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Synod debate on higher education funding

16 February 2012

by staff reporters

This is a fuller report of the General Synod debate on higher-education funding.

A PRESENTATION and question-and-answer session about the Sheffield working party’s report on the higher-education funding changes took place on Thursday morning last week.

There were few subjects of greater importance to bring before the Synod, the Bishop of Sheffield, Dr Steven Croft, said. “The training and formation of our present and future clergy and lay ministers is one of the keys to the future of the church and of God’s mission.”

The Synod had agreed key principles and recommendations last July, but they had been made in a climate of rapid and continuing change in the HE sector. Many church institutions were still vulnerable unless the Church took strategic action.

The working party had looked at how to take the recommendations further. The first possibility was to set up an intermediate church body with degree-awarding powers under the new government legislation. The second was to develop a partnership with one or more universities to cover the majority of ordination training with a pattern of exceptions. After extensive consultation, the working party had been steered towards the second option.

In addition, it was aiming for common standards of formation that would lead to a further raising of standards, and simplicity “to release energy for core tasks”. It was also looking for coherence across different forms of training, greater definition of what the Church of England required, stronger partnerships across the sector, and greater responsiveness to the changing needs of the Church in the context of a broad ecumenical partnership.

The group hoped that the new awards would become the gold standard of theological education, though the validation process would continue to allow for a variety of traditions and emphasis. There was no proposal for a common curriculum, but a common set of awards with a single HE validation partnership. “We envisage that there will be ample room for local variation and negotiation about the detail of the curriculum.”

During the eight years when he was Warden of Cranmer Hall, the three institutions of Cranmer Hall, Wesley Study Centre, and Ushaw College, the Roman Catholic seminary, were in partnership in a single validation agreement and a single programme of awards with the University of Durham. That was later extended to include the North-East Oecumenical Course. “We taught to the same standards, but we did not teach the same curriculum. Some of our training needs overlapped and some were distinct. All of that can be caught in a validation partnership.”

In the next phase, he said, the working party would be making a map of all the college and course curricula, and would draw up initial guidelines for the new awards. Each institution would then be invited to submit an initial proposal of how it would deliver the new awards.

He emphasised that the aim of the changes was not to save money in the present funding of training, but to avoid the rapidly increasing costs, and to exercise good stewardship. The group had estimated that, if nothing was done, the rise in tuition and validation fees would be more than £600,000 p.a. The measures taken so far had limited that potential increase to £400,000, which had been offset by the changes to student support for older married ordinands.

Professor Mark Chapman (Oxford), of Ripon College, Cuddesdon, said that he welcomed the report “wholeheartedly”, and that there was “a sense of urgency and needing to move forward quite quickly”, partly because current providers of validation were putting costs up. He asked who would make the decision about students who wanted to study more “expensive options”: the HE institution or another part of the Church?

The Revd Professor Paul Fiddes (Baptist Union) asked whether there would be value in having church teachers and researchers in theology working in a community of learning alongside other theologians in a wider academy; and Mary Durlacher (Chelmsford) asked whether exemptions would be cumulative or alternative.

In response to the first question, Bishop Croft said that his “instinct is for the guidelines to be clear but for a decision to be made locally”. In response to the second question, the Bishop said that there were many ways in which theological-training institutions related to universities other than through a validation arrangement. He hoped that such relationships would continue. Responding to the third question, he said that the intention was that the exemptions list be cumulative, rather than one-off. “We want to set the bar high.”

Colonel Edward Armistead (Bath & Wells) asked whether a single suite of awards and single awarding body could lead to cost increases for some institutions, given that the Sheffield working party was set up to deal with rising costs.

Bishop Croft replied that the cost to a particular institution of the validation fee could rise a little, but the overall cost would stay the same. Validation-fee costs were met by the Ministry Division as a separate amount and were not taken from the amount students received.

Professor Jenny Tann (Gloucester) asked for assurances that there would be robust criteria for selecting the awarding body, and that it would be open to review and not merely awarded to the cheapest option.

Bishop Croft replied that they had set out the process they intended to follow; that agreements would be made for five years at a time, and be renewable and subject to criteria other than cost, but “good stewardship is one of the factors” they would have to consider.

The Revd Dr Robert Munro (Chester) asked whether, in a single suite of awards, each award would allow for a variety of curricula or whether significant changes would need to be made to existing curricula and whether that had been costed.

Bishop Croft replied that, until the work was done on mapping the existing curricula, it would not be possible to know what work would need to be done. He said that the institutions would be faced with switching their validation arrangements and moving to a different scheme, in any event. He expressed sympathy for the institutions: change wasn’t easy; but that they wouldn’t be doing this if it wasn’t necessary.

Keith Malcouronne (Guildford) asked what was meant by a phrase in the report, “common identity shaping training”. The Revd Charles Read (Norwich) asked about the implications for Reader training. The Revd John Cook (Oxford) questioned whether the proposals were coherent.

Bishop Croft said that the phrase “common identity shaping training” was “about encouraging a conversation across the Church about what kind of training we need for lay and ordained ministries”. The group “very much hope that the common awards will serve reader training very well”. And guidance needed to be sought about how present provision would map on to common awards, but it must not be so specific that there was no latitude for conversation and variety of reception.

The Dean of Portsmouth, the Very Revd David Brindley, asked whether the changes were intended to “smother” regional training partnerships, and asked for a proper debate, if that was the intention. He also asked whether the Church of England had too many institutions that were unaffordable.

Bishop Croft said that the working party very much hoped that this process would strengthen regional training partnerships. There was no desire to smother them. As for whether the Church of England could support 23 training institutions, that was an evolving picture. The present criteria were based on whether there were enough students to ensure an institution’s viability. If the Church of England were to increase the number of ordinands and candidates selected for training over the next decades, they would need “a number of strong functioning institutions across the country”.

Sarah Finch (London) asked whether a single validation arrangement would make the Church “far more vulnerable” in the bargaining process.

Bishop Croft said that he did not believe so, but would want to listen carefully to those expressing that point of view. The number of students that the Church would bring in would “strengthen our position”, as would the fact that the partnership would be for a five-year period; but the working party would “reflect a little more”.

Professor Helen Leatheard (Blackburn) asked whether, in the interests of economy, the working party had looked at the idea of a common foundation and a branch programme of a style that typically operated in the training of nurses.

Bishop Croft said that the working group would look at different ways of structuring the guidance it gave to the Phase Three working party, and that this was something to be looked at.

Christopher Corbet (Lichfield) said that there was, in multi-parish benefices, a “crying need to fill gaps on a Sunday morning”. “As we make the Reader training more centralised and more precise, there then becomes a need to consider, do we need a more focused training? . . . It might be a local apprenticeship rather than going a long way, which makes it impossible for some people to do Reader training.”

Angela Scott (Rochester) asked if the working party was fully taking into account emerging patterns of lay ministry. Canon Martin Wood (Chelmsford) asked if it would be possible for there to be an award “down a stage from diploma” so that “people like an uneducated fisherman might be eligible for ordination”.

Bishop Croft said that Reader training was “non-negotiable” in the report. It was envisaged that these awards needed to be suitable for Reader training. The idea of local apprenticeships was interesting, and could be picked up in other pieces of work. He would “not want uneducated fishermen to be excluded from exercising ministry in our Church”.

The Revd Paul Cartwright (Wakefield) said he found cross-pollination with non-theological students whom he encountered at Mirfield was invaluable, and asked how that would occur with this type of award.

The Bishop said that he hoped such groups would continue.

Sister Anne Williams CA (Durham) said that her training had provided many practicalities besides theology, but was amazed at how few of the people she was studying with had that background. She asked for the practicalities of ministry, not just theology and head-work, to be extended on to continual ministerial education, so that “people know what ministry is like and not just what the book says it is like.”

Bishop Croft said that there had been “huge steps forward in 20 to 30 years” in not just doing head knowledge.

Professor John Bull (Newcastle) asked whether there could be greater flexibility for local developments if it could be shown that there would be benefits and it could be done in a cost-effectively.

The Bishop said that the instinct was to “set the bar high”. “One of the dangers is that everybody is in favour of it so long as they can be an exception to it.” Unless there was a certain robustness and a high bar, there would be a “lovely suite of awards that nobody takes”. 

Jon Steel (York) asked if youth and children’s ministry would be taken into account when drawing up curriculum guidelines, and whether the awards would recognise prior learning.

The Revd Angus MacLeay (Rochester) asked how Synod members could be involved in the process; and Canon David Banting (Chelmsford) asked how far the principals of theological colleges had been involved, some of whom were expressing “serious questions and concerns” about the proposals. He also asked how different traditions would be preserved.

Bishop Croft said that youth and children’s ministry would be taken into account, and the awards would recognise prior learning. He hoped the process would continue to be “as open as possible”, and he would welcome suggestions of how the Synod would like to engage in future. There had been “a number of points of consultation this year”, in particular the Ministry Council’s residential in November, when the working group spent three hours going through the report in detail with principals, and responding to questions and comments. The principals had also submitted a list of more than 30 questions, to which the working group had provided written answers.

“It is not surprising that some principals have some anxieties about this change. . . If something is working pretty well, a change seems a risky and challenging venture. We are trying to balance the local against the needs of the Church as a whole.”

Bishop Croft said that different traditions could be preserved “partly through local variation”, which was as much about the “pattern of community engendered by staff and students” as about the curriculum.

Sue Slater (Lincoln) asked how the membership of the proposed steering group would be chosen, and whether there would be open advertising. She also called for its membership to mirror the proportion of readers and women in training at the moment.

The Bishop replied that the Phase 3 working group and the eventual steering group would be appointed by the Ministry Council, who would have heard her comments about balanced membership.

Canon Ian Cervantes (Europe) asked what influence the staff members of the steering group would have. Would the training institutions with “wide experience” of HE institutions be able to take part in the tendering process, as they knew “not only what they say they can deliver, but what they can actually deliver”.

Bishop Croft said that the three members of staff on the working group from the Ministry Division would have “key but not determinative” roles. There would be due diligence once the group had its final shortlist. This would include “taking confidential soundings”.

Dr Elaine Storkey (Ely) asked whether the staff would be able to advise Anglican agencies, such as the Church Army, who were also attempting to reduce their fees.

The Bishop replied that the Church did not fund Church Army training and was not involved in its provision; but the working party would welcome a discussion “without disturbing the work Church Army has done over the years”. He invited Synod members to continue to send in questions and comments as the process moved forward.


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