Belfast Telegraph

QUB freeze on new theology students after review

Review: Union Theological College in Belfast
Review: Union Theological College in Belfast
Allan Preston

By Allan Preston

Queen's University Belfast has said it won't be accepting new students to the "highly problematic" Presbyterian-run Union Theological College (UTC) in 2019.

A review by a panel of senior academics at Queen's University has raised concerns about the diversity of teaching available.

The Belfast college admits around 150 theology students each year, with some training for ministry in the Presbyterian Church.

The BBC reported that the review found the current undergraduate theology course covered a diverse subject matter, but was taught "entirely from a particular theological and religious perspective" and that teaching staff were male and "predominantly from a Presbyterian background".

The report added that admission to undergraduate programmes would be suspended as a single denomination providing all undergraduate theology provision was "highly problematic and not sustainable in today's post-conflict Northern Ireland".

The College was also accused of having no plan to address the lack of full-time female teaching staff and diversity in staffing and curriculum.

The decision will affect new undergraduate students due to begin their studies in 2019, but current students will be permitted to continue.

Queen's University has said it will consider how this will affect Union College's future and that it will help those who have applied to study in 2019 find alternative courses.

A spokesperson for UTC called the review findings "very speculative and totally unsubstantiated".

"We very much regret and are disappointed by the decision taken," they said.

They said suggesting that students had not been exposed to a breadth of theological perspectives contradicted reports from external examiners in theology for many years.

The spokesperson added it was not by choice that Union College had become the sole provider of undergraduate degree programmes after three other theological colleges - the Methodist Edgehill College, Irish Baptist College and Belfast Bible College - no longer offered courses.

"As to why Northern Ireland's three other theological colleges found themselves unable to work with Queen's University is, of course, an open question," they said.

"Is the real issue that there is no place for a Christian college linked to the Queen's University of today?"

DUP MLA Christopher Stalford voiced his support on Twitter. "Union is a fine college which has produced many great thinkers, preachers and lecturers. This is Queen's loss," he said.

The latest decision follows a previous review in 2016 which raised similar issues. It's believed a key factor in the latest review was a decision to suspend a theology professor for comments in the media.

Laurence Kirkpatrick had described Union College as an "exclusively Presbyterian male teaching faculty," and that: "I'd be broken-hearted if anyone said I'd been bigoted against a Catholic or gay student."

His comments followed a controversial decision by the Presbyterian General Assembly to deny anyone in a same-sex relationship to be a full communicant member of the Church or have their children baptised.

A spokesman for Queen's said, that following the review, the university had concerns regarding "the breadth and diversity" of the teaching and curriculum being delivered. 

"The University has taken the decision to suspend entry to all undergraduate programmes for the forthcoming 2019-20 academic year," he said.

"The University is now considering the implications of the review for the longer term future of Theology provision through the University’s Institute and the associated programmes. This requires comprehensive engagement with relevant stakeholders, including Union Theological College, which is now underway.

"The University is committed to ensuring that issues raised by the review will be addressed and its priority is to continue to support students who have already begun their course.

"Prospective students that have already applied for 2019-20 entry to affected programmes are being contacted and will be supported to find suitable alternatives," said the spokesman.

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