QUB seeks meeting with DUP to clarify freeze on Presbyterian links

DUP MLA Christopher Stalford welcoming his party leader Arlene Foster to the opening of his new constituency office. Photo: Pacemaker
DUP MLA Christopher Stalford welcoming his party leader Arlene Foster to the opening of his new constituency office. Photo: Pacemaker

Queen’s University Belfast is seeking to meeting the DUP to explain why it has suspended links with a Presbyterian college, after the party highlighted the “concern, anger and confusion” caused by the decision.

QUB said last month that it was putting on hold an arrangement of over 100 years standing, whereby it sends undergraduate theology students to be trained by the Presbyterian Church’s ministry training college in Belfast,

The university said this was due to “concerns regarding the breadth and diversity of the teaching and curriculum being delivered” at Union Theological College (UTC). The findings were made as part of a surprise review, announced in June, only days after Presbyterian elders from across the island voted overwhelmingly to adopt a highly controversial policy which excludes anyone in a same sex relationship from full membership.

However the DUP has now stepped into the row. “The decision by Queen’s University to suspend undergraduate programmes in Theology, which were delivered through Union Theological College, has resulted in concern, anger and confusion,” DUP MLAs Christopher Stalford and Gordon Lyons told the News Letter.

The MLAs said school leavers will now no longer be able to study a non-vocational theology degree anywhere in NI and that QUB’s motivations “are vague, unsubstantiated and strongly disputed by the college”.

In response QUB said only that it has now “requested a meeting with Mr Stalford to clarify the university’s position”.

The proactive response by QUB marks an apparently significant departure in its transparency on the matter, having refused to answer any News Letter questions since the decision emerged on 18 December - and having also refused to release the critical report to the college itself.

The MLAs added: “Union scores well by any academic benchmarks. Reports from external examiners, Union’s place in league tables, and high student satisfaction are all indicative of the solid education that the college provides and one that any educational institution would be proud of.

“It begs the question as to why the University has made this decision. It is even more puzzling considering that a Review of Theology at Queen’s had already taken place in 2016. As a result of that, the College developed a new undergraduate degree programme...however, this was in place no time at all till the University announced another review in July 2018. Why was this the case? What was the catalyst for it? What happened in the weeks leading up to that decision? It seems highly irregular that another review would be initiated before the new curriculum was given time to be evaluated.”

They added: “Many people will come to the conclusion that the University would simply prefer not to have any links with the College because it is a Presbyterian college, regardless of the quality of the courses, its teaching or the education its provides. This is despite the fact that QUB is by no means unique, as other Russell Group universities work in partnership with denominational colleges, as do Oxford and Cambridge.”

A source close to QUB said: “It could be that QUB has been so quick to seek a meeting with the DUP because the party has traditionally held the university’s purse strings by controlling the Department for the Economy at Stormont.”

Meanwhile, two students of UTC have gone public to praise their institution.

Just before Christmas, the university has put on hold an arrangement whereby it sends its undergraduates to the college for theological degrees, after a surprise review announced in June.

After the news broke, theology undergraduate Anna Cubitt contacted the News Letter, saying she was “extremely saddened by the University’s decision concerning Union Theological College”.

She added: “As a current student I believe that Queens university has completely ignored any positive influences the college has upon the students it comes into contact with. It deals will all types of students, from all walks of life and faith backgrounds, being totally inclusive to all.

“As a student with mental health issues I can honestly say that union college has been extremely good to me and encouraged me academically, in order to achieve my best.

“It seems to me that the only problem here in the endeavours of liberal students union, which seems to give everyone a voice except the Christian.

“By taking this action QUB are in fact not being inclusive to all, certainly least the Christians in attendance. The staff at Union are of the highest calibre and you would be foolish to dismiss them.”

Postgraduate UTC student N James O’Neill contacted the News Letter to take issue with “misinformation”.

He noted that last month it was reported that an external watchdog had found that academic standards at UTC were “at risk”. However UTC responded that the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) report only applied to non-degree courses and that the feedback was part of a voluntary process by the college to gain independent accreditation for the courses.

Mr O’Neill said he found that the QAA report “has possibly not been interpreted as it ought” by the media.

He added: “Standards within the undergraduate programme, which is awarded by QUB and taught by Union, were found to be of satisfactory standard.” The non-degree courses run by the college were “found to lack the paper trail required for their department meetings” but this was “a minor issue” which can be easily improved, he said.

“I also find it strange that the college has been accused of not fostering a supportive and open environment. Student satisfaction rates in the college have been found to be far higher that average. The student community is made up of a whole range of backgrounds, including Roman Catholic and atheist. I know that these students feel very much at home there. They feel that they can openly share their beliefs and interact with others. It’s a helpful environment for students to encounter other beliefs.

“Overall, I find that the reporting of this situation has been filled with a lot of misinformation.”