WEST Belfast MP Paul Maskey has urged the West Belfast community to support the ‘Save St Mary’s’ campaign as the university college comes under increased threat of closure due to “savage” cuts.
Mr Maskey told the Andersonstown News that following a recent meeting he had with the Department for Employment and Learning (DEL) Minister Stephen Farry, it was his very firm view that St Mary's is facing closure and it has to be saved.
“Sinn Féin is committed to saving it,” he added. “Following a meeting I had last week with Minister Farry it is my very firm view that, unless stopped, he intends to close St Mary’s as a teacher training university college.
“The college faces imminent closure because the Minister intends to withdraw the special premia which St Mary's annually receives. These premia are worth over £1m annually to St Mary's. Due to the Tory government’s cuts to the block grant Minister Farry imposed a 10.8 per cent cut to Queen’s and the Ulster Universities and FE colleges.
“He imposed this cut on St Mary’s as well. Add to this the cutting of the premia and this means St Mary’s is now facing a 30 per cent cut in its annual budget. No other educational institution – except Stranmillis – is facing such a savage cut. This is discrimination against St Mary’s. I reminded him that St Mary's has been on the Falls Road for over 100 years in an area with high levels of deprivation.”
Mr Maskey urged the Minister to “restore the premia immediately” and to begin discussions with St Mary’s Principal Peter Finn on how to secure the college’s future as an autonomous university. “St Mary's will soon launch a ‘Save St Mary’s’ campaign and it will have Sinn Féin's full and unequivocal support. I am urging the people of West Belfast and elsewhere to support this campaign.
“I want to reassure the staff and students and the community of West Belfast that Sinn Féin will use its political power at the Assembly and at the Executive to save St Mary's and put it on a secure and solid foundation for the next 100 years.”
Professor Finn said he is “deeply appreciative” of the work being undertaken by Paul Maskey in support of St Mary’s University College.
“St Mary's has set out a vision for the future of ITE (initial teacher training) provision in Northern Ireland and produced a position paper in support of this. The vision statement, which was agreed by the Board of Governors, is explicit in its support for a system of shared teacher education. Therefore, the autonomy which St Mary's seeks as a Catholic institution is balanced by a sincere commitment to partnership and cooperation within the framework of the evolving shared approach to education, which has been endorsed by the Minister at the Department of Education, John O'Dowd.”
A spokesman for DEL said: “These premia are not paid to teacher training institutions anywhere else in the UK. Removal of the premia that is unique to the university colleges is one of a series of measures that the Department is proposing to take to protect higher education university places and opportunities for young people.”
The spokesman added: “The Department intends to keep in place the premia paid for historical buildings as this relates to the upkeep of the higher education estate and is paid to all higher education institutions across Northern Ireland.”