2008 Springvale - The Fuller Story

 Professor Gerry McKenna

  The controversial ´Springvale Educational Village Project´ involved, initially, the development of a University of Ulster (UU) campus in West/North Belfast and, later, a joint campus there with the Belfast Institute of Further and Higher Education (BIFHE). It has been the subject of much media attention,and some ill-informed and disingenuos comment both before and since the Report of the Northern Ireland Audit Office (NIAO) in November 2006 and the subsequent report of the Assembly Public Accounts Committee. While these reports have been accurate, within their terms of reference, they fall far short of providing a full picture of a project which was flawed in its conception and became more so as it evolved.

This project, conceived in 1992 and unveiled in 1993, was presented, variously, as an educational development to help the disadvantaged, a vehicle to promote economic regeneration, and a ´peace dividend´ as part of the evolving peace process. Regrettably, none of these objectives were subjected to the level of scrutiny and analysis normally associated with university policy formulation and evaluation. Rather, it was presented and developed as a series of disjointed and unrelated half-truth ´sound-bites´. Solid-minded sceptics and analytical thinkers were represented as being out of tune with evolving political realities. The fact that the ´Project´ was an essentially short-term ´fix-it´ development based on no long term analysis was ultimately reflected in its disbandment. The paucity of ideas for economic regeneration in North and West Belfast, led to the support of the Project by some of those responsible for economic development, and those promoting an, as yet, ill-defined peace process. This involved them boarding the ´Springvale´ life raft, though they never showed any inclination to ´row´, hoping perhaps that the raft would find land somewhere. It did not.

The Project never had any significant support among staff within the University of Ulster.  It was supported forcefully by the then UU Vice Chancellor but those overtly opposed included the Treasurer of the University, the Finance Officer, and the Deputy to the Vice Chancellor; all of whom argued against it on financial and educational grounds.  Remarkably, the University Council ( governing body ) approved it,  in principle, despite their opposition.  This was unprecedented.  The question is why?  In reality, people who were supportive of disadvantaged areas, and those who were unduly influenced by the perceived need for ´political correctness´, concluded that they had no option but to acquiesce to the project despite their reservations.  The fact that it was educationally ill-judged and financially irresponsible, was therefore glossed over and, doubtless, few lost any sleep over it.

From the perspective of the University of Ulster (UU), the project was high risk from the outset.  It would have involved selling the York Street campus in Belfast, the only campus with approximately equal representation from both major communities in Northern Ireland.  Simultaneously, and less importantly, there was also the prospect of the York Street campus becoming hugely significant in the redevelopment of Cathedral Quarter in Belfast.  Staff in York Street, and on other campuses, were never enthusiastic about the project.  The significant question was, or should have been: Would the development of a university campus at Springvale lead to significant  educational development in West and North Belfast?  People in these and other areas who achieved good A-level scores, and less traditional qualifications, were readily accepted in universities in Northern Ireland and elsewhere. Many senior academic and other staff at UU originate from these areas, as do some lay governors, including the current Chairman of  Council.   A university campus wouldn’t obviously change this.  The real problem, not confined to West or North Belfast, and alas remaining, is that too few people in these areas obtain the necessary vocational skills to contribute economically or the qualifications to gain access to university.

The answer therefore to most dedicated academics and progressive thinkers was not to develop a university campus, but to improve ´Further´, rather than ´Higher´, education provision.  This was reinforced, at least in those who knew the staff composition of the University of Ulster and other bodies, by the fact that high achievers from the excellent schools in West and North Belfast and elsewhere were already obtaining high positions in the private and public sectors. 

The fact that the Government did not approve the original Springvale proposal did not kill it entirely.  In 1997, a new proposal promoted by Government emerged, namely that UU should develop a joint campus with the Belfast Institute of Further and Higher Education (BIFHE).  The Deputy Director of BIFHE had been highly negative through the media, and rightly so, about the original Springvale proposal.  As the new Director of BIFHE, he was more positive this time around, as he was entitled to be.  However, those who supported the original Springvale concept should have realised that this new proposal was a potential minefield in terms of governance.  There are major historical academic and practical reasons for further education and universities being separated.  They are funded differently and staff  have different rights, obligations and contract terms.  FE has no research role; its principal, and admirable, function being to provide vocational education.  Trying to bring together a university and a further education college on a single campus was doomed at the outset.  The Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology brought together these two functions with hugely negative consequences for staff morale, industrial relations and the stability of the institution itself.

UU management, which was by the turn of the Century significantly different in composition from that in place at the time of the Project´s inception and later transmogrification, considered all of these eventualities. Recognising its responsibilities in terms of governance and the use of public funds, it took the view that it should acknowledge that the project was going nowhere both administratively and in governance terms.  It also accepted that it had to do some serious thinking to deal with the overly grandiose and inflated aims of the original project.  This was reflected in a growing recognition of practical realities, laid out in a letter and paper sent to the Permanent Secretary of the Department for Employment and Learning (DEL) in late 2001 indicating that the way forward was for the University to accredit and validate programmes in BIFHE and in FE generally, rather than offering such programmes directly. Although University management had strong concerns about the Project in 2001, as indicated by the letter to DEL, no decision was taken, or could be taken, until the matter was considered by the University Council and Senate ( the senior academic body in the University ). Both bodies considered the academic, governance and and financial issues, following receipt of an independent report commissioned by the Project promoters, in the Summer of 2002. The decision to withdraw from the Project was unanimous in both cases and the other Project promoters were informed immediately.

In practical terms, it was accepted, as it should have been at the outset, that FE should do what it was expected to do, and universities should also accept their responsibilities to support this and not replicate it.  The folly of what Springvale was representing and its  irrationality came finally to a conclusion when another campus was proposed for the University in Belfast and a campus development with long term financial commitment in Fermanagh. Despite undue, and wholly inappropriate, pressure, management rejected this latter proposal firmly and it was not progressed further. None of this meant that that University management was uncommitted to disadvantaged people; quite the reverse! The University´s record in widening access to entry was ample testimony to this.  It meant that Management had recognised, as some had sometime before, that the Springvale high profile vehicle, while ‘politically correct’, was completely inadequate to deal with such needs. University management; in promoting a strategy to help the disadvantaged, and indeed, developing long term strategies generally, had reached the conclusion that only those proposals that could be replicated elsewhere, and were financially viable, had any chance of long term success and sustainability. 

It should also be noted that the attempts to raise significant philanthropic funds for Springvale were also unsuccessful.  Huge efforts were made in the USA, and whilst all new potential sponsors spoke positively of the Project, none were willing  to produce the funds necessary to cover the £9.0 million capital shortfall.  More importantly, no-one was willing, including Government, to cover the costs of the projected annual recurrent shortfall; estimated as being of the order of £2 million annually.

It is true that the University could have met the annual capital and recurrent deficits associated with the Springvale Project through curtailment of planned and affordable projects on other campuses. It is also true that during the early part of this Century the overall asset base of UU was substantially increased through new buildings including research institutes on all existing campuses, and land acquisition. However, virtually all of these developments, including recruitment of world class researchers, were funded through research grants obtained in international competition where the spend was clearly determined as a condition of grant. The real and increasingly growing concern over Springvale was that the Project was never going to meet its original objectives, namely the educational development of West and North Belfast.  Universities are concerned with truth and cannot escape facts. University managers have an obligation not to bequeath, knowingly, ill-conceived projects to their successors, irrespective of external pressures.

 When it became clear that the Springvale Project was unlikely to come close to achieving its original goals, which few ever believed were achievable, there was no alternative but to abort, thus saving millions of pounds of public funds and preserving the integrity of the University.  To have continued with the Project as designed would not only have accepted failure to meet its stated objectives but also to curtail significantly developments at both the York Street and the Magee campuses of the University. Also, and equally importantly, the people of West and North Belfast did not deserve another failure and should have been spared having their hopes raised unrealistically in the first place.

The Reports of the NIAO and the Public Accounts Committee are factual.  What they do not address is the significant failure of Governance in the University and Government which led to approval of the Springvale Project in the first place.  The discontinuation of the Project was probably the most honourable and honest part of the process.

There are many lessons to be learned from the Springvale debacle. The first is the need for honesty and transparency in dealing with social issues and the reprehensibility of raising unrealistically and abusing the hopes and aspirations of any group in society. The second is the obligation of, supposedly, learned people to not suspend proper analysis on the altar of short-term opportunism and egotism. Finally, no University in Northern Ireland should ever again allow itself to become a political tool, irrespective of short-term benefits, to any individual or grouping.

Original version of an article published in Fortnight magazine, Spring 2008


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