Official Report (Hansard)

Session: 2007/2008

Date: 25 June 2008

Teacher Training

25 June 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

Witnesses:
Professor John Gardner )
Professor Peter Gregson ) Queen’s University Belfast
Mr James O’Kane )

The Chairperson (Ms Ramsey):

I welcome Professor Peter Gregson, Mr James O’Kane and Professor John Gardner from Queen’s University Belfast. You are aware that this is an important briefing for the Committee on the review of teacher education. I thank you for providing the Committee with copies of your briefing paper.

You will also be aware that Committee members have concerns about the proposal to merge Stranmillis University College with Queen’s University Belfast, the pace of movement on the issue and the perceived lack of communication. It is up to you what information you want to provide. The issues are important for our overview of teacher education.

I ask members to declare any interests that they might have, although they need not mention degrees or other qualifications from Queen’s, as we could be here for some time. [Laughter.] I will now hand over to the witnesses. I know that you have to leave at approximately 12 noon, and I appreciate your attendance. You can make a presentation, which will be followed by a question-and-answer session.

Professor Peter Gregson (Queen’s University Belfast):

My colleagues and I are pleased to be here to make a short presentation and then answer your questions. I will talk through the presentation that was provided to the Committee, which is entitled ‘Improving the Quality of Teacher Education in Northern Ireland: Merger of Stranmillis University College with Queen’s University Belfast’. As the title suggests, our goal is to improve the quality of teacher education in Northern Ireland, and I will come to that shortly.

I am conscious that we have used our terminology at the ranch, as it were, and referred to you as the “DEL Committee”, which is how you are affectionately referred to at Queen’s. I am conscious, though, that we are addressing the Committee for Employment and Learning.

My colleagues probably need no introduction: James O’Kane is the registrar and chief operating officer; and John Gardner is from the School of Education. I hope that we are well equipped to answer the Committee’s questions.

On the first slide, “Background”, I put together a few comments on the history of the proposal. In 1998, Stranmillis University College and St Mary’s University College received Privy Council assent to become university colleges of Queen’s. The modus operandi is described in two memoranda of agreement, one dating from 1998 and the other from 2002. As university colleges, Stranmillis and St Mary’s enjoy academic integration with Queen’s and vice versa, but university college status means that we are administratively separate. Over the years, Queen’s has enjoyed successful partnerships with both university colleges, and the proposal to merge with Stranmillis aims at developing that successful and proud heritage.

Today’s discussion emanates from the Taylor Report of 2007 that Stranmillis University College commissioned to investigate its strategic options and, for completeness, I copied to the Committee the correspondence that emanated from the report: a request to Queen’s from Stranmillis dated 23 August 2007 and the response from Queen’s. One option that the Taylor Report considered was that Stranmillis merge with Queen’s, and Queen’s was asked to respond to 10 key criteria. Our substantive response to the document is allied to and directly addresses those 10 key criteria and was passed to Stranmillis on 20 September 2007. Following those two pieces of correspondence, Queen’s was invited to present to the governing body of Stranmillis on 17 April 2008.

The second slide details the “Current Context”. The demographic of falling pupil numbers is well known to everyone around the table, and the downturn in the number of student teachers is a consequence of that. A table details the intake quotas not only for Queen’s but for all providers in Northern Ireland, as provided in the Department of Education’s annual letter to me. The table illustrates that all providers of teacher education are affected by the downturn in the number of student teachers. I have also highlighted the rapid developments in, and a new context for, teacher education, and those must be taken into account in the vision for future teacher education.

The third slide, “Vision for Teacher Education”, contains several bullet points, but the overriding one is the first: “Inspiring future generations of school children”.

Queen’s believes that the development of Northern Ireland relies on its talent pool of human resources because, unlike some parts of the globe, it has no mineral resources. The growth of human capital is crucial to the development of Northern Ireland. There is no more influential place to grow that human capital than in the development of teacher education. Our vision for teacher education underpins the proposed merger, and aims at raising the standard of teacher education to inspire future generations of schoolchildren.

The remaining five bullet points outline how to achieve that. First, we must build on the successful past of Queen’s and Stranmillis to develop top-class training for new and serving members of the teaching profession.

That should be carried out in an environment where we can embrace inter-professional education and ensure that teachers, whether during their initial teacher education or as part of their continuous professional development, are educated in a multi-professional environment.

The vision that we are sharing with the Committee ensures that the proposed merger will allow for all sectors and levels of education to be covered in an integrated way from early-years education to post-primary and beyond. High-level teacher education should be informed by top-class research in education. We proposed to Stranmillis the goal of bringing those issues together, and that forms the basis of the proposed merger.

Stranmillis and Queen’s University enjoy enormously good connections with schools and with other stakeholders, and I will return to that point in closing because it is an important part of moving forward. Those goals led to the proposal that we put to Stranmillis on 17 April 2008 to develop a Stranmillis school of education, underpinned by a merger between Stranmillis and Queen’s University.

I would like to consider three of the bullet points: inter-professional education; the complementarity provision and integrated education; and research. In the proposed merger, students involved in teacher education would be taught in an environment that included other subject specialists.

Turning to student numbers, if the complementarity of provision between Queen’s University and Stranmillis is combined, we will be able to provide and develop once more a vibrant campus embracing 2,500 full-time equivalent students on the Stranmillis campus. That is an important part of the proposed merger. However, the sum of the merger must be more than its individual parts.

Research is one element of additionality. Queen’s University and Stranmillis are engaged in research that can come together in a complementary fashion and provide a focused, top-class underpinning research base to inform the future of teacher education.

There are three elements in delivering that ambition. The first is the proposed merger, and I will talk about aspects relating to staff and students shortly. Secondly, for the goal to be realised we must relocate the Queen’s School of Education to the Stranmillis campus so that we would have one completely integrated school of education on the Stranmillis campus. There would be combined and fully integrated education provision on the Stranmillis campus. The third element of delivery involves investment.

There are several generic issues under staff opportunities. In such a merger, the salaries and the terms and conditions of staff are protected under the standard Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations (TUPE). With regard to the proposed merger, we would follow all the normal routes for staff in that respect.

Queen’s University continues to benchmark its salaries against the sector with regard to its activities as a Russell Group university and its provision in Northern Ireland. Therefore we have competitively benchmarked salaries for all grades of staff.

We have opportunities for the promotion, advancement and development of all staff — support staff and academic staff — and it is pleasing to be able to celebrate when staff of any category win achievements. Jean O’Goan, an employee at the university, was named “Cleaner of the Year 2007” by the British Institute of Cleaning Science. We have a substantial investment in rewarding and developing staff, and that is a priority for the university.

New opportunities will be available to all academic staff from Queen’s and Stranmillis as a result of their having access to the proposed new school. I have highlighted the inter-professional environment in which staff will work, thereby enabling academic staff to work with colleagues who have expertise in other subjects.

I have highlighted recognition and rewarding mechanisms for all staff, particularly for academic staff. In a research-driven university such as Queen’s, high-quality and practice-led teaching is both recognised and rewarded.

Queen’s University has many mechanisms to tailor support for academic staff, whether for research or scholarly activities. Those mechanisms would need to be available and developed for the staff of Queen’s University and of Stranmillis University College in the new school.

The students strongly support the proposed merger. They see the attractiveness of the overarching goal that the university has set out to them, as does the governing body of Stranmillis University College. Above and beyond that overarching goal, the students will benefit from an education in a more diverse environment that provides them with enhanced access to different aspects of skills and employability tools that they will be able to use in their career.

A priority of Queen’s is to put students at the heart of the university, and those of you who are familiar with the campus will see our disproportionate investment in the student experience. We will ensure that all students have access to first-class facilities. The new library will open next summer. The university’s new integrated student guidance centre — a one-stop shop for students to get support for access, disability issues or finance — is a development to which all students should have access.

A more diverse student community only enriches the student experience for all of us at Stranmillis University College and at Queen’s University.

The most important thing is that students graduate with a good degree from, in the case of Queen’s University, a Russell Group university.

The third of the bullet points associated with the proposed merger that I mentioned at the outset is “investment”. The governing board of Stranmillis has already highlighted a backlog of £2 million for maintenance requirements on the campus. If we are to realise our ambition of a top-class education campus at Stranmillis, we must make up for that backlog and, more importantly, make a substantial investment. In our presentation to the governing board of Stranmillis University College, we committed to investing an additional £5 million to help to underpin the development of the campus to the standard that we outlined. That makes a total investment of £7 million.

We have to make such a commitment from a basis of security, because Queen’s is recognised, in the Russell Group of UK universities as well as in the wider UK and Irish university sector, as setting the pace for good governance and strong financial management. The financial commitment is made from that base. The vision for the proposed merger is to establish a fully integrated school of education; to create the leading education centre on this island at the Stranmillis campus; and to invest further in a campus with a proud heritage to make it again a vibrant place for students in education.

The slide, “The Future — ‘Best in Class’”, returns to our goal and restates that there is no better way of investing in the human capital of Northern Ireland than by ensuring that our student teachers are trained in a top-class, inter-professional environment of the type that we have outlined. I emphasise that the integrated approach to the teacher education that the proposed merger would provide — which covers all sectors and levels — will underpin and promote the efficient and effective delivery of education in Northern Ireland. The proposed merger is about more than the sum of its parts; it is about taking advantage of the new opportunities that will arise from the proposed merger.

The final slide, “The way forward”, contains a summary of the resolution that was passed unanimously by the governing board at Stranmillis to agree — in principle — to a merger with Queen’s University Belfast. There are three elements in taking the resolution forward, and they must be undertaken in parallel and address all the practicalities of a proposed merger.

The first element is summarised in a document that was agreed by both the governing board at Stranmillis and the senate of Queen’s University, a copy of which has been provided to the Committee. It addresses the governance and management aspects of the proposal.

The second part that must be taken forward in parallel is the approval of a full business case — it is the responsibility of Stranmillis to submit that business case to the Department for Employment and Learning.

The third element is the fulfilment of the due legislative process, with which there must be full engagement.

In summary, I hope that our presentation and the supportive documentation that we have provided gives the Committee a clear view of the substantial benefits of the proposed merger for teacher education in Northern Ireland.

The Chairperson:

Thank you for your presentation, Peter. Your colleagues can join in the discussion if they wish to contribute.

Since the outset of the debate on teacher education, I have told the Minister on several occasions that the Committee has possibly come to the same conclusion as he due to the drop in the number of teachers, and other issues. There is genuine confusion and concern. The Committee facilitated the Department and the Minister by discussing teacher training in a closed meeting. Other matters that have been thrown into the debate have clouded the issue, namely the proposed merger of Stranmillis University College and Queen’s University. Staff are concerned. In your presentation you said that the way forward is subject to the successful outcome of detailed negotiations, among other things. The Committee — in particular, the former Deputy Chairperson, who is not present — has sought information on that matter.

I want to pose several questions: first, can you explain the sequence of events that led to the proposal for a merger? Can you explain the timescale for the business case? During the past four or five days — indeed, during an Assembly debate on 23 June — the timescale of the business case has cropped up. Secondly, have staff been involved in negotiations? If so, can you outline their involvement? Thirdly, has there been any discussion with students on the proposed merger? When you have answered those questions, I will open the floor to members.

Professor Gregson:

You have asked many questions, which I will answer in order, although you must alert me if I skip over any. The first question referred to the timescale and sequence of events. The sequence of events began with the Taylor Report about this time last year. Taylor took evidence from Queen’s University, among other organisations, and submitted his report on the strategic options to Stranmillis University College. We received from Stranmillis University College an extract of the Taylor Report that contains Queen’s University’s evidence, which has a covering letter dated 23 August 2007, and have copied it to the Committee. That evidence was accompanied by annex H — the 10 key criteria — to which we were asked to respond. Queen’s University provided a full response. Although it had an extended background, as you will see, the response was explicitly aligned to the 10 criteria. That full response, of which the Committee has a copy, was submitted by my office on 20 September 2007 with a covering letter from me.

After that, there was some dialogue. Stranmillis University College set up an ad hoc committee comprised of the chairperson, the deputy chairperson and the principal. In October 2007 and January 2008, the committee sought clarification on one or two aspects of our response. That led to Stranmillis University College’s formal request, dated 21 February, that Queen’s University make a presentation at its board meeting on 17 April. Of course, we did so. That is the time line to date. I shall open the matter up for discussion by my colleagues.

Mr O’Kane:

The timeline is approximately a year. The Taylor report was commissioned by Stranmillis on 15 March 2007. I have nothing to add to the timeline that was outlined by Professor Gregson.

The Chairperson:

Were officials from the Department involved in the process at any point?

Professor Gregson:

Yes, a meeting was held with the Department between our request to make a presentation to the governing board of Stranmillis being received, and that presentation being made. On 18 March, we met Department officials to inform them of the likely content of our proposal and, of course, the fact that we had been invited to make that proposal.

The Chairperson:

Who from the Department did you meet?

Professor Gregson:

We met the permanent secretary.

The Chairperson:

So, on 18 March you met the permanent secretary to inform her of the nature of the proposal?

Professor Gregson:

That is correct. The proposal was taking shape at that time. It is centred on the response to the 10-point criteria in the fuller document — it picks out certain aspects of that and develops them into a proposal.

The Chairperson:

Were any Department officials given a written proposal? Just to confirm — you say that on 18 March you outlined a proposal to the permanent secretary?

Professor Gregson:

That is correct.

The Chairperson:

Can you give the Committee any more information on the timescale for the business case?

Professor Gregson:

Ernst & Young, the firm that is leading on the business case, will conduct a thorough appraisal of that and decide on the timescale. To our best knowledge, the people from Ernst & Young are working with a view to submitting or completing the business case during the summer.

The Chairperson:

Have there been any negotiations with the staff and students?

Professor Gregson:

I can talk about the engagement of staff and students at Queen’s University. I will deal with the staff at Queen’s under three categories. The university management board that I chair is responsible for the strategic direction of Queen’s University and for developing the corporate plan and any strategic decisions that result from that, so that board has been involved in this process.

The Senate — the governing body of Queen’s — has been involved, as it has a responsibility for governance and for holding management to account for actions taken in developing activities in line with the corporate plan.

Two days before the presentation to Stranmillis University College, we held an open afternoon to which all staff of the School of Education were invited. I gave, essentially, the presentation that I was going to give to Stranmillis, and used it as an opportunity to open up the discussion to all staff. On the same day, we met representatives of UCU, the academic union at Queen’s.

Students are represented on the Queen’s University Senate; therefore, they have been kept apprised and involved in the governance of the university.

Mr O’Kane:

The structures that have been established since 17 April were agreed by both governing bodies and are set out in your papers. The two student presidents are members of the project implementation group, have participated fully, and have been strong supporters of the proposed merger.

I can speak only about the staff of Queen’s University. We have a joint consultative committee that represents all the trade unions, and the issue of Stranmillis has been a standing item on that committee’s agenda.

We have established a joint consultative forum, which provides an opportunity for a representative from each of the recognised trades unions from Stranmillis and Queen’s to meet outside the formal structures. The principal of Stranmillis and I hope to meet them before the summer break.

The Chairperson:

I want to clarify the sequence of events. A meeting took place on 18 March 2008 to inform the permanent secretary of the proposal. Were there any changes to what you told the permanent secretary, or to the presentation that you made on 17 April?

Professor Gregson:

My recollection is that we informed the permanent secretary of our thinking as our proposal to Stranmillis University College was shaping up. At that stage, we did not have a presentation; we were building our ideas on the 10-point criteria, which we described earlier. We did not give a document to the permanent secretary at that stage.

The Chairperson:

Does the Department have that document now?

Professor Gregson:

Yes, it has a copy of that document now.

The Chairperson:

When did it receive that?

Mr O’Kane:

I would have to check, but we did not formally submit any documents to the Department. We were responding to Stranmillis University College. As part of our formal presentation on 17 April, the Department would have received the document as part of the formal submission from Stranmillis University College, as opposed to receiving it from us.

The Chairperson:

Is it correct that, from 18 March, the Department was well aware that you had put a proposal to Stranmillis?

Professor Gregson:

The right way to put it is that we were developing a proposal to make on 17 April.

Mr Newton:

My concerns are similar to those of the Chairperson. Are you aware that the Minister told the Committee that none of his senior staff was involved in the discussions?

Professor Gregson:

We had one meeting with the permanent secretary. My only other meeting with the Minister at around that time was on the morning of 17 April, because he was opening the new laboratory at Queen’s.

The Chairperson:

Can you repeat that comment?

Professor Gregson:

On the morning of 17 April, the Minister for Employment and Learning was with me, because we were opening the Petronas laboratory in Queen’s University Ionic Liquid Laboratories. You asked about the contact between us and the Department for Employment and Learning. We met Department officials on 18 March, and I happened to be with the Minister for a completely different purpose on the morning of 17 April.

Mr Newton:

This is a major piece of work for education in Northern Ireland, between Queen’s and Stranmillis. Why have members of staff — primarily from Stranmillis — felt sufficiently concerned to seek meetings with their public representatives on the handling of the potential merger and the way in which they have been treated? Why has a senior member of Stranmillis staff told the press that the merger is a done deal? Why, at this advanced stage in the preparation of a business plan, are Queen’s and Stranmillis not standing together in partnership and talking about a potential merger?

Although the Committee might eventually agree, do we truly believe this to be the best way forward for education provision in Northern Ireland? Is it too far off the mark to describe the current situation as a shambles?

Professor Gregson:

Obviously, we are concerned about the Committee’s perception. However, I can speak only from the Queen’s University perspective; some questions should be directed to Stranmillis.

Mr Newton:

You are in partnership mode.

Professor Gregson:

As James O’Kane illustrated, we are together progressing the practicalities of the proposed merger through the project implementation group and the joint steering group, on which both institutions are represented. That must be the platform for progressing the discussions. However, until that point, one must respect the fact that we have had to present the proposed merger to two separate governing bodies to comply within our respective institutions’ good governance requirements.

The Chairperson hinted at timescales and, perhaps, colleagues at Stranmillis not being kept informed. Although I cannot speak for my colleagues at Stranmillis, I can address timescales, and we have pointed out that, at this time last year, the Taylor Report examined specifically the strategic options for Stranmillis. I have no idea how that process was disseminated in Stranmillis and, therefore, I can comment only on what would be the case at Queen’s under such a development. However, I do not want to do that, because I do not want to speak for Stranmillis. It has been a lengthy process — over a year — and has built on reports on teacher education that date back many years.

Mr O’Kane:

It is important to differentiate between pre-17 April and post-17 April. Post-17 April, we established the twin tracks of the due process, comprising the business case and the legislative process, and the implementation framework, which was agreed by both governing bodies on 15 May 2008 and 19 May 2008. Communication and consultation are central themes that govern the work of the project implementation group — of which I am chairperson — and the four subgroups.

Two of the subgroups specifically target HR and communications, and a consultative forum has been set up. Pre-17 April, we — and I can speak only for Queen’s — were in a process, and we were asked to respond to the Taylor Report, which identified a possible merger with Queen’s University as one of the partnership options. We submitted a response in September 2007, and we next received communication from Stranmillis in February 2008 inviting us to make a presentation on 17 April 2008.

We cannot comment on the communication in the college, and you are correct to say that, post-17 April, it is a partnership. We met the Department on 24 April 2008 to progress the due process, and, since that date — a week after the meeting of the Stranmillis governing body — we have been heavily involved in partnership.

The Chairperson:

Do members want to comment or ask questions?

Mr Butler:

As you know, the Assembly debated the future of Stranmillis and St Mary’s, which is linked academically to Queen’s. There was a suggestion that Stranmillis would offer a certificate in Catholic education.

A merger of Stranmillis and Queen’s will have an impact on St Mary’s. Have you taken into account what that impact might be, given the ethos of St Mary’s University College in delivering Catholic teacher training? St Mary’s appears to have been ignored in this process.

Professor Gregson:

First, St Mary’s is not ignored. I will return to that part of the question.

You commented on denominational training. Neither Stranmillis nor Queen’s offers denominational training.

Mr Butler:

You do not offer it at present.

Professor Gregson:

Neither of us offers denominational training in and of ourselves. Access is provided for students at Stranmillis for denominational training accredited by the University of Glasgow; however, that is outside the realms of Queen’s and of today’s Committee discussion. There will be no change in that respect.

However, the core of your question is around St Mary’s, which is academically integrated with Queen’s through its university college status. Colleagues from St Mary’s attended the academic council meeting two weeks ago and we enjoy a close collaboration with St Mary’s. We regularly meet the principal and the chairperson of St Mary’s governing body. They have made it clear during discussions, including at recent diploma ceremonies, that, while they are academically integrated with Queen’s, St Mary’s places the utmost importance on maintaining its administrative autonomy as an institution. We work with St Mary’s on the basis that it is an academically integrated, but administratively independent, university college.

Mr Butler:

Do you have any plans to deliver denominational training after Queen’s and Stranmillis merge?

Professor Gardner:

None at all; in the 25 years that I have been at Queen’s, we have had different cycles of dipping in and out of involvement in primary level teacher education, because the Department changed factors and quotas.

We have never offered denominational training for any group; nor has Stranmillis. However, there is a legal entitlement for primary schools in the Catholic sector to require a certificate in Catholic education. Students at Queen’s — and, I understand, Stranmillis — in the past, have obtained that certificate from the old St Andrew’s College in Glasgow and from St Mary’s University College at Strawberry Hill, in Twickenham, London. We do not plan to change that policy.

The Chairperson:

Alistair and Alex want to ask questions. I am conscious of the time and the fact that the Committee is scheduled to hear another presentation; if anybody wants to comment, please let me know now.

Mr Ross:

We are discussing a substantial merger and a significant step that will require legislation. Have you had any discussions with the Department about the legislation that will be needed? It seems odd that there may have been no discussion about that, particularly since the Minister for Employment and Learning must introduce the legislation. Will you indicate whether, and when, you have had, or will have, discussions with anyone in the Department?

Secondly, following on from Paul Butler’s comments, it is recognised that Stranmillis has its own ethos, which may be changed by merging with Queen’s. How will that ethos be protected if — as appears likely — the merger goes ahead?

Professor Gregson:

I suggest that John Gardner address the issue of the ethos from his professional perspective.

Mr O’Kane pointed out that it is important that we consider the legislative requirements after 17 April, because that is when we made the proposal. From that date, we have been considering the proposed merger’s practical requirements in parallel with establishing a business case and a due legislative process, both of which we knew would be necessary. There has been no other meeting with the Minister to discuss those requirements, and, post 17 April, they are part of our ongoing activity.

Mr O’Kane:

After 17 April, 24 April was a key date, when representatives from Queen’s University and Stranmillis University College jointly met the Department, and matters relating to the legislative process were part of the agenda for those discussions.

The Chairperson:

Who from the Department was at that meeting?

Mr O’Kane:

Catherine Bell, Fergus Devitt and, possibly, one other.

The Chairperson:

Did you or the Department request that meeting?

Mr O’Kane:

I will have to check that.

The Chairperson:

I would appreciate it if you would.

Professor Gregson:

That request may have come from DEL, via Stranmillis University College.

Mr O’Kane:

We will check that and come back to you.

Mr Ross:

And the ethos?

Professor Gardner:

I must step back a little from that. As outlined in our presentation, complementarity is the purpose of the merger. Stranmillis University College plays a strong role in Northern Ireland’s primary-sector teacher training, and Queen’s does not. Therefore, that expertise is attractive to us. The proposed merger’s bringing together of Stranmillis’s BEd with our Masters and doctoral programmes will enable that ethos to remain relatively intact. Their provision is backed up by 60, 70 or 80 years’ experience, and, other than what is required in the new teaching competences, we will not be tinkering with that. Complementarity covers all of that.

Although a high proportion of the schools served by Stranmillis University College are controlled, it serves all types of schools, as do we. Furthermore, although both Stranmillis University College and Queen’s offer student teachers the option of RE training, based on the Northern Ireland curriculum, which is agreed by all and does not favour any particular Churches, they do not offer denominational teaching. Therefore, in the proposed Stranmillis school of education, I do not foresee any major changes to how primary education has been handled in Stranmillis; it will, broadly, be the same.

Mr Attwood:

Thank you for attending, and, unlike your partners in this enterprise, Stranmillis University College, at least you came quickly and have been forthcoming in what you have said. Some of your answers have been interesting and require further probing, especially by the Department.

Before addressing more substantial matters, I shall ask two simple questions that require simple answers. First, it has been confirmed that your indicative time frame is for the merger to be completed by August 2009. In light of what was said by the Minister in the House this week; in light of everything that has happened since the proposed merger’s announcement; and without prejudicing what may transpire, is Queens’ University prepared to say that that is not an adequate time frame in which to complete the merger?

Professor Gregson:

We have several times highlighted the requirements for a full business case and business appraisal, and we have as much interest in that as everybody else round the table.

We respect all aspects of the due legislative procedure and process, and whatever that process entails.

Our proposal to Stranmillis specified August 2009 as the date on which the merger should take place. Everyone present will be aware that there is a desire to keep periods of uncertainty to a sensible minimum, to avoid the anxiety of staff and current and future generations of students. We will balance those types of issues. It makes sense to have the merger in August, because it heralds the change in the academic and financial years, and such a merger should take place at that time. The merger would not happen until August 2010, if a delay occurred.

Mr Attwood:

You say that, although some degree of certainty has been created by the numbers and funding for St Mary’s and Stranmillis over the next two years, and despite the fall-out from the proposal, Queen’s still aims to complete the merger in August 2009.

Professor Gregson:

That is the situation at present, but it will be subject to the issues that we have highlighted.

Mr Attwood:

I urge you to reconsider that — for obvious reasons. Mr Newton suggested that the proposed merger was a shambles, and other people have referred to it as a stitch-up. I urge you not to work to that time frame and to give the issue more time.

The Chairperson:

A paper in the members’ information pack outlines the legislative process. It will reassure members.

Professor Gregson:

We have not been privy to that.

The Chairperson:

We have not been privy to a lot of information, so I agree with you.

Mr Attwood:

You have, more or less, told the Committee that you intend to proceed at full steam to achieve the merger by August 2009, and that you plan a business case — subject to what your consultants say — in a short time frame. Obviously, you are not picking up the mood and the reality around the issue.

A senior civil servant once said that everyone knows that Stranmillis is the land bank for Queen’s. You cannot comment on that, because it is hearsay. However, are there restrictive covenants on all the land at Stranmillis college in respect of its future use? Can some of the land at Stranmillis be sold off for private use?

Professor Gregson:

I understand that there are restrictive covenants on the use of the Stranmillis land, and we have made clear our intention to invest in the Stranmillis school of education for the purposes of education.

Mr Attwood:

Let me ask the question again. Are there restrictive covenants in respect of all the land bank at Stranmillis College? Are there some parcels of land at Stranmillis College that can be sold for private use or for some other use?

Professor Gregson:

I do not know the answer to that question. Mr O’Kane, do you know?

Mr O’Kane:

That will be part of the due diligence process. We are not in a position to answer that detailed question.

Mr Attwood:

Mr O’Kane, in your conversations with Stranmillis officials, have you not asked what land at Stranmillis is, or is not, subject to restrictive covenants?

Mr O’Kane:

At this point, I have not.

Mr Attwood:

You received a letter from the Chairperson of the Stranmillis board of governors on 10 September 2007 — and it seems that there was a delay in your receipt of it. I find it incongruous that 10 days after you received that letter you submitted to Queen’s what you referred to as a very full response arising from the questions that were asked. I do not doubt the capacity of Queen’s to compile a full response in 10 days; however, it is reasonable to say that, given the quality of this submission, which, surprisingly, did not find its way to DEL — and I will come back to that — 10 days is not a lot of time in which to come up with such a submission.

Are you saying that between receiving the letter on 10 September and 20 September you had prepared the submission and that before receiving that letter there was no contact between your university and the authorities at Stranmillis to flag up the proposed merger?

Professor Gregson:

My colleagues had met David Taylor when he was developing his strategic options for Stranmillis. That process dates back to June 2007, which is when the thinking started.

It is correct to say that the letter dated 23 August arrived in my office on 10 September, hence the comment in my letter to the chairperson of the board of governors. My response conveys the sense that we had to work hard to get together a full response. We formed a project team and did exactly that. However, the thinking dates back to the June meeting with David Taylor.

Mr Attwood:

If you had a meeting with Taylor and Usher and your thinking was developing in June, did that process continue between June and September? In that period did you have any contact with Stranmillis up to receiving the letter?

Professor Gregson:

We had no contact with Stranmillis over that period.

Mr Attwood:

It is incongruous that there was no back-channel chat with the Department for Employment and Learning on such an important matter as teacher training in the North, given the political and community sensitivities that surround the subject.

It is odd that the left hand of the Department made announcements about student numbers, finance and a general review of teacher training provision, while the right hand of Queen’s and Stranmillis were working towards the proposal. Somehow, in all those months, the left hand did not know what the right hand was doing.

I cannot accept that. There must have been conversation between Stranmillis and/or Queen’s and the Department about those matters.

Can you reassure me that there was not?

Professor Gregson:

There are two issues there. The first is about contact. The contact was absolutely as we have described it in —

Mr Attwood:

Are you saying that there were no phone calls and no conversations with permanent secretaries in all the dealings that your university had with the Department? Surely, there must have been at least a “By the way, there is something developing between ourselves and Stranmillis.”

Professor Gregson:

Nothing of which I am aware.

Mr Attwood:

Do you all hold that view?

Mr O’Kane:

Yes. I return to the point made by the Deputy Chairperson. It is important to separate what happened before and after 17 April. Mr Attwood, you are focusing on events before 17 April.

We responded to a process in good faith, but we were not party to developments outside that process. The Taylor Report contained five options; the partnership option involved a separate set of options, of which Queen’s was only one. We put our best foot forward in September 2007, and the next correspondence that we had from Stranmillis University College was in February 2008.

You may find that hard to believe, but that is the process in which we were involved — there was no other process outside that.

Mr Attwood:

It is difficult to conceive that there were no bigger conversations with the Department on such an important matter. It poses questions about the attitude of higher-education colleges in the North to the Department and the Department’s relationship with those colleges.

My second question is this: how can you reassure the Committee about the quality of this process if, by your own admission, Stranmillis, which unanimously endorsed the proposal, had virtually no contact with you throughout the process? As you said in your submission, there were two moments of clarification — in October 2007 and January 2008 — and then a formal communication asking you to make a presentation on 21 February.

For a proposal of such magnitude, the extent of your contact with Stranmillis, according to your evidence, was a letter requesting you to make a presentation and two moments of clarification after you made your formal presentation on 20 September.

If that is the height of your proposal, and the extent of the conversations were as you outlined, it seems as though Stranmillis was not rigorous in probing into what was the best future for teacher training in the North.

Professor Gregson:

We have no idea about what work was going on in Stranmillis by the management or the governing body between June last year when Taylor was taking evidence and the presentation that we gave to the governing body.

Mr Attwood:

Were you not surprised that, on a matter of such significance, the entire contact was the proposal on 20 September, two moments of clarification, and then a letter? Was that the entire activity over six months?

Professor Gregson:

We were following due process, as James pointed out.

Mr Attwood:

I appreciate that. However, I am led to conclude that Stranmillis, when it was processing this matter, accepted your proposal without further investigation; or, from September to February, there was a back channel between you and Stranmillis with regard to the proposal.

Professor Gregson:

I cannot comment on the former, but the answer to the latter is that there was no such “back channel”.

Mr Attwood:

There is little evidence of what Stranmillis was doing over that six-month period with regard to communicating with you about a very important proposal, and that poses questions about what the college was doing. Alternatively, it is reasonable to conclude that it does not seem credible that the extent of the communication between you and Stranmillis during that period was as you have outlined. There must have been other conversations.

The Chairperson:

I ask you, Alex, to let the witnesses from Queen’s answer for Queen’s; we can ask Stranmillis questions when its witnesses appear before us. I am not pushing you to wind up, but I will give you one last question; I have already given you enough time and the witnesses have to leave at 12.00. Would you like to reply, Peter?

Professor Gregson:

Are you saying that the timescales seem unrealistic? I do not like to repeat myself, but I can only reiterate the point that both James O’Kane and I made: we were responding to a process. When we received the request on 10 September against the 10-point criteria, we had to work hard and cover a great deal of ground to put that proposal together.

I do not know what other proposals Stranmillis University College received or what it did with the proposal with regard to due diligence. There were the two meetings with Stranmillis’s ad hoc committee, to which we have already referred, followed by a request of us to make a presentation, which we did on 17 April. I cannot add anything to that.

The Chairperson:

And finally …

Mr Attwood:

And finally. I note what you say. However, there are gaps in credibility with regard to what was going on between you and Stranmillis, between Stranmillis and others, and what was going on in the Department; but the Committee will probe that at a later date.

In your entire presentation, Vice-Chancellor, you never mentioned St Mary’s University College. I am surprised at that, partly because it is an accredited college of Queen’s and partly because in any discussion about teacher training you must include St Mary’s.

Despite all that has been happening over the past few months, Queen’s University made no comment in its formal presentation and had no comment to make on it until Paul Butler probed you on it. If we are to discuss teacher education, we must cover all bases and be seen to do so. My final comment is this —

The Chairperson:

Is this your final final comment?

Professor Gregson:

May I respond to that?

The Chairperson:

I will let you come back on that, Peter. It is as well that I am in a good mood, Alex.

Mr Attwood:

A senior person who is heavily involved in this issue said that the Department’s original proposals on funding and student numbers were intended “to provoke a situation”. That is the language that was used. At the same meeting, that person reported that there was a desire not to have a half-baked mini-university on the Falls Road, in reference to St Mary’s. That worries me. We need to have a serious conversation about the future of teacher training and there are merits in your recommendations. However, the matter has been managed badly. That taints the issue, and Queen’s University and Stranmillis University College have an obligation to do something about it, even though they may not have contributed to the situation. One of the ways of rectifying it is for Queen’s to announce that it is slowing the process down.

Professor Gregson:

I wish to answer the first two questions first. Mr Attwood asked about St Mary’s: we were asked to attend the Committee to talk about the proposed merger with Stranmillis. That is why I did not mention St Mary’s University College in the presentation, but I fully expected to talk about it in the question-and-answer session. I reiterate once more that our position with St Mary’s is exactly as it was: it is academically integrated with the university and it is a university college with which we have a good working relationship and partnership. However, because the chairperson and principal of St Mary’s have made it absolutely clear that autonomy is their ultimate priority, there is no point in discussing further any other option.

Mr Attwood hinted at some contrivance on future student numbers. I stress that the numbers that I have used here have nothing to do with future student numbers; we are not privy to any future projections of student numbers. The only numbers to which we are privy are those of the intake quota that the Department of Education provides me with annually, not just for Queen’s but for all providers. Members have a summary of that in the table before them.

Mr O’Kane:

It is important that we do not lose sight of the vision that we have presented to the Committee and which formed the basis of our presentation to Stranmillis University College. That is about improving the quality of teacher education and making it best in class; the benefits of that will improve the human capital for the future.

The Chairperson:

No one will dispute that. However, you must also take on board —

[INAUDIBLE DUE TO MOBILE PHONE INTERFERENCE]

Because I am in good form, I will let Anna ask a question.

Ms Lo:

I am glad that you are in good form. I have been helping Queen’s University to launch a report this morning, so I am sorry for interrupting the witnesses by arriving late.

The Taylor Report mentioned the possibility of developing a centre of excellence that would bring together all five providers of teacher education. Should we not all work towards that vision?

Professor Gregson:

There is complementarity in provision. The proposal was intended as a response to the Taylor Report in 2007. Queen’s was asked to make its response to that report, which was commissioned by Stranmillis University College. Other collaborations are important, not least the important relationship between Queen’s and St Mary’s.

Professor Gardner:

In answer to Mr Attwood’s question, I can assure the Committee that the response of the academic side, which I represent, is very positive. I reiterate James’s point about establishing a world-class centre of education. The academic appetite for that is hard to measure, but the togetherness is superb.

I have worked with both colleges for between 20 and 25 years, and we have always discussed how we can work more closely together. I am not sure whether that should be done through the “back channels” to which Mr Attwood referred, but the academics — not the governance or the management side — in those three institutions have always pushed for closer working relationships to improve the education of children through better teacher education. I wanted to mention that from an academic perspective.

The Chairperson:

From the outset, when we facilitated the Minister and the Department to come here, I said that the Committee had an open mind. The difficulty is that several issues that are of concern to me and other members of the Committee have been thrown into the mix, and we want to tease them out. We have always said that we are open to discussion, and no one is criticising the work of St Mary’s, Stranmillis, Queen’s or the University of Ulster. The Committee is mandated to ensure that things are done correctly, and part of that is to ensure value for money. That is the purpose of our stakeholders’ review.

I thank the representatives from Queen’s — you have been open, honest and upfront. The papers that you provided are useful. As you are aware, the Committee is carrying out a review, and I would appreciate it if you worked closely with the Committee if we need clarification on issues.

Professor Gregson:

This has been a useful exchange of views. We look forward to working with the Committee in developing its views, which build upon many previous reports. We feel comfortable that we can continue to work with you. I am confident that the proposed merger will meet the goals that I set out in the presentation and which James O’Kane also talked about. We want to see that for Northern Ireland, as that must be what is best for teacher education here. That is what we are striving for.

The Chairperson:

Thank you.

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