Northern Ireland

St Mary's University College: Background to Belfast college's funding plea

St Mary's University College
Image caption St Mary's University College is based in west Belfast

St Mary's University College and its supporters are protesting about the scale of cuts which, because of its small size, would impact very heavily on its finances.

The Employment and Learning minister, Dr Stephen Farry, has decided to remove a special premium payment of £1.1m which it has been getting to compensate for its small scale and specialist status. It has fewer than 1,000 students and an income of £4.7m a year.

Protesters have said that the removal of the small institution premium, coupled with a general cutback in Department of Employment and Learning (DEL) funding, would mean the college loses 31% of its budget.

However, an extra £32m for the DEL, revealed in this week's overall budget improves the situation somewhat.

The college says the addition of extra money means it would be asked to manage on a budget reduced by 26.5%.


That's a slightly better prediction but the principal, Prof Peter Finn, says that is still far too challenging.

He accuses Stephen Farry of a blatantly opportunistic decision to force the college to agree to one of the solutions he proposes for the future streamlining of teacher training in Northern Ireland.

None of the four options includes St Mary's keeping its current autonomy. It says it is determined to retain its character and Catholic ethos, however, Prof Finn says he is keen for what he called "very deep sharing" between the various teacher training institutions. That could involve students from each being taught in other university colleges from time to time.

Prof Finn strongly objects to the notion that the small scale and specialist premia only exist in Northern Ireland and therefore should be removed.

He agrees the payments were removed from similar institutions in England but says those bodies, in return, were allowed to charge much higher tuition fees and were not restricted in how many students they could accept. St Mary's was not permitted that freedom.

Stranmillis University College, which has mainly trained teachers for schools other than Catholic, has similar problems but has been in negotiations to merge completely with Queen's University.

That process began in 2008 but has met some opposition and has not yet been approved. The reduction in funding and the removal of the premia would also affect that college.

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