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C of E debate needed on university education

16 March 2011


From Professor John Wood

Sir, — The comment on the dis­tinc-tiveness or otherwise of the Cathed­rals Group of universities by the Dean of Westminster, the Very Revd John Hall (Comment, 11 March), should be seen within the wider context of what a university should be, whether it lives up to the aspira­tions and values of the founders, and how much a university should advocate certain positions in the public debate.

I recall two meetings from the past decade. The first was in Lord Sainsbury’s office at the then De­partment of Trade and Industry, when he asked me: “What are we going to do with our uni­versities?” The second was in the office of the then European Com­missioner for Research, Janez Potocnik, when he asked me: “How can we modernise European uni­versities?”

There are an estimated 4000 universities in Europe, and many more worldwide; and new ones are being created almost weekly in emerging economies. A great deal is said about universities, largely by those who have not experienced the full diversity of what they stand for, since, for many, their only exposure either directly or indirectly is at undergraduate level. While I am shocked by this ignorance, it is perhaps the fault of those of us from this sector who have failed to engage in the wider debate in a con­structive way.

One positive outcome of the Browne recommendations might be for a cool debate on the values and purpose of higher education within a Christian environment. A good starting point is David Ford’s book Christian Wisdom (CUP, 2007), in the chapter “An inter­disciplinary wisdom: knowledge, formation and collegiality in the negotiable uni­versity”, where he writes: “The open­ing decades of the 21st century are a pivotal time for universities. Many forces, internal and external, seek to shape them, and major recon­figurations of higher educa­tion are happening at all levels — inter­national, national and institu-­tional.”

He discusses whether the medieval origins and foundations of the older universities are fit for present purposes, or whether they can be adapted for the present situation, where mass edu­cation, coupled with the political expectancy of research contributing to economic progress, is possible.

He states: “The mediaeval uni­versity might be seen as an achieve­ment of Christian wisdom that has learnt much from other wisdoms, especially those of Judaism, of ancient Greek and Rome, and of Islam. It worked out in practice the implications of some core Christian doctrines by creating a setting that let those very doctrines be debated in fresh ways and that opened up a new intellectual space for a range of disciplines.”

I have been fortunate to have spent all of my working life in uni­versities or academic institutions that regularly feature at the top of international league tables. More recently, I have become aware of the very different governance models and missions of universities around the world. In some countries, academics are civil servants with the constraints that such a status im­poses (this was until recently the case in Japan, and it still is in many Eastern European countries); in others, appointments are made by politicians or even by pseudo-religious societies, it is alleged. Yet others are the private fiefdoms of rich founders.

As English universities are having to look several ways at once (Parlia­ment, governing body, students, local groups, ratings, among many), and some are under threat in the new environment, especially as several top universities in Con­tinental Europe are starting to teach and conducting research in English with low or no fees, maybe the Church of England could hold a positive and open debate on what it means today and in the future to be “transformed by the renewing of your mind”?

While it may be that these issues are discussed somewhere within the bowels of the C of E, their output, if it exists, is certainly not rising above the background clamour.

Secretary-General of the Association of Commonwealth Universities;
Chair of the European Research
Area Board for the European Commission
Old Rectory, Bolnhurst
Bedford MK44 2ES

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