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Education: His hat in the ring

07 February 2014

Last year, the Bishop of Winchester was appointed Bishop for Further and Higher Education. He talks to Margaret Holness


THE headmaster of one of several schools attended by the Bishop of Winchester, the Rt Revd Timothy Dakin, the son of a missionary family, advised him to give up any idea of going to university. "You'll never make it," he told him.

As it turned out, Bishop Dakin went to three higher-education institutions: the College (now university) of St Mark and St John, Plymouth, where he took a degree in religious studies; King's College, London, where he was awarded an M.Th.; and Oxford University, where he was a research student in theology.

Forty years or so after his former head's crushing judgement, Bishop Dakin reflects: "It spurred me to get into higher education. and made me prize it all the more." And that, he said, is why, as a bishop with a seat in the House of Lords, he was keen to take on the newly created position of "Bishop for Further and Higher Education".

HIS career so far has been good preparation for the job. He left Oxford before completing a doctorate, because, in 1993, he was asked to return to East Africa, where he had grown up, to be the Principal of the Church Army's Carlile College, Nairobi. Concerned to widen his students' educational chances, he increased the scope of Carlile's academic offer during his seven years there.

Later, as general secretary of the Church Mission Society, he saw what had been achieved by the colleges and universities with mission backgrounds. Most of these are now members of the Colleges and Universities of the Anglican Communion (CUAC). Some have become prestigious academic institutions while retaining a strong Anglican identity, Bishop Dakin says. And the significance of CUAC's members is too little appreciated by Anglicans here, he suggests.

Now, of course, his educational focus is in England. Traditionally, the Bishop of Winchester is an official Visitor to five Oxford colleges. Slowly, he is getting round them all. That is the easy bit. As the new chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Higher Education, however, his task is likely to be trickier, because higher education has never been as politically contentious as it has become in this decade.

OVERSHADOWING all current discussion and dispute is the question: "What is higher education for?" Bishop Dakin is certainly not in the utilitarian camp, and believes that the social capital in universities is at least as valuable as their economic contribution. And there is the question of recruitment. It is rumoured that the cap on numbers may be lifted - but so, also, could the current cap on fees.

These issues are particularly relevant to the ten Anglican universities in the Cathedral Group, with their heavy bias towards the humanities and social sciences. One of these, the University of Winchester, is on the Bishop's doorstep. He is chairman of the university's foundation, and says that it is doing a very good job indeed.

The Cathedral Group as a whole will look to him for encouragement, and he may need to defend it vigorously, particularly if the teacher-education function, for which its member institutions were founded, continues to be undermined by the shift to school-based training.

Bishop Dakin believes strongly that universities have an invaluable part to play in teacher education, in widening the context in which they are trained.

This is particularly so, perhaps, in subjects such as religious education, where little theoretical understanding may be available in schools, and also in the preparation of primary-school teachers. (This issue is close to home: his daughter, Anna, is in her first job, teaching RE at a local secondary school after training at Southampton University.)

And then there is chaplaincy, which some universities, in straitened circumstances, see as an expendable luxury.

To the first Bishop for Higher Education, however, chaplaincies are indispensable to the life of any university: "The years that young people spend at university are the most open and the most formative of their lives," he says. "The Church needs to be there with them, and be seen to be there."

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