It’s time for change now at the NWRC

The Magee campus of the University of Ulster
The Magee campus of the University of Ulster

Pat Ramsey was right: we can’t just have the status quo at North West Regional College.

But it seems at the time of writing that all members of senior management and of the Board of Governors at the North West Regional College intend to sit tight.

And at the moment there appears to be no word that the College principal Seamus Murphy, Board of Governors chair Bertie Faulkner and head of human relations Kate Duffy have taken action on the most straightforward of the recommendations of Harry McConnell’s report on industrial relations at the college.

McConnell effectively called on Mr. Murphy to step down as joint chair of the NI Lecturers’ Negotiating Committee, on Mr. Faulkner to resign as Chair of Colleges NI, and on Ms. Duffy to leave her position as chair of Regional Human Resources.

The report spelt out that “it would be beneficial [ . .] if all senior staff stood down from their high profile commitments at regional level [ . .] Until the problems evident at NWRC are sorted out, senior staff must be where they are contractually needed, ie at the college.”

But there’s little news of any progress on this recommendation. Maybe senior figures believe that if they keep their heads down and refuse to make eye-contact with reality, the problem will fade away. But it won’t.

Foyle MLA Ramsey told Stormont’s Employment and Learning Committee that he didn’t believe in light of the report that the college could emerge from its difficulties “without new leadership”. In response, Minister Stephen Farry said: “No-one is running away from any of the issues of this report. We are not going to sit back and say we have published the report and say now it is over to the college. Our officials are going to be very proactive in working with the Board.”

The problem with this is that the Board he was referring to is the Board of Governors, headed by Mr. Faulkner.

The issues which gave rise to the report are important in themselves. But what has become more important since publication is whether the report can be classed as a serious attempt to get to grips with a crisis or as an elaborate exercise which has avoided the real issues.

It should be noted that the “culture of fear” referred to by McConnell didn’t only affect lecturers. A student has been in touch about an incident in the recent past: “I have placed my experience on record. When or if a similar incident takes place in the future, [those running the college] cannot say they did not know that this was going on. I contacted them all.”

The student tells of being brought into a room, ordered to sit at a table facing her course director and a lecturer and questioned aggressively, she considered, about remarks she was said to have made about the lecturer’s teaching skills. She believes she was being let know to be more careful in her remarks in future.

She says: “I left the room [ . .] in an obviously terrible state. My husband had to leave his work in [- - -] and drive me home. In addition, I sought medical advice and was given a sick certificate for one week. In my letter to the Head of School I said, ‘I was not treated with any respect, manners or decency. At this time I feel unsafe within the NWRC.’

“Having read Harry McConnell’s report, I wonder if staff at the NWRC have become inured to a culture of management bullying.”

The woman is not a shy young one but a professional person in her ‘30s. Yet she felt so “battered” by her treatment that she has abandoned the course for the sake of her health and written off fees paid up front.

If the incident were a once-off, it could be seen as unfortunate but hardly a big deal.

Brought into a room like a naughty schoolgirl and given out to in combative style for having had the cheek to suggest that a particular lecturer wasn’t a good teacher - a primary school pupil would be treated with more respect.

If the chance for change provided by the McConnell report isn’t taken, the troubles at the NWRC will fester on to nobody’s benefit. Another chance is unlikely any time soon.