Queen’s University formally suspended links with the Presbyterian Church’s training college this week, citing concerns about ‘diversity and teaching’ - but academics behind the review are still not agreed on what they should say in the final report on which the decision was based, it is reported.
Principal of the church’s Union Theological College (UTC) in Belfast, Dr Stafford Carson, said he was asked to meet Queen’s University Belfast (QUB) on Tuesday, and was presented with the conclusions and recommendations of its review of the college.
The QUB review saw the university this week announce that it was suspending the link which has seen it send undergraduates to UTC for theological degrees for 100 years.
QUB said this week that having reviewed UTC teaching and having “considered the findings of this review” the university had “concerns regarding the breadth and diversity of the teaching and curriculum being delivered”.
But now Dr Carson has told the News Letter that during the meeting where the suspension was broken to him on Tuesday, it was also revealed that QUB made the decision without reading its own review panel’s final report; because members have not yet agreed it.
Dr Carson said: “We are still waiting to see the final report. The report is still in draft form. At the meeting with QUB we were given a copy of the conclusions and recommendations which has seen the link between us suspended. But when we asked to see the full report from the review panel we were told this was not possible because it has not yet been agreed by the academics concerned.”
“At the meeting with QUB we were given a copy of the conclusions and recommendations... But when we asked to see the full report from the review panel we were told this was not possible because it has not yet been agreed by the academics concerned.”Stafford Carson
The News Letter asked both Dr Carson and QUB yesterday if it was normal to publish conclusions and recommendations from such a report before it has been completed. However both Dr Carson and QUB failed to offer any comment.
QUB announced the latest review shortly after a highly controversial vote by the church leadership in June, which saw it adopt a policy to exclude anyone in a same sex relationship from full membership.
The decision caused unprecedented public rifts within the 220,000 members church, with over 200 ministers and elders, and separately 600 members, signing two open letters of protest.
High profile Presbyterians and current or former Alliance Party leaders Naomi Long, David Ford and Lord Alderdice all publicly criticised the church’s new policy.
A source close to QUB told the News Letter this week that they thought the suspension of links was because the university was “highly embarrassed” by its relations with the church after the vote.
QUB said this week that the suspension of links was also partly based on an unpublished review in 2016. However UTC protested that it had addressed all the 2016 recommendations in partnership with QUB, with the creation of a new BA Theology for undergraduates launched a week before the review began, the church arguing that this week’s announcement by QUB was premature.
Dr Carson also said he was waiting to find out which part of QUB had taken the decision, to find out if there was an option to appeal. However, he added that UTC had been awarding degrees since before QUB existed and may continue to award undergraduate degrees under its own charter.
Presbyterian elder and former Alliance leader David Ford says his church’s vote was a factor in QUB suspending links with it’s college.
“I think there was probably a certain amount of inevitability once Queen’s announced there was a review [of UTC] underway,” Mr Ford told the BBC.
He added: “Clearly other issues around the [church’s] general assembly meeting in June of this year have affected minds among some academics in terms of the stance the church has taken on issues on same sex civil marriage.”
Christians will take “a variety of views” on different issues and QUB feels its students “were not getting the breadth and diversity that they would have expected” he said.
There is also some “general unhappiness” at UTC after a Professor was suspended in June for speaking publicly in the wake of the same sex relationship vote, he said.
Meanwhile, firebrand DUP MLA Jim Wells has challenged QUB to explain how it can take issue with the ethos of teaching at UTC without doing the same for its Catholic college in west Belfast.
“In terms of diversity, St Mary’s University College is a formally Catholic college of QUB,” Mr Wells said. “It also has a centuries old Catholic teaching that marriage is between a man and a woman.
“UTC and St Mary’s are therefore mirror images of each other and the question is why is one under investigation by QUB and the other is not? St Mary’s is also funded by QUB and yet it is not under investigation.”
QUB declined to offer any response to his comments.
Principal of St Mary’s College, Professor Peter Finn, issued a statement in response, but did not mention the religious comparison.
“St Mary’s University College in Belfast is a recognised provider, in its own right, of higher education in the UK,” he said. “It has a Memorandum of Agreement with QUB on collaborative provision. The College enjoys an excellent academic partnership with QUB but it is independent for administrative, financial and legal purposes.
“St Mary’s is a member of GuildHE, an officially recognised representative body for UK Higher Education, which comprises 50 subject specialist universities and colleges. The College is funded largely by student tuition fees and a grant from the Department for the Economy, to which it is accountable.”