THEOLOGICAL colleges say that they are determined not to play the numbers game. At the heart of what they are providing are vocation, learning, and mission — elements that refuse to be quantified. Yet, as they prepare their students for Christian service in a changing world, the numbers refuse to go away.
Financial pressures are common to all. Dr Christina Baxter, Principal of St John’s Theological College, Nottingham, says that St John’s — as a Church of England institution — faces particular challenges, because student numbers relate to the recruitment of ordinands: “There are fears around about the number of available jobs for clergy, although Church of England giving is holding up at the moment.”
Student numbers are a concern to Bible colleges, because of their contribution to a college’s revenue. “It’s said that, often, student numbers increase during a recession, as people use redundancy as an opportunity to go on a course,” the vice-principal at the London School of Theology (LST), Chris Jack, says. “But the general perception is that this has not happened this time round. This recession is different.”
This year, student numbers at the LST have held up, possibly because the college is offering a new strand to its theology and worship course.
The numbers issue is neither simple nor certain. One unknown factor is the effect of the Government’s removal of the cap on university fees. A sharp rise in university tuition fees could see them overtaking Bible college fees (currently averaging £5000). This may make theological colleges — most of which have university-validated degree courses — more attractive.
Bible colleges typically have between 100 to 200 full-time students. David Miller, the vice-principal of International Christian College (ICC), in Glasgow, commends the benefits of smaller learning communities with high staff-student ratios. “We spend more time working with individuals,” he says. “A student with dyslexia can find that a Bible college is able to respond more personally, and put learning supports in place. Some students from non-standard academic backgrounds may flourish better here than at a traditional university.”
THE Principal of Redcliffe College, Rob Hay, is concerned about numbers, too. “We may need to think about how many students we would want to take,” he says. “Currently, we have UK students doing first degrees, overseas students doing first degrees, and mission-focused students already in active service, with us for specific courses.
“The balance between these three groups works well. But a mushrooming of the smallest segment — UK first-degree students — could have interesting implications.”
The Principal of Moorlands Theological College, Dr Steve Brady, has concerns about people who choose to study at a Bible college as the cheaper option: “Our mission is too important for that. We are seeking students with a real sense of vocation and a passion to serve God.”
Nationality is a numbers issue, too. The international dimension of Bible colleges is important. Redcliffe College’s student community, for example, currently comprises 37 different nationalities.
The new UK visa system takes full effect this academic year, which means that non-EU students must have a minimum of one year’s funding in place before they start their course. And Bible colleges’ international programmes are subject to accreditation by the UK Border Agency, in order to establish their bona fides.
But for those from the areas where the Church is growing — such as the sub-Sahara and Indonesia — being expected to arrive at a UK college with several thousand pounds in the bank may be a struggle.
IF RECRUITING resident students is a problem, however, new technology can increase a college’s virtual reach — particularly overseas. Online learning is increasing. “We have a large distance-learning department, with 1000 students at undergraduate and MA levels,” Mr Jack says. “This may increase if people are unable to afford a full-time UK residential course.”
“Online learning is a big issue for us at the moment,” the executive director of All Nations college, Mike Wall, says. “We have just started advertising an online Master’s degree, as well as other short courses.”
Such new territory provides challenges for those delivering education in this way: “People want an interactive experience online with their tutor; so we have had to train tutors in how to do that,” Mr Wall explains. “The teaching material needs to be designed not just to give content, but to build a relationship with the learner.”
Despite the electronic link between teacher and learner, Dr Brady has some reservations about the value of online learning in training a “true teacher of the Word”. “We would not train a doctor in that way,” he says. “Ministry is not just about academic study: theology needs to be applied, and that involves relational, pastoral, and spiritual interaction. Moorlands’ vision is to help students to ‘join up the dots’ and link theology to life in their thinking.”
Nevertheless, the fact that online learning can be facilitated from anywhere in the world — one online All Nations course is currently being run from Nepal — and can also be accessed by learners worldwide, opens up a whole new arena for Bible colleges.
The development of electronic learning at St John’s includes posting material to view on YouTube, and establishing learning partnerships beyond its doors. And Church of Ireland ordinands now do an online course run by St John’s, before residential training.
INTERNET access to study courses is prompting Bible colleges to focus on developing their own distinctive identities. “People are no longer looking just at UK colleges,” Mr Hay says. “They can go further afield. In a globalised world, we need to be good in specialist areas and not try to cover all the bases.”
Redcliffe and All Nations have a particular focus on cross-cultural mission in Europe and Asia. And LST is expanding its grounding in its core theology BA through related BAs in theology and worship, counselling, and a forthcoming strand in theology and education.
By developing their own particular emphases, Bible colleges are also able to support one another. This means that they work collaboratively, rather than competitively, so they do not split the market for a particular course and so threaten each other’s survival.
“It is not good for any of us if a college is struggling,” Mr Jack says, “but there is a very good spirit of co-operation among us. We refer people to other colleges, if we feel they will be better suited there.”
The Association of Bible College Principals’ annual meeting also maintains colleges’ links, and provides a forum for sharing information and ideas, and mutual support.
IT IS not just the numbers and style of learning that have changed. Mr Jack says that students are arriving “with lower levels of biblical and theological knowledge. We have had to take stock of that, and rethink our introductory courses and what we need to do to prepare students to study the Bible in a serious way.”
He also notices a difference in the residential students’ attitude: “Developing and maintaining community is a greater challenge in today’s individualistic culture. Living in community means learning to give up something of yourself.”
Allied to this, a new paradigm of mission is also emerging, one that is more direct and short-term. “Today’s students see mission in a secular as well as a Christian context,” Mr Hay says. “They would not necessarily commit to a mission-agency for more than one term. The call is lifelong, but it may be expressed in different forms.”
The result is that students may look for a shorter initial period of training, such as the All Nations’ ten-week En Route course, which prepares participants for two to four years’ mission service. “They might then come back for further training or take a Master’s degree on a specialist mission area. This means we have an increasing number of short courses, alongside developing more of a long-term partnership and learning with students,” Mr Wall says.
Mr Hay agrees: “We are seeing a big change in patterns for training. Fewer students start with a large block of initial training now. It may be a year here, followed by a year’s mission, and then back to college.”
AND, of course, the surrounding culture is shifting all the time. Bible colleges have plenty to think through, as they seek to apply the teaching of theology to changing times.
Mr Miller says that ICC’s new Principal, Richard Tiplady, is initiating a review into “what is the most appropriate training for churches and church leaders”. The college has also started a new course, Christianity and Contemporary Culture, taught by John Drane.
At LST, “We are undertaking a major review of all our educational programmes,” Mr Jack says. “We want to stay true to our roots — the straight theological teaching that underpins all we do. We are still doing the same job, but we need to keep relating that to the contemporary world.”
Dr Brady is keen to maintain Bible colleges as strategic places of teaching theology: “I’m pained that Birmingham Christian College has had to pull out of theological education. It’s good that so many resources are going into the establishment of Christian academies, but we do need Christians to invest in theological education at the tertiary level.”
The vice-principal at ICC, David Miller, thinks that Bible colleges have more to offer than is generally recognised. “A theology degree is not simply a pathway to ministry or Christian work,” he says. “Students acquire a breadth of skills, from communication and leadership to team-working and awareness of intercultural issues. We teach ‘theology for life’.”
Such investment and vision also includes reaching the next generation. A sixth-form group recently attended a public lecture on theology and science at St John’s.
When schoolteachers expressed a wish for more of this sort of event, Dr Baxter brought heads of RE departments together to explore how the college could help. The outcome is a one-day course set up for sixth-formers next year. It has already sold out.
“The Church of England desperately needs its young people to think seriously about a vocation to youth or ordained ministry,” Dr Baxter says. “This is about colleges’ making a wider impact on building the Kingdom, not just filling an institution.”