Belfast's St Mary's and Stranmillis teacher training colleges in fight for survival
The future of two small university colleges which specialise in teacher training has been thrown into doubt following the announcement of an intention to remove a unique grant.
Our current system of teacher training - which is spread across five different institutions - was found last year to be unsustainable following a review. St Mary's University College and Stranmillis University College each receive a "premia" grant of around £1.1m per year.
Queen's University and the Ulster University also train teachers, as does the Open University, which is set to stop after next year.
Employment and Learning Minister Stephen Farry plans to remove these premia payments as he struggles to find £62m of savings in his department. This is on top of the 3.95% cut in 2014-15 and the proposed 10.8% cut in 2015-16 that all higher education institutions will face.
Chairman of the DEL committee Robin Swann warned that the removal of the payment could "sound the death-knell for St Mary's and Stranmillis".
However, speaking in the Assembly, Mr Farry said he did "not assume that it means the closure of St Mary's".
A campaign has already been started to save St Mary's by its students, with more than 4,000 people signing an online petition and a rally set to take place today.
Principal of St Mary's, Professor Peter Finn, explained that the premia payment was introduced by former DEL Minister Reg Empey in 2008.
It was in line with a number of colleges in England and Wales, which received an extra payment in recognition of being small and specialist. It was withdrawn for teacher training colleges in England and Wales, but Mr Finn pointed out those institutions did not have caps on their enrolment numbers and charged students fees of up to £9,000 - almost three times what Northern Ireland institutions charge.
"In our situation, where we cannot increase tuition fees and we cannot increase our student numbers, it is entirely legitimate why those premia should be paid," he told the Belfast Telegraph.
Mr Finn added that he believed this funding cut was the minister's attempt to force the streamlining of the teacher training infrastructure. He said St Mary's "must retain its autonomy".
In a statement, the governing body of Stranmillis said it was concerned about the serious implications surrounding the removal of the premia funding, and said it was seeking clarification from the department in relation to final decisions on the budget.
A DEL spokesman defended the cut of the premia payments, saying that any reconsideration would instead entail cuts to front line services, and emphasised it was "still facing a very difficult situation".
Story so far
Teacher training in Northern Ireland is currently provided by five institutions. They are Stranmillis University College, St Mary's University College, Queen's University, Ulster University and the Open University.
A review of the system carried out by the Department for Employment and Learning found that it was unsustainable, and proposed four options to streamline it.