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Universities with a C of E spark

06 June 2014

John Gay outlines something of the nature and distinctiveness of the C of E universities


Formal: graduation day at the University of Chester

Formal: graduation day at the University of Chester

CHURCH OF ENGLAND schools seem to be in the news almost every day. In contrast, Church of England universities rarely hit the headlines. Without reading any further, how many such universities could you name?

You could be forgiven if you got slightly confused about which ones count. There are two main groupings: six are free-standing Church of England colleges that became universities; five are mixed-mode universities involving Church of England colleges which merged with other colleges.

There are also the four older universities of Oxford, Cambridge, Durham, and King's College, London, which were founded by the Church, and, although they retain overt and visible ecclesiastical features, are rarely seen now as church universities.

The 11 Anglican universities range in size from 2500 students to 18,000. Usually multi-sited, with a plethora of courses, and many of their students non-residential and part-time, it is a far cry from the 1960s, when they were small teacher-training colleges.

Six of the universities are free-standing Church of England ones: Bishop Grosseteste, Lincoln; Canterbury Christ Church; Chester; St Mark and St John, Plymouth; Winchester; and York St John. These universities can be, and are, more up-front about their Church of England origins and current status than their mixed-mode cousins.

This is reflected in their foundation documents; in their mission and values statements and operational documents; in the expectations of their vice-chancellors; in the composition of their governing bodies; and in provision for their worshipping life and pastoral work.

EACH has its own distinctive ethos and specific external markers indicative of its Anglican nature. For instance, Chester has a particularly large and flourishing Religious Studies department, with an internal academic staff of 20 and a visiting staff of 11 - including the former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Williams as the Gladstone Professor of Literature and Theology.

At York St John, the Centre for Church School Education and the Centre for Religion in Society are both based in the Faculty of Education and Theology; and Canterbury Christ Church has the National Institute for Christian Education Research, and is right alongside the mother church of the Anglican Communion.

The two newest universities - Bishop Grosseteste, Lincoln, and St Mark and St John, Plymouth - both focus on serving their geographical catchment-areas. Indeed, there is hardly a primary school in the Lincoln diocese that does not contain at least one Bishop Grosseteste-trained teacher; and many look to the university for ongoing professional support.

Winchester is embarking on an examination of what it means to be an Anglican university. It is doing so partly through a theological review, identifying key points made by British Anglican theologians about the nature and purpose of higher education; and partly through research, looking at itself as an Anglican university as reflected in its institutional life and in the views of its staff and students.

The findings, it is hoped, will also contribute more widely to discussions about Anglican identity within the other universities.

Three of the universities are mergers of church and secular colleges. Cumbria is an amalgamation involving the Church's second-newest college of education, St Martin's College, Lancaster. Chichester is a similar but much earlier merger, between a local-authority college and Bishop Otter College, Chichester, as is Gloucestershire, between St Paul and St Mary's College, Cheltenham, and the Gloucestershire College of Art and Technology.

Clarifying the nature of these three institutions, in ways that do justice to both their Anglican and their secular components, and which safeguard the Anglican investment in them, is not easy. Although the foundation documents preserve the Anglican identity in law, it is dependent on the senior management and governors to ensure that it becomes a reality in practice.

THE history of Bishop Lonsdale College of Education is perhaps a cautionary tale. Founded in 1851, it joined with Derby College of Art and Technology in 1977, and, in 1992, the merged body morphed into the University of Derby.

Unfortunately, the 1977 merger was based substantially on "gentlemen's agreements". There were some written guidelines, but much was done in good faith, and little was included in the legal documentation.

Verbal understandings rarely survive a change of personnel, however. And, not surprisingly, when Bishop John Gibbs was sent in later to investigate what had happened to the Church of England's assets, and to the original understandings, he could find little of either.

In 2006, the Bishop Lonsdale site was sold by the university to a developer for £8.6 million, and, as there was no reverter clause on the site, nothing came back to the Church.

A further two institutions went into ecumenical partnerships. Whitelands College remains as a site and operational entity within Roehampton University; and St Katherine's College, Liverpool, joined with two Roman Catholic colleges and subsequently became Liverpool Hope University.

Significant theological-reflection work is being undertaken through Whitelands, and Liverpool Hope is an ecumenical beacon of higher education both within Merseyside and nationally. Working ecumenically, as part of the Cathedrals Group, will continue to be an important way forward for the future.

Each of the institutions is grappling in various ways with what it means to be an Anglican university in the current market-driven competitive world of higher education, where the student is the paying customer, and the customer is king. While instrumental outcomes, such as graduate employment successes, are necessary, there is a growing emphasis, linked to their foundational ideals as church universities, on presenting a more holistic view of the purposes and outcomes of a university education.

An earlier review, looking at national statistics on higher education, suggested that church universities were likely to be providing a value-added experience for their students.

Furthermore, within the instrumentalist culture of higher education, Anglican theologians can, and are already beginning to, make a significant contribution to critically examining this culture, and to providing a wider rationale, embracing the public good, for all universities.

The Bishop of Winchester, the Rt Revd Tim Dakin, who holds the C of E portfolio for higher education, emphasises the part that the Anglican universities play in shaping the common good. He praises their combination of "good-quality higher education, access, and whole-person development".

The Church, he says, needs to uphold and promote them as part of its "long-term engagement with the public square".

The Revd Dr John Gay is Research Fellow at the Department of Education, in the University of Oxford, and Visiting Professor at the University of Winchester.

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