The Gown has learned that Queen’s University Belfast will not admit any new undergraduate theology students to Presbyterian-run Union Theological College (UTC) as of 2019. The UTC trains students for the ministry, and also currently educates more than 150 QUB theology students.
The decision to freeze the link between the two institutions has been a long time coming. Back in June, the Presbyterian Church declared that anyone in a same-sex relationship could not be a full member of the Church, sparking outrage inside and outside the Church. Roy Simpson, a former Presbyterian minister, went as far as to argue that Queen’s “should now sever its relationship with the college”. As the UTC is run by the Presbyterian Church, it would be unwise to assume that this attitude would not be at risk of slipping into the daily curriculum and atmosphere amongst the staff and students.
The final nail in the coffin was a substantial ‘university review’ report that took place a few months ago. This report discovered that UTC were not reaching an academic standard deemed acceptable by Queen’s, two of their biggest concerns being aspects of teaching and staffing within the college. The report insinuated that these could have a negative impact on student experience.
Following the report, a panel was brought together to conduct a comprehensive review of the relationship between Queen’s and UTC. We understand that the panel included QUB academics and an objective theologian from another undisclosed university.
The UTC has been accused in the last few months of lacking diversity. This includes within its own staff – female members of the faculty are a rarity – and lacking diversity within its teaching, which is dominated by a conservative Presbyterian ethos. The UTC took measures to address these claims; in September of this year they introduced a new 70%/30% degree ratio – 70% theology, 30% a minor subject – to encourage diversity amongst their student’s academic knowledge, and by making people aware that their staff is small and has a low turnover, thereby explaining the lack of female staff. Regardless of their efforts, Queen’s decision to freeze their link is a massive blow for the UTC.
An anonymous source within Queen’s informed The Gown that students within the UTC have experienced bullying, as well as sectarian and homophobic attitudes from UTC faculty members.
Rev Dr Stafford Carson, Principal of the UTC, responded by claiming that there is “no indication of an issue of a problem – in fact, the opposite!” He went on to explain that the UTC is “very robust” and would “be on that immediately and want to take action”, and that “if there was a mood” on campus they would be “very concerned”. He informed us that the UTC “checks students regularly” through student surveys, academic tutors, and student-led mentorships.
However, it is difficult to ignore our anonymous source as what they have told us is very concerning. The Gown is dedicated to informing students about all aspects of student life within QUB, which until recently included the UTC, so we are extremely troubled by this information.
We are conducting an on-going investigation into these claims and will report any new developments.