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Belfast Metropolitan College

Employment And Learning – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 3:00 pm on 2nd November 2009.

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Photo of Michelle McIlveen Michelle McIlveen DUP 3:00 pm, 2nd November 2009

1. asked the Minister for Employment and Learning why the efficiency review of the Belfast Metropolitan College has not been published. (AQO 289/10)

Photo of Reg Empey Reg Empey UUP

The efficiency review of the Belfast Metropolitan College has not yet been published because the consultants are making a number of final amendments to the draft report to ensure that their findings and recommendations are valid, complete and accurate. When the final version has been received, the report will be published on my Department’s website.

Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker

Before calling Michelle McIlveen to ask a supplementary question, I warn Members who try to speak from a seated position that they should not do so. During questions to the Minister of Education, Members continually tried to speak from a sedentary position.

Photo of Michelle McIlveen Michelle McIlveen DUP

In light of the problems surrounding the review, in the absence of key permanent staff such as a chairperson, chief executive, financial director and assistant financial director and following the Department’s decision to withdraw a substantial amount of funding from the college, will the Minister consider a full reassessment of major capital projects for the college, particularly given that the previous viability assessment for such projects was based on information that was gathered in 2004?

Photo of Reg Empey Reg Empey UUP

The Department is reviewing the capital programmes for all colleges, because, in recent years, there has been a substantial building programme. We react to estate plans from each college and determine what we can fund. Of course, colleges fund some projects from their own resources. The Member will be aware that a recent PAC report stated that all colleges should hold 10% of their funds in reserve.

Money has not been evenly spread among colleges because the new colleges are an amalgamation of various former colleges. My Department has drawn up a proposal to reduce the surpluses. That process has already started and will be completed by next year. In effect, we have put in place plans to bring the colleges’ surpluses down to within 10%. As a result, Belfast Metropolitan College has commissioned a major new campus in the Titanic Quarter on which work has already started. The new campus is designed to replace two existing ones, at College Square North and at Brunswick Street, and that is an exciting proposal.

The Member will be aware that other estate issues in the Belfast area have yet to be resolved, and I am happy to make her aware of any proposals that the college makes to me in respect of those.

Photo of Paul Maskey Paul Maskey Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Has Belfast Metropolitan College brought forward any proposals or have departmental officials had any discussions with the college on the downgrading of courses or classes at any other Belfast campus?

Photo of Reg Empey Reg Empey UUP

There is, perhaps, a misunderstanding among colleagues about the Department’s role in such issues. The colleges determine which courses they will run. Each year, the Department approves funding for annual college development plans, but it does not dictate to each college which courses to run and where. Nevertheless, the Department sets certain policy targets and objectives, and it asks the colleges to implement them. If the Member has issues with specific courses at specific locations — he would not be in a unique position because other Members have written to me about such problems — he should bring them to my attention, and I will ensure that he receives a prompt and accurate reply.

Photo of Dolores Kelly Dolores Kelly Social Democratic and Labour Party

Will the Minister outline the institution’s financial health?

Photo of Reg Empey Reg Empey UUP

One purpose of the review was to address issues concerning the college’s finances. Under the regulations, the Department was able to send people into the college to examine its finances. The Member will be aware that the chief executive who was in place in the immediate past was ill for quite a long time during a period of major change. That was in addition to other issues. I am pleased to say that a new chief executive is in post. I pay tribute to Raymond Mullan who acted up in recent months and took on a very difficult job last year. I put on record my appreciation of his work.

The steps that are being taken will ensure the financial success of the college. One of our responsibilities is to ensure that each college is successful financially. Measures are put in place, and we monitor the situation. The boards of individual colleges also have a responsibility in that respect. The chief executive of each college is an accounting officer, as is the permanent secretary of my Department. The chief executives are the accounting officers for the funds that my Department provides to colleges. That link exists, and, where we consider that there are difficulties, we can intervene, as we did in that case. I hope that that intervention will prove successful. As I said to the Member for Strangford earlier, the report will be published on the Department’s website as soon as those other issues are resolved.