Paul Maskey: We need to save St Mary’s from unfair cuts and a disinterested minister

Following the announcement of recent cuts to higher education and the threat of closure for St Mary’s College, the Sinn Fein MP for West Belfast, Paul Maskey writes for Slugger about why we need to save the college from what he calls discriminatory cuts, from a disinterested minister

St Mary’s College is facing closure and it has to be saved. Sinn Féin is committed to saving it.

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.

This premia is 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% cut on Queens and Ulster Universities and FE Colleges. He imposed this cut on St Mary’s as well. Add to this the cutting of the premia this means St Mary’s is now facing a 30% cut in its annual budget. No other educational institution (except Stranmillis) is facing such a savage cut.

This is discrimination against St Mary’s. At the meeting I found the minister uncaring and indifferent to the consequences of his actions in withdrawing the premia.

He showed little interest when I pointed out to him that unless he withdrew his threat to withdraw the premia St Mary’s faced imminent closure.

In fact he showed even less interest when 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.

I 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 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 it on a secure and solid foundation for the next 100 years.”

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  • aber1991

    Why should Catholics have to pay more tax in order to be safe from Protestants?

  • cimota

    I was insulted and assaulted at the CCMS I went to. And I was raised as a catholic.

    But then I was also insulted and assaulted by lads from Laurelhill High. I don’t resent them now and, truth be told, some of them are on my FB now because we have more in common than not. I don’t give a damn if they’re protestant or Buddhist, practicing or lapsed because really this stuff doesn’t matter.

    Bottom line is that kids can be wee beggers. But it’s worse when we segregate because we kindle the fires of “themmuns” that eventually turns into bitterness and hatred.

    Yes, I resented the lads from the Protestant high school but then I resented some of my classmates too. And despite being taught Irish history by a SF man who was lifted during my third year, I think I turned out remarkably balanced.

    On neither count did I take it as a wound to my heart and vow “Never!” because that would be immature.

  • cimota

    Well SF surely held the 20,000 public sector redundancies at bay.

  • cimota

    Who do I see about getting my powers?

    Is it useful stuff like flight or telepathy? Or just useless crap like turning bread into flesh?

    (And yes, this power thing is ridiculous.)

  • Zeno

    Most of the Teachers in Catholic Schools are not “practicing Catholics”. And I do know plenty of them before you ask.

  • Kevin Breslin

    Well there are Protestant science teachers in Catholic schools, in Archbishop’s former school no less. No doubt there’s loading the other way too with the certificate.

  • aber1991

    “I doubt that can be guaranteed in any school.”

    I suspect that you are correct. That is why we need to keep Catholic schools as sanctuaries for the children of Catholics.

  • cimota

    That’s mental, that is. Mental.

  • Deke Thornton

    Developers would pay a premium for Stranmillis, for premium housing and offices, with the large gardens intact. Much of it lies empty at present. St Mary’s-with a tiny undergraduate number- would be oversubscribed for social and private housing. Both institutions have very few students that would easily be accommodated at QUB and the OU. Teacher training for declining numbers of pupils? Many schools are undersubscribed. We need fewer teachers and more FE students. Them’s the facts.

  • Kevin Breslin

    Of course there is a big difference and not one of the above was even covered by the GCSE Information Systems of 5-7 years ago nor the A Level.

    Computer Science was removed from GCSE in the 1980s to 1990s, as it was believed North Americans in Silicon Valley like Microsoft was going to provide us with all the goods, any additional programming could be done by software engineers on Visual Basic on their laptops because that’s how technology is going to remain like forever, just with more transistors per chip as the years move on. Now we’re going back to the 70’s of course a whole generation of teachers don’t have Computer Science skills. ICT qualification of 10 years ago was effectively a manual on Microsoft Windows with a bit of Data protection law and some basic facts about the Internet and E-mail. You’d learn as much about SQL or C++ in GCSE Art class as you would in GCSE ICT.

    As for computing languages 80’s to 90’s they were the sole preserve of software engineering and computer science, maybe Fortran in some of the more physical engineering disciplines and Autocad for designers and HTML, Java, Flash for web designers were pretty much the main focus of computing not App design. Now big software companies want mathematicians who can code or software engineers who can do high level maths, such is the demand in their market one mathematician and one coder working in a team isn’t good enough for them, they need the polymath.

    Mathematicians like von Neumann invented Computer Science. It’s technically a form of applied mathematics. If Von Neumann is good enough to teach computer scientist, a maths or physics teacher could probably do too.

    And in the UK curriculum such is the commitment to STEM, that Science it seems isn’t even going to be a core subject but ICT is, probably the Microsoft manual version. Knowledge about energy, matter and life has been relegated to being optional. Natural Science is going the way of Computer Science in the 90’s and 80’s as a missing link, as a specialist research subject.

    So yes this generation teachers are having to fill the computer science missing link, but I fear for the next generation who might have computer science, might have good maths skills but don’t know how transitors or sensors work, how to make them or how their brains are able to think of how to use them.

    GSCE ICT was all about Applications

  • gmd

    Politicans signed a Petition (38 MLA’s) to refer the decision made by Sinn Fein education Minister regarding the closure of two top Grammar Schools in N.Ireland last week (Collegiate & Portora). SF speaker Mitchel Mc Laughlin refused to hand the decision back to the executive as the matter was not of “Public Importance in N.Ireland”. The way this was handled was an absolute disgrace and they should be ashamed of themselves for setting out to destroy Grammar School Education in N.ireland. And to be honest, I am going to take the exact same stance with St Marys University (I even studied there). But going by recent events surely he would say it is “Not be a matter of public importance”. Then again…..

  • barnshee

    ” You’d learn as much about SQL or C++ in GCSE Art class as you would in GCSE ICT.”


  • Kevin Breslin

    To your last remark, I really don’t think cutting the prima or even changing the identity of St Mary’s will go anywhere near tackling segregation, particularly socioeconomic segregation by effectively closing down the college in a working class area at the expense of investment in the middle class one. “God-bothering pedagogues” from the middle classes can still take their pick of places to get a PGCE, but many people in West Belfast wish to remain in that community.

    Even atheists in the working class areas of West Belfast have disconnected people from North Down accusing them effectively of being sectarian scum for going to the nearest college in their area. They are not afraid of paying the Catholic thing lip-service to get a teaching qualification.

    We get segregation closing St. Mary’s it’s good old fashioned class segregation. If the Catholic church is supplementing the college and the state is not, it just shows that the middle class pipers of the state are calling the shots. These members are not “working class-bothering pedagogue” just because they have issues with Catholic schools, which were ultimately set up in England, (which were then imported into Ireland) to teach pupils who were being excluded from schools “still adhering to an educational blueprint devised during the industrial revolution” in the first place

    I’ll deal with the tangent next –

    I think it’s harsh to criticize Galvani of all people as being sloppy or worse yet a fable, even if he was sloppy, his records leave a legacy of all those experiments and accidents that mean future generations no longer have to repeat them. From Galvani you get a clear recorded link between the magnetic and electricity, you could argue others have done it before, but science rewards the historians … that’s why Newton can stand on other’s shoulders, he was the one who took notes and the one who ultimately taught.

    You mention the ICT sector doesn’t need physiologists, I would argue differently, if we are going to develop things humans are going to use, particularly things like e.g. wearable sensors and healthcare applications … or something at the advanced end like AI, or robotics, or self-repair, parallel processed sensors and motors in other words if we want machines that have our biological advantages (e.g. the von Neumann machine) we need to look inside ourselves in our carbon world as well as the silicon world of condensed matter theory and their associated Atomic, molecular, and optical physics of that element. There’s a lot software can’t do that our own “wetware” brain and nervous system can.

    So doctors, medics, biologists … anyone who knows about the biological form is useful not just to ICT, but also to the physicist because there are still many unknowns about how the laws of physics work in our body e.g. the quantum physics of olfactory. Engineering is working with what you have, so if there are too many doctors, medics, biologists or teachers… you certainly can steer them to the ICT sector, regardless of their background.

  • cimota

    We have a surplus of teachers. We even have a surplus of physiologists and biologists and physiotherapists.

    We don’t have a surplus of ICT workers. Quite the opposite.

    But by all means support the development of an even greater surplus of teachers and wail about oppression or whatever.

    I don’t care if one of the colleges has to close. They’re both a couple of miles from the City centre but Stranmillis is heaps more accessible on the roads network. If the only reasons to keep St Mary’s are “its in West Belfast” or “its 100 years old” or “ARE KULTCHUR” then I’ve less than zero sympathy.

    It wouldn’t do any harm for people in the East, West and North to have to leave their communities once in a while.

  • Kevin Breslin

    Let me talk about the ICT workers.

    In Northern Ireland there is really three tricks the DEL minister is trying … 1. Double the number of computer scientists from 4.5% to 9% of all undergrads, 2. Use F.E. to pick up the slack with regards to skills. 3. upskilling programs that nationalise the risk of local industry.

    In the Republic of Ireland, Scotland and England where there is a bigger knowledge economies they take a more free-market multidisciplinary approach, including these 3 tricks too-

    A) physical sciences, mathematics and engineering are also heavily promoted, not just computer science.

    B) STEM skills are not merely confined and focused to STEM subjects and careers.

    C) STEM awareness and potential is encouraged in wider society, not just careers that use STEM.

    The NI model focuses soley on the designer ICT graduate and nothing else. ICT becomes a labour boom market just like teaching.

    The ROI model creates the designer ICT graduate, but also encourages the physical science and engineering research that can adapt to changing paradymes the computer scientists miss.

    They also encourage highly skilled financiers, insurers, economists, business leaders and even taxmen who benefit from the STEM skills they learn.

    And finally due to greater STEM awareness a “STEM laeity” who may not have the skills (academic or vocational) can help to enable the business, knowledge and labour networks through things like fundraising, hosting discussion groups building communication channels.

    When was the last time BBC Northern Ireland made a science program?
    Only one I saw was in the Irish language “Bhí Eolas Ár…”

    Most importantly businesses who want to build their ICT skills but do not come from an ICT background can build objective strategies where they realise not every ICT problem can be fixed by a computer scientist, not every practical skill is developed because someone took a vocational computer programming course

  • cimota

    Hang on, the Republic of Ireland and the rest of the UK has invested heavily in ICT-based STEM education – far from the free-market approach you describe. This includes but is not limited to investments (in UK) for Apps4Good and CodeClub.

    The other STEM subjects do get better coverage in GB but this is mainly because they have the companies to employ them. That said, you want to tell QUB they’re not doing physical sciences, engineering and mathematics on a world stage?

    Of course, some would believe that NI does everything wrong. What we did wrong in FE could be described as the nervous nothingness of 1999-2002 (masterminded by the SDLP) and then five years of headless arm waving as there was no minister. While we should have been aggressively promoting ICT careers, we just didn’t. Now we are playing catch-up.

    “Designer ICT grad”? – Poppycock. I can say confidently the difference between the ICT labour market in NI and ROI is in the percentage of foreign workers (e.g. Google Dublin has 70% non-native workers). NI isn’t great for immigrants because, frankly, we act loathsome to our own people and even worse to foreigners.

    The dangers of not training enough software engineers can be seen in the number of people who are changing disciplines from teaching or psychology or geography to something there are actually jobs in. We have an opportunity (due to the low cost of entry) to excel further in ICT; we already pull our own weight in FDI, we need more grads to help our indigenous companies too.

    Now…I would agree that there needs to be more focus on Maths. I counted three items in your list of two tricks the DEL minister is trying. That deficiency can be remedied through Essential Skills programmes at your local FE college.

  • Kevin Breslin

    What you haven’t grasped here is that there is a clear distinction between the skills at university and the roll out into the commercial sector, I believe it was David Willets who said “the UK is good at science, it is not good at using science” and this distance between the skill set and commercialisation is not something that is addressed by simply having more Software Engineers technically trained, there is clearly some difficulties in a sector which has developed so rapidly.

    There were plenty of business people demanding more computer programmers in 1999, many HNDs in C based programming but a highly indigenous software market didn’t have the capital and the “killer aps” to make the market. Managing skills, Business skills and Design skills may’ve been absent. There are a lot more links in the supply chain than the technical side. Programmers are not gods, and I think begging for more software engineers does not tackle the whole issue.

  • cimota

    And we should respond to this by training more teachers?

    We have never had enough programmers. Not once in the last 20 years.

    We currently train more teachers than we need.

    What part of this is hard?

  • Kevin Breslin

    You claimed there was a gap in FE training during the “nervous nothingness” period, but there were HNDs in the C skills needed for the market back there, many of these skills are fairly redundant now since twenty different programming languages for various portable hardwares have entered the market.

    There’s always going to be a lack of ICT skills, there’s always going to be programming deficiencies, I have worked in software programming facilities and there is always going to be training, self education and a staff who continuously has to learn to research on the job. How would knowing C translate to being able to develop a mobile app in Ice Cream Sandwich or some other medium

    Silicon Valley lacks an ICT skill it has to develop it, if a programmer doesn’t have the coding skill it needs to learn it, but if you lack programmers you need people who are willing to go through the torment.

    Nothing Farry does addresses willpower or character needed to be a programmer earning the minimum wage in a small to medium enterprise dedicating a long unknown amount of hours to ensure your work is 100% correct and relevant so it compiles correctly and is useful for the market.

    We do need teachers, people need to be their own teacher … If a PGCE or a PhD helps that then fair play.

  • cimota

    Training programmers is more than just teaching someone C. A programmer can learn any language in theory so someone who can be a programmer in C can retrain in the Java-like Android IDEs. That said: they pay be better off updating to C# or even just sticking with C (As there is demand for C too). We have never managed to fulfil the demand for software professionals.

    Twenty different languages for mobile platforms? Uh-huh. Who told you that?

    “Shrinkage” in the industry (due to people retiring, dying or just leaving Northern Ireland) is sufficiently large that our companies are restrained in their growth.

    And there are programmers earning minimum wage? Um, no. If they are, they’re doing it by choice. Starting salary for grads in Bangor (not even Belfast) is 50% higher than the regional average wage (and almost double the regional average for the private sector).

    I’ve never said we don’t need teachers. But in 2013 had 300 teaching graduates last year who couldn’t find a job. And we have dozens now retraining into other disciplines. And to drag this back on topic, the solution would be to restrict the number of teachers that go through both teacher training colleges which, prima or not, could force them to merge or one to close anyway.