St Mary’s University College: Ministerial Crusade

Oral Answers to Questions — Employment and Learning – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 3:15 pm on 9th February 2015.

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Photo of Cathal Ó hOisín Cathal Ó hOisín Sinn Féin 3:15 pm, 9th February 2015

T1. Mr Ó hOisín asked the Minister for Employment and Learning, given his continuing crusade against St Mary’s University College, resulting in his cutting its premia, how he intends to protect its excellent work in promoting Irish-medium education. (AQT 2071/11-15)

Photo of Stephen Farry Stephen Farry Alliance

Let me be clear at the outset: there is no crusade against St Mary's University College, although, at times, if you listen to comments from the college and other political parties, there is perhaps a crusade against me in all of this. We have to recognise that the system we have at present is not working or delivering. It is very much an artificial system, where we subsidise our teacher training, whether through an artificial figure of teachers to be trained, the premia or the expansion into non-initial teacher education (ITE) subjects. We are doing more and more to prop up a system that is not sustainable in its own right.

That is why it is important that we consider reform, in the context of which we can put in place a range of models that can ensure that we protect issues around ethos, including how we can train teachers for the Irish-medium sector. We have seen how reforms have taken place successfully in Glasgow, and more recently — from September — in Dublin. In the case of Dublin, we see a Catholic institution, with a history longer than St Mary's, and a Church of Ireland institution with a history longer than either, coming together with Dublin City University to create a new approach to teacher training in the city. That is happening with the support of the Catholic hierarchy, and issues around ethos can be accommodated within a shared and inclusive environment. That applies to both the Church of Ireland and Catholic Church ethos in teacher training in the Catholic maintained system. That begs this question: if something can be done successfully in Glasgow and Dublin, why is Northern Ireland insisting that it is so different?

Photo of Cathal Ó hOisín Cathal Ó hOisín Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as ucht an fhreagra sin. I thank the Minister for his answer. Can he assure me that, contrary to what he has intimated, should the Executive decide to reinstate the premia for St Mary's and Stranmillis, he will stand over and implement such a decision?

Photo of Stephen Farry Stephen Farry Alliance

The Member knows well that, as a Minister, I am bound by the ministerial code and that, where a decision is taken by the Executive, that decision will be respected. However, that is not going to prevent me from ensuring that I continue to highlight the importance of prioritising skills in our economy. It is not going to stop me from talking about and continuing to promote the importance of a shared future.

The Member talks about the importance of protecting the Irish culture. I took the opportunity to invite some of the protestors who were at Parliament Buildings a couple of weeks ago to talk to me about teacher education and what was so important about it that they were trying to protect. I was quite shocked by some of the things that I heard. First, people said that they did not feel safe celebrating their Irish culture outside the context of St Mary's. In terms of what we hear, particularly from unionist Benches, over our universities and the perception — false in my view — about the Gaelic culture in universities, I found that an incredibly strange and narrow approach to take.

I also heard people say that they did not see the need to engage in sharing. They were quite happy, having gone to a Catholic primary school and a Catholic secondary school, to go to a Catholic-based third-level education system, because they would be going on to teach in a Catholic secondary school or Catholic primary school when they qualify, so why did they need to mix with anyone else in society? In the 21st century, when we are trying to build a shared future, I find those attitudes to be utterly shocking.