Belfast Telegraph

Church faces £250k shortfall over loss of QUB fees for college

The Presbyterian-run Union Theological College
The Presbyterian-run Union Theological College
Alf McCreary

By Alf McCreary

The Presbyterian Church in Ireland faces a projected shortfall of a quater-of-a-million pounds by 2022 if no new income is found to make up for the loss of student fees due to Queen's University severing of ties with Union Theological College.

The university officially notified the Presbyterian-run college in April of its decision to separate after some 90 years following two critical reviews.

The decision by Queen's to break its ties means that the university will no longer award theology undergraduate degrees or postgraduate courses after the current students finish their courses.

It is set to be one of the main issues discussed at the Church's annual General Assembly, which starts on Monday.

The Church's clerk of the General Assembly Rev Trevor Gribben said yesterday: "While the financial impact on Union College following Queen's decision to no longer admit students to study theology is significant, it is far from the very high figures quoted in certain media reports.

"However, if no changes are made and no new income streams sourced, the projected shortfall may be £250,000 by 2022.

"In the next few years it will be significantly less, during which time steps will obviously have to be taken to balance the books."

Mr Gribben told the Belfast Telegraph the Church was "disappointed" at the way the decision was made by Queen's.

"We don't think it had to be that way," he added.

"While the college is in transition to its new and potentially exciting future, important decisions will have to be taken at the 2020 General Assembly.

"We can't let the college grind to a halt and start again, so in the short-term the Church will have to meet the costs in the next year. In the 2019 calendar year the shortfall will be £48,000. In 2020 the shortfall will be £112,000, rising to £250,000 in 2022 if no changes are made or new income sourced."

The Church says it is very unlikely that there will be a levy on individual congregations to pay for the shortfall.

Union College will continue to teach theology to finish the courses of the QUB students already enlisted.

They include 68 in the academic year 2019-20, and 30 in 2020-2021. Around 70% of the fees for students studying theology at Queen's goes to UTC.

Meanwhile, the General Assembly will be asked to reopen discussion on last year's controversial decision to ban the Scottish and Irish Moderator's annual exchange visits.

The Church here took this decision because of the Scots' more liberal attitude to same-sex issues. This caused hurt among members in Ireland who regard the Church of Scotland as their 'Mother Church', as it brought Presbyterianism to Ireland in the 17th century.

If the request for a debate is allowed it may not take place until 2020, due to the slow procedural framework of the Church.

Rev Gribben said yesterday: "Some may feel that there should be a new debate, but others may argue that having debated this in the past few years and having made a decision, they do not want to return to the issue at this time."

The General Assembly will also be told that steps are being taken to consider the pastoral implications of issuing statements on theology, including last year's report which confirmed the policy of not granting full Church membership to LGBT people and not baptising their children.

Rev Gribben added: "I regret the deep hurt caused. Some of this came from the decision itself, but we have also learned that the Church needs to set out its theological decisions in a pastoral setting.

"The group producing last year's report was not required to deal with the pastoral setting, and it was aware that in this area the report was somewhat lacking."

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