Of all the teacher education mergers, that between St Andrew's College and Glasgow University is the trickiest. The negotiators, who have thrashed out an agreement for submission to the Secretary of State and the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council, had the examples of Jordanhill and Moray House as guides. But no previous merger has had to straddle the denominational barrier. The position of St Andrew's as the training institution for Roman Catholic schools had to be set against the university's demand for academic freedom and for the need to undertake teaching and research without regard to religious sensitivities.
The first set of proposals met serious objection within the university senate before Christmas. At that point the merger could have foundered, as did the projected one with Jordanhill some years ago. Religion did not have to be the breaking point: there were arguments about the financial implications in the next research selectivity exercise of a brigade of St Andrew's staff who do not undertake research. Edinburgh University has had the same problem in relation to Moray House, but holding stronger cards.
Had Glasgow's principal allowed the merger proposal to go to a senate vote in December, it might have been lost. Subsequent amendments reassert the university's autonomy. The fundamental need for the church to ensure appropriately qualified staff for its schools is maintained through the new board of Catholic education, but no longer will pre-service training be in a denominational setting. The faculty of education will draw students from a range of backgrounds.
In time that may be bad news for Catholic schools. It would not be so if there were no other pressures. But the flurry last week after Lord MacKay, a former education minister, attacked denominationalism suggests that their position is not inviolate. The Scottish parliament initially will be as reluctant as other elected bodies to tackle the issue. It may be less so when it recognises the central position of education among its powers coupled with the limited opportunity for direct intervention at anything other than the strategic level.
Demography is against denominationalism. The numbers that sustained two parallel systems, mainly in the west of Scotland, are no longer there. The Church appeared to understand that when it accepted Glasgow's need to close secondary schools.
Subsequent contradictory messages and intemperate words made the position of councillors and education officials very difficult. The Church realises it is in a weak position but does not help its case by appearing to change tune. It has to work with the city just as, in teacher education, it must adjust to the ways of Glasgow University.