Fighting to protect Catholic higher education

Prof. Peter Finn defends Catholic education

Martin O’Brien explores the coalface of the fight for Catholic education

The Board of Governors of St Mary’s University College Belfast knew what they were doing when they entrusted to principal, Professor Peter Finn, the task of spearheading their response to the grave threat posed to Catholic teacher education by the Review ordered by Stormont Employment & Learning Minister, Dr Stephen Farry, of the Alliance Party.

The Armagh man is emerging as a passionate and formidable campaigner for St Mary’s, the region’s only Catholic institution of higher education.

Undaunted, Prof. Finn articulates a bold vision of “a world class system of Initial Teacher Education” (or teacher training) in Northern Ireland that “enhances and improves sharing and integration within the sector”.

In early January he launched a pre-emptive strike against the Minister in the North’s nationalist daily newspaper The Irish News.

“Farry ‘on a mission’ to close Catholic university says head” proclaimed a front page lead with a double page inside written by respected education correspondent Simon Doyle.

And readers of The Irish Catholic may recall Cathal Barry’s “Catholic higher education in North under threat – University head” on January 16 (

It was the first the general Catholic and nationalist community knew about Dr Farry’s plans. They should not have been surprised. General integration in education has been a cherished objective of the Alliance Party since it was founded 44 years ago.

No change

Peter Finn says that nothing has materially changed since he went public in January.

Asked if there is “an existential threat” to St Mary’s, a College of Queen’s University, Belfast, he immediately replies: “Yes there is.”

“To his credit,” says Prof. Finn, “Dr Farry has made it clear in the Assembly that he considers the best option to be a single integrated provider of teacher education.

“That is in total conformity with his political ideology.”

From a Catholic viewpoint such an outcome would be bleak: “There would not be St Mary’s, a Catholic provider of teacher education. That would be de facto the end of an autonomous Catholic institution of higher education offering teacher education in the North.”

In St Mary’s Catholic ethos is concretised in a timetable that facilitates a one-hour College Liturgy, Mass at 12noon on Thursdays, Mass on other days at 5.15pm and a Mass of dedication of studies at the beginning of the year and a Mass of thanksgiving at the end.

Prof. Finn (54), married with three children was educated by the Christian Brothers at primary and grammar schools in Armagh and is a Queen’s geography graduate.

“We place enormous emphasis on a form of education that is values based. Those religious values are explicitly from the holy Gospels. We put a primacy on the values of love, respect, human dignity and forgiveness.”

Prof. Finn has been taking St Mary’s case to the politicians at Stormont where under the consociational arrangements of the Good Friday Agreement the DUP and Sinn Féin have a mutual veto on big proposals they don’t like.


But that doesn’t mean that St Mary’s, situated on the Falls Road in west Belfast, is out of the woods.

Peter Finn’s lobbying secured the passing of a motion at the Sinn Féin Ard Fheis in February from the Party’s west Belfast comhairle ceantair calling on Minister Farry to support measures that would ensure St Mary’s “long term sustainability in the heart of west Belfast”.

The SDLP have also been firm supporters of St Mary’s especially West Belfast MLA and Euro candidate Alex Attwood.

Confident in and proud of what he believes St Mary’s is contributing to the common good, Prof. Finn has also been reaching out to the DUP and other unionists.

Prof. Finn and his Board of Governors, chaired by Bishop Noel Treanor, are under no illusion about the nature and depth of the threat.

Forewarned is forearmed and the principal has embarked on a political outreach unprecedented in the college’s history.

“I will lobby the SDLP, I will lobby Sinn Féin, I will lobby my friends in the DUP and I must make it clear I have one very strong advocate in the DUP.”

When asked he says it’s Sammy Douglas MLA for East Belfast who has accepted an invitation to speak at St Mary’s in June.

Prof. Finn explains that Minister Farry’s Review commenced with a study by the accountants Grant Thornton of the various providers of teacher training principally Queen’s, University of Ulster, Stranmillis College and St Mary’s.

Its second stage is an ongoing study by a panel of international experts chaired by a Finn, Dr Pasi Sahlberg who in 2012 recommended cutting the number of initial teacher education centres from 19 to 6 in the Republic.

Sahlberg is due to report later this year paving the way for the minister to engage with the sector over options for change.


Prof. Finn understands that Dr Sahlberg has questioned why the Minister for Education, John O’Dowd of Sinn Féin is not involved in the Review.

He argues that there is a strong case for one minister running the entire education sector.

“It must be wrong that Minister O’Dowd, whose Department sets the rules by which St Mary’s and others operate teacher education, has nothing to do with the Farry Review.

“It is strange that there is a complete disconnect between these two ministers in relation to an area that should of course be a conjoined area of responsibility.”

Prof. Finn says St Mary’s has four key characteristics: “We are small, autonomous and academically integrated with a research intensive and very high quality University, Queen’s.”

They were “specialised”, traditionally in teacher education and more recently in liberal arts as well.

“We are distinctive, having a distinctive educational ethos in the Catholic tradition along with 1,400 universities worldwide, 200,000 schools taking something like 52 million schoolchildren throughout the world. We are part of a global phenomenon called Catholic education,” he says.

“Critically, we are high performing.”

He gives Dr Farry credit for recognising their high performance manifested inter alia in phenomenal student satisfaction ratings in the past decade, securing first place out of 160 UK universities including Oxford and Cambridge in 2012.

There is a high demand for St Mary’s trained teachers to meet the needs of Catholic schools which make up 45% of the estate.

Peter Finn stresses that St Mary’s contributes to the economic and social regeneration of the area not least in its support for the West Belfast Festival and making its premises available to pupils revising for their summer exams.

If he has his way Dr Farry will not have his.


He insists that the consociational principles of the Good Friday Agreement mean that any changes to the teacher training infrastructure “deemed to be contentious and cross cutting” have to be “agreed by the Northern Ireland Executive and are not simply a matter for one minister”.

That may be so. But Prof. Finn acknowledges that Dr Farry has “two levers, the funding formula and the final say on liberal arts student numbers we admit.”

“Action on either of these can create circumstances which would be extremely difficult for St Mary’s to the point where the institution may not be viable.”

Peter Finn may be a formidable campaigner and a temperate person who commands respect in all sections of the community. But he, St Mary’s and all who value pluralism and diversity have a fight on their hands.