are grateful for the transition period, it will have a serious impact, because it is solely based on the student numbers in a college. Those constraints make it very difficult for any small college to propose ideas to raise money. Nowadays, every university is asked to generate some extra income. However, that is meant to be extra funding, it is not for survival. It is very difficult for a college to survive on such income and run courses for a full-cost return.
Despite the endeavours of the principal and senior staff, they were unable to produce a model for the sustainability of the college. However, it was a valuable exercise, because it involved all staff in strategic thinking. It also articulated clearly the values and ethos of Stranmillis University College and the type of principles that we want embedded in any merger. Those were the ideas that were clear in our minds when we received the presentation from Queen’s University on 17 April 2008.
Before I talk about that presentation, I draw the attention of Committee members to the series of meetings and consultations between the ad hoc committee and staff. There has been discussion in the media suggesting that there was no consultation. In June and July, meetings were held with David Taylor, in which he met the principal, the chairperson of the board, senior staff, and representatives from the students union. He also held meetings with Queen’s University, the University of Ulster, St Mary’s University College, and representatives from the Department for Employment and Learning (DEL) and the Department of Education (DE). Those were the first consultations. Everyone within Stranmillis University College knew from the beginning that the strategic options of the college were being explored in depth.
From our submission, Committee members will see that, on 15 November 2007, the ad hoc committee met with senior management, who were all given copies of the Taylor Report. The ad hoc committee then held meetings with the heads of the academic departments and representatives from the students union. There were opportunities to ask questions at all of those meetings except one, the reasons for which I will explain later.
On 6 December 2007, the ad hoc committee held a meeting with the permanent secretary of the Department for Employment and Learning and the permanent secretary and officials from the Department of Education in Adelaide Street. On 21 February 2008, we met with all the union representatives in the college, and on 28 February 2008 we held meetings with senior managers, heads of departments and corporate middle managers. On 2 April 2008, there was a meeting with the full staff council, in which a full briefing was given on the proposals and the work of the ad hoc committee.
Since December, the conclusions and recommendations of the Taylor Report have been put on the college intranet so that every member of staff has the opportunity to read them. All senior and middle managers were given full copies of that report, and there were regular briefings throughout.
At the presentation on 17 April 2008, all senior staff, corporate middle managers and union officials were invited by the board to hear the presentation. They were all present, and we were glad to have them at the meeting. As there was only one presentation, and therefore one option put before us, we were able to make our declaration of intent much quicker than we had anticipated. Although Queen’s University has delivered its presentation to the Committee in detail, I will explain our decision. The board felt that the Queen’s University proposal met the general principles that we were concerned about. In making that decision, we looked for a recognition of the Stranmillis brand, such as the name and identity; a recognition of the significance of the BEd degree; assurance that the estates would be preserved, which is something that we value very much; and assurance that there would be job security for staff. Those were some of the general principles that we applied, and which had been highlighted in staff consultations and in the work carried out by the principal and senior staff in those three months.
In addition, we applied criteria from Annex H of the Taylor Report, which is included in our submission. Our submission also includes the questions that were prepared by the committee, from which the board selected several to ask.
Hence, the process involved a rigorous exploration of the Queen’s University presentation, and that was followed by a lengthy discussion — the meeting continued all day — about the presentation and the issues that it raised. At the end of the meeting, the board decided unanimously to issue a declaration of intent to merge with Queen’s University, subject to legal approval and the approval of the Minister and the Committee for Employment and Learning. The minute of that decision is in our submission.
Dr Anne Heaslett ( Stranmillis University College):
Chairperson, in the final part of the presentation, I shall briefly outline the vision for the future. My colleagues described the proposal’s context, particularly in Ms Watson’s introductory remarks about the policy context, which, given the ongoing, intractable teacher-education debate over recent years, has been especially difficult.
The vision for the future is not about articulating goals for one or two years, but, rather, for the long term, and that is an important point to make. We recognise that, as professionals, teacher education is critically important and lies at the heart of our society’s social, economic and community-development strategy. Therefore, the vision is to create the Stranmillis school of education of Queen’s University. Importantly, in the long term, the school will be located on the present Stranmillis University College campus. From the word go, that goal was articulated in the principles, and it means that the name and location will be preserved as the vision is realised.
Obviously, there will be benefits for our students. It is important that members of the Committee remember that the college is already academically integrated with Queen’s University. Our students hold Queen’s University student cards, and they receive all the benefits that derive from that. Furthermore, the quality of regulation and the degree qualifications that students eventually receive are all from Queen’s University, and that has been a long-established and proud tradition. It is important to our students, and they are conscious of the fact that their degree is awarded by a university which has a world-class reputation and which is now part of the Russell Group.
The vision for the future provides us with an opportunity to surpass current provision. We have not just considered individual undergraduate qualifications, but the full range, and the vision will allow us to offer postgraduate and doctoral qualifications and to introduce the important life-long learning element. The vision provides an opportunity to create a leading-edge centre that will achieve distinctive status not only in Ireland but worldwide.
As a result of the merger, the college’s research component could be substantially enhanced and strengthened, and we could also create a multi-professional environment, in which teaching professionals and others could consider all aspects of learning and child development.
The vision would also enable us to make the Stranmillis campus a vibrant and dynamic place because we would be dealing with a much larger and more diverse population of students coming from different backgrounds and studying at different levels.
We see the Stranmillis brand being enhanced through that enlarged school of education. In that vision, we seek a school of education that has a very high calibre of research — as defined by the research assessment exercise — and a very distinctive quality of practice-led research, which is very much the strength of the Stranmillis side of the partnership.
In that respect, we also see benefits to staff. That was already mentioned in the presentation this morning, so I will not go into that in detail. However, if we face a situation of declining numbers and finance, that is not a good environment in which to encourage staff to build capacity and develop their careers. It was very clearly articulated in the merger principles that there will be no redundancies, rather we want to try to enhance career prospects by helping to develop staff. That will enable them to develop research interests as well as teaching and practice-led research.
In going forward with the principles, we sought very clear protection for our staff in relation to current terms and conditions. We see staff development as an important feature in any transition from where we are to where we want to be, not just as being an important feature in the future.
The proposal would create a richer and more stimulating environment for our students, and it would also add scope and opportunities for our staff. In that respect, an enlarged, enhanced school of education would have the capacity to engage with the wider community and deliver on those important agendas that are set by Government, such as the skills agenda.
In going forward, that vision also provides a very significant lead with regard to being positioned to deliver the important area of continuous professional development. The strength and scale of the school would allow that capacity to exist. It would also allow the school to bid for significant research contracts. Limited capacity obviously limits one’s ability to do that.
The vision would also remove the uncertainty that comes from experiencing yearly cuts in numbers and their impact on finance. In other words, it would build a financially strong school of education, which would not have financial uncertainty hanging over it and limiting its vision of the future. As in all cases, when that capacity is developed, there will be capacity for exploring new sources of income, creating new synergies and building up international contacts, etc.
For myself, my colleagues and the senior management team, the vision moves beyond the present uncertainty and flux that compromises our ability to lead and go forward. We therefore present that vision of the future as the way forward and the way in which we would like to see developments being taken.
Thank you for your presentation. It is useful to have a copy of the time line of events. We have a packed agenda today, so I ask members to indicate now whether they wish to speak or ask a question. After that, further questions will depend on the mood that I am in.
I have a simple question. Why has the University of Ulster not pursued its relationship with you more vigorously? What is your understanding of the University of Ulster’s potential relationship with the college?
We were expecting the University of Ulster to make a presentation to us on 17 April 2008. I was concerned that there was no contact with the university between January and April 2008, nor was there any confirmation that anyone was going to turn up on 17 April. I phoned the vice chancellor of the university to ask whether he was going to make a presentation, but he was fairly non-committal. I told him that it was in the interests of our board of governors that he should make a presentation, because we had choices to make. The University of Ulster has not shared with us why it has not pursued the option. It would have difficulties concerning staffing and sites, and we do not have much of an idea of the university’s financial sustainability. We cannot answer for the University of Ulster.
We did not get any concrete information. There were rumours and hearsay, but no factual evidence.
We were fairly excited by the University of Ulster’s proposal.
In his presentation of evidence to this Committee last week, the vice chancellor of the University of Ulster said that he had explored the possibility of a merger with Stranmillis University College, but that, after full consideration, he had decided that it was not an option.
There was a problem with the initial option because an institution cannot be an independent college and a faculty. The proposal seemed to be predicated on the university’s numbers being made up by other students.
Just for the record, that is why we have asked Hansard to produce a record of these presentations. We want to be able to compare what has been said.
Further to my colleague’s question, could it have been that the representatives of the University of Ulster decided not to make a presentation because they knew that a deal had been done prior to —
They could not have known that a deal —
Sorry, hold on a minute; just let me finish. It was quite apparent from the presentation that was made to the Committee on the day before the meeting on 17 April, and from the attitude that was projected to the Committee, that a deal had certainly been done. That was not just my view; it was the view of every single person in this room. I rather suspect that the University of Ulster was five or six steps ahead; it knew that a deal had been done and that it would be wasting its time going near you on the date that Queen’s University made its presentation.
There are one or two other matters. On the morning of the meeting, Mr Costello denied that any deal had been done, but he later confirmed that a deal had been done when he appeared on live television at 6.00 pm. However, the world and its granny already knew about it the day before.
We have heard glossy presentations about consultations and all the rest of it, but I want to ask some questions about how staff jobs will be protected. Why were staff not allowed to ask questions — or were told that they could not ask questions — at the meeting that was held on 18 April? Why were they told that they could not take notes at that meeting? I would have thought that any — [ Interruption.] There is evidence to that effect, so do not deny it.
Do you have that evidence?
There is clear evidence to that effect. Furthermore, there is evidence that, for a number of weeks beforehand, senior members of staff were frightened to approach politicians and talk to people.
What deals have been done under the provisions of The Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations 2006 (TUPE)? Your presentation outlines that one of the benefits to staff will be:
“Salary protection under TUPE rules, but better”
Will you clarify how TUPE will be bettered?
I understand that staff have been told that their jobs are protected; have you been assured by Queen’s that all jobs — from the senior positions down to those who conduct the mundane tasks in the university — are protected? Can you, today, reassure staff on that matter?
Mr Costello said that the land around the college is protected and, therefore, can never be redeveloped. In other words, Queen’s University cannot siphon off some of Northern Ireland’s most valuable land to the private sector. Can you assure the Committee that that protection is included in the deal? I might have supplementary questions when I hear the answers.
To suggest that a deal was done is to impugn the integrity of the governing body at Stranmillis University College. As chairperson of the ad hoc committee, I can categorically say that I conducted my duties faithfully and diligently. In the committee’s consultations, and its consultations with staff, there is absolutely no evidence to support accusations of a done deal. Until the end of the meeting on 17 April, I did not know that the board would reach an agreement to proceed — never mind a unanimous agreement — because we did not know what Queen’s University’s presentation would be until 17 April.
To refresh people’s memories, at the Committee meeting, several members — including myself and Jimmy Spratt, who was Deputy Chairperson at the time — requested a copy of the proposal, which was to be presented at the next day’s meeting, for examination. However, the interview in the media that evening indicated that a deal had been done. Therefore, the confusion arose from Mr Costello’s media interview, for which he has apologised to the Committee. Therefore, you can understand the confusion and the feeling that it was a done deal.
I can assure the Committee that it was not.
I will answer, as I am the person who has been put on the spot. On 17 April, we did not anticipate being in the media spotlight. It could be described as a media circus, and the interest resulted from my evidence to the Committee.
I will describe the events of 17 April from my point of view. To be honest, I am an experienced chairperson; I chaired the Post-Primary Review Working Group, and I am chairperson of the Consumer Council for Northern Ireland — we have all heard the hype about energy prices this morning. However, the review of teacher education was the most difficult I have chaired, because of the emotional aspect. Two members were in tears when they made their decision — it was that difficult.
Before that day, I knew that board members had different views, and few members knew which way to vote. First, on the day, we received a presentation from Fergus Devitt on the formula funding. That was the first time that some members of the board had heard about the formula funding. At that meeting, board members had to make a judgement on whether there was much hope. Fergus made it clear that, although some shaping of that formula funding might take place, it was, by and large, set and that we would have to live with it and manage within its confines.
Secondly, board members did not know the context of the Stranmillis proposal or option. We had given permission to the principal to make a presentation and allowed her three months to prepare it. In fairness to the principal, she said that it was not an option, but a set of principles. No one who attended the meeting that day had heard the Stranmillis option.
Thirdly, the board had decided on the key red circles that QUB’s presentation would have to meet. None of us had heard, or knew, the content of that presentation. I will give the Committee one simple fact: I — and, I think, the entire ad hoc committee — would have voted down the proposal if, as in the last format in which it was presented to us, QUB intended to call the new institution the Queen’s University college of education at Stranmillis. I knew that the board would not accept that. In that meeting, QUB proposed, for the first time, that the name would be the Stranmillis school of education of Queen’s University. If that means that it was a done deal, I do not know what to say.
As a board, we had identified eight criteria, or red circles, that QUB had to meet, and it considerably exceeded our expectations. We felt that we could buy into what QUB said.
After Queen’s University’s presentation, we discussed the red circles and tried to match them to the presentation. Board members were asked whether they had any concerns, but they had few, and those were a matter of fine-tuning. As the chairperson, I realised that I had a heavy responsibility, because any decision will affect Stranmillis for possibly the next 20, 30, 40 or 50 years. When the questions dried up, I asked whether anyone sought any further information, and the answer was no. I said that it was such an important issue that even if we believed we could take a vote, I would not ask for a show of hands, because I wanted to go round the table to ask every member to articulate his or her position at that time and whether they required additional help from their colleagues. I said that if those members of staff who were involved wanted to abstain from the vote, that was OK.
When I went round the table and asked members, one by one, to articulate how they had come to their decision and whether they were happy to vote, they answered, “Yes.” There is a vast gap between what has been said about a done deal and what actually happened. I will never forget some of the comments that were made by board members. One member said that he had given his entire life to Stranmillis and could not bring himself to say that there should be a merger. However, he felt able to say that the alternative was much worse.
With all due respect, even the Minister read the situation as being a done deal from the way in which it was presented in the media, and he had to write to remind you of —
It was not a done deal — that is all that I can say.
Earlier, you apologised for the way that your interview came across. You can understand, therefore, why the Committee has got its back up: the day before watching the merger with QUB being represented in the evening news as a done deal, the Committee had received a presentation from you, as a representative of the board of Stranmillis College. You can appreciate why the Committee is concerned.
I appreciate that, and I have no difficulty in apologising for my wording, because it could have been better. All that I have to add is that it is now a decision for the Minister. However, may I just say —
However, perhaps that was positive, because the Committee is now focused on teacher education and on examining all the related issues.
Rather than continue this thread of discussion, Jimmy Spratt has several further questions.
On the radio that morning, Mr Spratt commented that it was a done deal. Therefore, the talk about a done deal started before my media interview.
It was apparent from your presentation to the Committee the day before that it was a done deal, because your attitude was, to say the least, more than perfect.
I do not know how good you are at perception and body language.
The college staff would like to deal with internal communication at the college —
You can shake your head if you like.
Chairperson, it would be helpful if all comments were made through you and not directly to individuals. That is not helpful at all.
I was led to believe that that was what was happening.
Chairperson, we never received a satisfactory answer from the University of Ulster as to why it did not move forward with its proposal. We were genuinely interested, and we have never heard exactly why it decided not to go forward. There were rumours; this is a small community. The university had the option, from July right through to April, to make a detailed presentation, if it so wished. Look at the letter from the university; it states that the proposal was predicated on the university being able to fill the empty places with other students, and that Stranmillis would be both independent and a faculty of the university. There were reasons for that because of the position of the university’s own staff.
All we have heard were rumours — and I must repeat that this is hearsay — that the university’s staff were unwilling to move. However, that is only hearsay; we have no facts to support that. Another reason for the university’s decision could be the fact that it already has four campuses — at York Street, Coleraine, Jordanstown and Derry — as well as the site of the former catering college. It would have to have considered whether it would have been possible for it to acquire a fifth campus, and that might have had a bearing on its decision.
Mr Spratt asked about the morning of 18 April, the day following the decision by the governing body. The chairman of the governing body, Mr Costello, gave a full and comprehensive report to all the staff that morning. He did not take questions, but people were not told that they could not take notes. In fact, it did not occur to me to bring my handwritten notes of that meeting to the Committee today, but I can provide them. Therefore, I can assure the Committee on that point. Mr Costello might want to explain why he did not wish to take questions, but he did not tell people not to take notes.
There was also the TUPE issue.
I am project manager for the merger on the Stranmillis side, so I am covering all the working groups and the project implementation group — Queen’s is a much larger organisation and Stranmillis is smaller, with less capacity. To date, each group has met only twice. This was not a done deal. Nothing happened — there were no meetings with the university — until after the decision was taken in principle. We were then moving into the beginning of the summer period.
The project implementation group met once because the merger principles were agreed and drawn up — we have given you a copy of those. Those principles refer to TUPE. It was only at a meeting last week that the college and the university, in partnership, started to examine those details. The merger principles — which were agreed by both the principal of Stranmillis and the vice chancellor of Queen’s University — clearly stated that there would be:
“full consultation with… Trade Unions. Staff will transfer under TUPE with their terms and conditions protected and will remain in their current pension schemes. No compulsory redundancies will arise as a direct result of this merger.”
Stranmillis is working hard and diligently to ensure the best — and better — for its staff under TUPE. We cannot tell you anything more than that because further decisions have not been made.
Another important principle is outlined in the merger document — complementarity. Principles are about keeping focus and getting back to fundamentals, and we recognise that Stranmillis brings a lot to this situation. We recognise the legal protection of TUPE. However, when we move beyond the high-level vision that is worked out for the new school of education and consider what it would actually mean for staff, we expect not only to observe the principle that there would be no redundancy, but the principle of complementarity. There will be an awareness of what our staff bring to the situation. Therefore, we recognise TUPE, but we are also trying to move beyond mere legal protection to recognise what staff bring to the organisation, and use that to help to shape the new vision for the future. I want to put on record the fact that, as part of the merger document, Stranmillis required that a trade union consultative forum be set up. That forum will facilitate a flow of communication and is in addition to any negotiating framework that may be set up.
The board and I, as principal, fully recognise the duty of care to staff. That duty of care involves supporting those staff members in every way possible. That is an important point. We are not talking solely about the minimum legal standard, but we are trying to go beyond that.
In response to Mr Spratt’s other question about the protection of all staff, from senior staff right through to those performing the most mundane jobs, Queen’s University is a growing university. Stranmillis school of education will be on the Stranmillis site. Therefore, all jobs, at whatever level, will be protected under the TUPE rules.
The final question was about land protection and the future use of the land. There is a commitment from the university that the land will only be used for education purposes. There is also legislation —
Sorry. Can you repeat that?
The university has clearly indicated that the land will be used for education purposes. There are planning rules and legislation in place to ensure that the land is not used for other purposes.
OK. That means that you can let some go on the other side as long as that side is OK.
I remind members that the union will be coming before the Committee at a later date. It was due to visit this afternoon, but I have postponed that as the Department are coming to speak to the Committee on this issue. The Committee can probe further on staffing issues when the union is present.
I have three or four questions. My first question concludes Mr Spratt’s and Mr Newton’s questions about the view of the University of Ulster. Last week, Professor Barnett, the vice chancellor of the University of Ulster, told the Committee :
“In our discussions about the direction of that process, it seemed that at Christmas time things changed direction. That is their business; it is for others to say why things went that way.”
We would like clarification of that, because his attitude to us had changed. We could not contact him.
I think that I had the floor, Mrs Bell.
I had the floor —
I thought you had asked a question —
Did you hear any question from me?
The point is that the view of the vice chancellor of the biggest university in Northern Ireland was that in December, it seemed that “things changed direction.” It seems to me that there is a responsibility on all partners and interests to demonstrate categorically that all options have been properly explored with respect to the future of Stranmillis, and the future of teacher training in Northern Ireland. Yet the vice-chancellor of a university says to an Assembly Committee that:
“it seemed that at Christmas time things changed direction.”
With the exception of Mrs Bell’s detailed hearsay of what may or may not have happened, it does not seem that you can throw much light on what actually happened. That, and the fact that the vice chancellor of the University of Ulster has put on record a statement pregnant with all sorts of implications, implies to me that there is a solemn duty on you to find out what the true circumstances are. That would help to satisfy the Assembly — not the Minister and Mr Costello, but the Assembly, which will make the decision on the future of Stranmillis, that all options have been properly satisfied.
Given what Professor Barnett has said, will you give a commitment that you will now go and speak to the University of Ulster about what he meant and what the current situation is?
I remind members and witnesses to direct all questions through the Chair. We do make comments before asking questions, and space must be allowed for that. That is one thing that I have instilled in the Committee; I allow a free flow of information, but everyone should do that through the Chair.
You asked whether we will go back to the University of Ulster. The answer is no, and I will explain the reason for that. In mid-February, I phoned the University of Ulster to say that I wanted to book an appointment with Richard Barnett to discuss its proposal. I was told that the first time that he could speak to me would be on 6 March. In fact, he booked a phone call with me for 6 March at 1.00 pm.
During our conversation, I asked whether the University of Ulster intended to make a presentation, as we had not heard from him. He said that he did not think so. I told Richard that it was in the interests of our board for him to make a presentation. Therefore, I challenge the accuracy of what the vice chancellor said to the Committee last week. I made a phone call and spoke to him, and he said that he would come back to me by 17 April. On 15 April, he sent me a fax at the Consumer Council to say that he did not wish to make a presentation on Stranmillis.
That does not take away from the point that there is clearly some tension due to the view of the University of Ulster about what did or did not happen in December 2007 that coloured its view in respect of the discussions on Stranmillis. You have referred to due diligence on several occasions today. Given the view of the University of Ulster and the nature of the comments that were made last week, as well as the fact that this is a small place and that you should satisfy the Committee that all options have been properly explored, it is appropriate that those matters be probed further.
I presume that you read the speech that was made by the Minister for Employment and Learning in the Assembly on 23 June. The Minister said that the interim funding arrangements will give the colleges:
“extra time and space to enable them to work with the Department over the next year to settle the matter and find a clear way forward.” — [Official Report, Vol 32, No 1, p15, col 2].
He also said that:
“the colleges should be given the breathing space that the Committee members are keen to provide and for which I accept that there is a requirement.” — [Official Report, Vol 32, No 1, p16, col 1].
On four separate occasions, the Minister invited all concerned to consider the matter over the next two years in order to determine the way forward, given the fallout that exists around the issue. Is it your view, as it was the view of the vice chancellor of Queen’s University when he came here in July, that it is full steam ahead for merger in August 2009, or are you prepared to take up the Minister’s offer that interim funding would allow two years to create the space to see how the matter should mature?
We certainly welcome the funding extension, because it gives people more time. The other side of that is that each member of our staff is in a state of uncertainty. It is our job — and the job of the Assembly — to try to bring certainty to that as quickly as possible. However, the right decision must be made. We will produce an economic appraisal that will articulate all the possible options, not only those that we have considered. That will be in the public domain and open to scrutiny, and it will allow everyone in the Assembly to make up their opinion. We recognise that the final decision will not be ours, but that it will be made by the Assembly.
It must also be considered that we bring in students on a four-year cycle. We are currently receiving certainty about our budget for the next two years. It is difficult to have a four-year cycle and a two-year budget. Next year, we will have to take the rationalisation route, with whatever uncertainties that brings to the college. With a budget similar to that of this year, our best estimate is that there will be a slight surplus of £104,000. Next year, we will have a deficit of £211,000.
You are moving to another issue. There is uncertainty for a lot of people in teacher training; it is not only your staff. Therefore, you have to think about all staff and all future students. The Minister said:
“I believe that it is more appropriate to extend that into 2009-2010, in order to provide a two-year period for the colleges to work with us and the Minister of Education, and to deal with the options that are open to them.” — [Official Report, Vol 32, No 1, p15, col 1]
Are you saying — less than 11 months before August 2009 — that you still plan to proceed with the merger if you can get approval, even though the Assembly has given all of you the space to consider the best way forward? Are you telling the Minister and the Assembly that, despite the space that was created for you and the two-year funding and the guarantees that were provided, you want to proceed with the merger in August 2009? Is that not a high-handed way of responding to the Minister and the Assembly’s generous offer?
Although we are grateful for the transition funding for the next two years, which provides breathing space, that still only keeps the college at survival level. The staff know that if there is not a sustainable future at the end of it, they are facing redundancies; that is demoralising. The students get concerned, and they want to know what the college’s future is. The Assembly is not offering a permanent solution. It is providing a two-year accommodation to allow the college to survive.
The board was willing to explore the options that were on the table, and it discussed them at its meeting in December. I do not know what the vice chancellor was referring to. We had two meetings with him in November. He knew that we were going to see DE and DEL on 6 December. Thereafter, I do not know what happened. We had no meeting with him in December. I do not know what happened after that. However, when we endeavoured to set up a meeting with the vice chancellor in early January, as we did with Queen’s, he was not able to take the call.
I appreciate that. I have outlined a way forward, but it seems that your college does not want to take it.
Given the transparent fallout from this issue, the significance of what we are talking about — teacher training — and the number of staff and students involved, I do not understand why Stranmillis and Queen’s are not grabbing with both hands the generous offer from the Assembly and the Minister.
Your evidence to the Committee this morning demonstrates the unravelling of the process in respect of the merger. I say that because of the language and the words that you have put on record to the Committee. Mr Costello said that he did not know what Queen’s was going to present to the board of governors on the day that it made its decision.
That is spot on.
However, on 16 April — the day before the meeting — you said:
“I think merger is the way to go … I cannot see any other way around the problem.”
On the day before the meeting of the board of governors you said that Stranmillis must go with the merger with Queen’s, and now you say that you did not know what its presentation would contain.
May I say —
I will let you come back in a second. Mrs Bell’s comments are more curious. She is the chairperson of the ad hoc committee and, therefore, knew what Queen’s was proposing, because they sent her a document in September. Mrs Bell, you said that you did not know what the presentation was going to be on 17 April.
That is correct.
The point is that you told this Committee that all due diligence was exercised in the run-up to the meeting of the governing body, yet now you say that you did not know what would be presented.
This is my final point, and it is crucial — Mr Costello made a glaring admission in his evidence to this Committee. On the morning when the decision was made to go with the merger in principle, a member of DEL staff came to your governing body to provide advice about the financial situation. I remind Mr Costello that he said that the members of the governing body did not know what that briefing would be like.
The governing body did not know about what was proposed in respect of student numbers and student finance, yet you brought a senior DEL official in to tell people about a serious financial situation that they had not known about previously. That created a pressure cooker that brought about what you wanted that afternoon, which was the agreement in principle.
If people are making a proper decision about the future of Stranmillis, whether it is your governing body or others, they deserve better treatment than being bounced about the financial situation on the morning of the decision. They had a right to be given time, opportunity and space to consider those matters in order for them to decide how best to go forward.
I am using that as an example, which arose during this meeting, of how your process must be challenged. I therefore invite you to take up the opportunity provided by the Minister and the Assembly to consider the matter over two years.
I will allow you to respond, and then we will move on, because a number of members have still to contribute.
We received the proposal from Queen’s University in September 2007. That proposal was studied in depth by the committee. We had concerns about it, and that was what was discussed with Queen’s in the January 2008 meeting. When I say that we did not know what Queen’s would present, we did not know whether the same proposals would be made, or whether they would be changed or added to. There were differences between the presentation that was given on 17 April 2008 and the proposals that were made in September 2007, which had been discussed in great depth by the committee. Had there not been changes, we may not have been able to come to any agreement at all. That is what I meant when I said that we did not know what the quality of that presentation would be like, whether Queen’s had addressed the issues that we raised with them in our meeting in January 2008.
On the second issue —
That was the bouncing of the governing body about the finances.
The board was fully aware of the figures that were sent by the Department of Education in February. That had been discussed; we all had the numbers at that time. We knew that the cuts were much more severe. That was discussed with the entire staff at the council meeting on 2 April 2008, and we provided them with what we thought was the funding formula. However, there was a certain ambiguity about the funding formula, so we asked Fergus Devitt to clarify any issues that the board members had. That is what we mean when we said that we did not know what exactly would be spelt out that day.
Of course we knew that there were severe cuts. We knew that formula funding was coming, but there was some ambiguity about how that would operate. To clarify that for everyone — the board was aware of that information as soon as it came to the principal.
As chairman, my motivation was to be totally open and transparent. Finance was a difficult issue — I could not buy into what Mr Attwood said, which is far from the truth.
If we merge with Queen’s, the board of Stranmillis disappears. We have no self-interest in the merger. I have spent 11 years on the board of Stranmillis; I only do what is in the best interests of Stranmillis. It would be good if people recognised the fact that we have no self-interest in this as a board other than doing what is right for Stranmillis.
In the past, it has been perceived that Stranmillis has its own distinctive ethos, just as St Mary’s has. In the case of Stranmillis, that relates back to the role of the transferors and the arrangements that the former Stormont Government made with those transferors in the 1930s. In institutional terms, Queen’s is a very different animal to Stranmillis. If the merger occurs — and it is a big if — how can we ensure that the ethos of Stranmillis is preserved?
Ethos is a complex subject. Our consultations and negotiations all come back to the important principle of complementarity, which we have set down in our submission to the Committee. Ultimately, ethos is developed and sustained through leadership and through the values at the central working of an organisation. As members of staff, we are aware of that. We must highlight and clarify the things that are important and put those at the centre of our discussions. That will ensure that we are dealing with the complementarity of bringing two strong traditions together and preserving what is best.
Thank you for your submission and presentation. The discussion has been robust at times, but we have tried to tease out information and timelines. The meeting has produced some useful information.
I wish to thank the Committee. You have put us under hard scrutiny, but we believe the principles that we operate to are correct. We invite Committee members to visit the Stranmillis campus. Going there — seeing the state of the buildings and the size of the land — may help you to understand the decisions that we, as a governing body, have to make to keep the place alive. We will write to all Committee members to invite you to visit the campus. If you wish to have further meetings, we are more than happy to co-operate.
We will try to fit that in. Thanks again.