Presbyterians deny standards ‘are at risk’ at theological college

Dr Stafford Carson says the review was part of a planned process he requested
Dr Stafford Carson says the review was part of a planned process he requested

The principal of Union Theological College in Belfast has played down claims that the quality of its theological courses are “at risk” .

Media reports yesterday highlighted that the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) had warned that academic standards at the Union Theological College (UTC) are potentially “at risk” in a number of areas.

The Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) monitors standards in UK higher education institutions, while Union Theological College (UTC), owned and run by the Presbyterian Church, provides theological degrees for Queen’s University, Belfast (QUB).

However UTC Principal Dr Stafford Carson said that the QAA monitoring report, based on a visit in October, only applied to 25% of teaching.

The report only applies to optional non-degree modules for would-be Presbyterian leaders, and it has no bearing on degrees, he said. Media reports are a “non-story” because he voluntarily approached the QAA and asked it to assess the modules only two years ago, as part of the college’s aim of “meeting robust academic standards” for non-degree courses.

“This is really a non-story” Dr Carson said. “Since we asked QAA to inspect our ministry courses in 2016, the inspectors come and review them, we get the reports with areas for improvement and we fully comply with them.”

It is understood that QUB accepts Dr Carson’s assessment of the latest QAA report, in particular that it has no bearing on theology degrees UTC provides for QUB.

“The university has received a copy of the QAA Educational Oversight report and is considering the findings,” a QUB spokeswoman said. “We have no further comment”.

QAA added that its report focused on UTC ministry modules but also looked at its degrees and found no issues of concern with any of them.

UTC currently has 204 students studying for QUB theology degrees, 31 of whom are training for various Presbyterian leadership positions. It is only the 31 trainee leaders who take the additional ministry modules mentioned in the report, which are provided under the banner of the Presbyterian Theological Faculty Ireland (PTFI).

The QAA inspectors said that there had been delays “in fully and formally documenting the academic framework for PTFI programmes”, which had “the potential to put academic standards at risk”.

It also found that senior staff had not fulfilled a “stated responsibility for monitoring and reviewing teaching, learning and assessment across all pathways and within all courses or modules”.

“This weakness in the college’s maintenance of academic standards has the potential to put academic standards and quality at risk,” it added.

A lack of ways to respond to issues raised by external examiners for PTFI exams also “has the potential to put academic standards and quality at risk” the QAA found.

However, QAA’s over-arching summary was that UTC is “making progress with continuing to monitor, review and enhance its higher education provision since the October 2017 monitoring visit, but that further improvement is required”.

Dr Carson said, to put the issue in context:

l In 2016 he voluntarily asked QAA in to assess UTC’s non-degree ministry courses, which have been running since around 1881, and give clerics practical pastoral and preaching skills, he said.

l Although there was no obligation to do so, UTC wanted to align the modules, which make up around 1/4 of its teaching, with the independent Framework for Higher Education Qualifications.

l UTC always expected it would take several years to fully align the courses, but it is fully cooperating with QAA and is happy with the progress, he said.

l QAA assessment of UTC’s undergraduate and postgraduate degree courses is monitored separately as part of the overall assessment of QUB, but no issues have been raised by QAA over the degrees.

In June the Presbyterian Church sparked controversy by excluding anyone in a same sex relationship from full membership. A month later QUB announced a review of its links with UTC, which was due to report in October.