Press Release DEL Review

21 May 2013

The position of St Mary’s University College on the Grant Thornton Report of Teacher Education Infrastructure in Northern Ireland

The Principal of the College, Professor Peter Finn said:

St Mary’s has a very distinctive mission. Its work is grounded in the world-wide Catholic intellectual tradition of higher education and it promotes a Catholic philosophy and anthropology through the pursuit of excellence in learning and teaching. The College will guard and protect its ethos and identity, as well as its place as an integral element of the Catholic education sector.

It is my understanding that the responsibility for securing the provision of facilities for the initial or further training of teachers rests with the Minister of Education, John O’Dowd MLA.

St Mary’s University College has a coherent and well-thought-out strategy for ensuring its long-term future as a highly successful autonomous institution of higher education located on the Falls Road in West Belfast. The success of St Mary’s is apparent in excellent academic standards, extremely high application rates for its courses, student satisfaction rates amongst the highest in these islands and a commitment to opening up higher education to students from less well-off families, which is unquestioned. The College is also a centre of excellence for Irish Medium Education. This involves both teacher education and the production of learning materials for schools.

Grant Thornton have produced a lengthy report and it is full of factual detail. Rushed judgements should not be made, it needs to be studied carefully. The facts have to be contextualised and understood from a variety of perspectives. Empirical evidence is rarely value free. I would urge interested parties to read the entire report which actually confirms much of the St Mary’s analysis of its financial position and its sustainability.

The Director of Finance at the College and I have considered the main findings of the report under five headings.

1. Funding

College funding for ITE, at £9,351 per student, compares favourably with the £9,000 fees which can be charged by English intuitions particularly when the quality of provision at St Mary’s is taken into account.

The funding comparisons quoted in the report are already ‘redundant’ according to Grant Thornton.

The report also confirms that the use of funding premia, which some appear to take exception to, is an accepted element of the previous HEFCE (Higher Education Funding Council for England) funding model upon which the DEL funding model, introduced in 2008 by Sir Reg Empy, is based.

‘Premia have been applied on the basis of HEFCE guidelines...’

Grant Thornton Report

2. Costs

The limitations regarding cost data reported by Grant Thornton mean that the findings are inconclusive.

‘In looking at the cost of delivery, a number of limitations arose making comparison difficult.’

‘These limitations are similar to those identified in other attempted costing studies including the Osler report in 2005.'

Grant Thornton Report

The Report acknowledges that the College has put detailed plans in place to address these cost issues.

3. Teacher Demand

The demographic forecasts used in the report suggest increasing demand for teachers in the medium term. The report argues that the supply of graduates cannot be controlled. The report also notes that reducing student intakes simply diverts students to GB providers.

‘Student population is expected to increase in the primary sector by 11% to 2017/18 and decrease in the secondary sector by 5% in the same period. Clearly, increased primary sector numbers will feed into secondary figures in later years.’

‘…that if places aren’t available in NI, students will apply in GB and then return to the NI labour market.’

‘…it is difficult to control the supply of teachers in the market through intake numbers.’

Grant Thornton Report

4. Value for Money

The College’s 2012/13 funding per student compares favourably to the English fees level of £9,000 and is justified by the quality of the Colleges provision.

‘There is evidence to suggest that quality of ITE provision within Northern Ireland is of a high standard…’

‘… it is difficult to provide definitive conclusions in respect of whether the current system of teacher education in Northern Ireland offers best value for money.’

‘ITE is funded at a higher cost than other areas of the UK but appears to be delivering a quality output.’

‘Whether this quality is deemed value for the additional funding provided particularly given the perceived oversupply of teachers is open for debate and needs to be considered by policy makers.’

Grant Thornton Report

5. Financial Stability and Long Term Sustainability

The report confirms the St Mary’s analysis that given a supportive government policy context in the North the College is sustainable in the long term.

In reviewing current financial stability Grant Thornton state that:

‘St Mary’s is financially stable…’

Grant Thornton Report

The report confirms that base case projections indicate that St Mary’s will remain solvent for at least ten years.

The sensitivity analysis carried out by Grant Thornton centres on assuming that the Minister for Employment and Learning, Dr Stephen Farry MLA, would deliberately take action to undermine the financial viability of the Colleges. It is self-evidently true to point out that St Mary’s would not be viable if the Minister took deliberate action which would make it unviable.

The other sensitivities examined are based on imagined actions by the Education Minister. There is no suggestion that John O’Dowd MLA has any plans to take any action which might undermine the viability of St Mary’s. According to the Report a key policy driver for his Department when considering intake numbers for initial teacher education for example is the ’..need to maintain capacity for ITE providers …’.

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