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Education: Adding value as well as values

by
25 September 2015

The Church of England universities should rejoice in and build on their distinctive ethos, argues John Gay

demotix

Saddled with debt: students protesting during an anti-austerity march in London in June

Saddled with debt: students protesting during an anti-austerity march in London in June

THIS month, about half of all 18-year-olds in England will have arrived at their universities’ freshers’ week. Three years later, gowned and hooded and with proud guests in tow, most will emerge from graduating ceremonies clutching their scrolls and throwing mortar boards into the air in celebration. But, unlike students of earlier generations, there is something else that they will dearly love to throw in the air and leave behind — their student debt.

This summer, most graduates leaving English universities will do so with debts upwards of £40,000, made up of loans to cover the £27,000 of fees plus additional amounts for maintenance. It is now the student, and not the state, who pays the fees to the university, and this transactional shift has had a profound effect on the status of the student. The student has become a customer, and the university is there to provide the customer with a service and a product.

There are other services and products out there in the marketplace, such as apprenticeships and internships; and, increasingly, siren voices are questioning the wisdom of building up a huge student debt when you might start working straight away as a salaried trainee.

Even the Russell Group universities are beginning to recognise that the old days of the supremacy of the supplier, who offered a scarce and sought-after product, are fast disappearing. The customer is king, and customers want value for money — for their money, as they are the ones paying.

Eleven universities are formally associated with the Church of England: six are free-standing, and five are the result of mergers with other institutions. A visit to their websites shows how they are projecting themselves in response to this change in student status. Along with their competitor universities, their websites are essentially marketing tools, setting out their wares to entice next year’s student intake. “Come to us: you’ll have a great time here! You’ll be well taught on interesting courses, and will get a degree that will be highly marketable.” And, as with all marketing, comes customer feedback: how does the sales pitch measure up to the reality?

 

THE most comprehensive survey of the reality currently available is the Higher Education Funding Council’s National Student Satisfaction Survey, carried out by the polling company Ipsos MORI.

Noting the high 70-per-cent response of all final-year undergraduates, Times Higher Education analysed the results, and the position of the Church of England universities is given below.

Excluding the small and specialist institutions, Winchester came fourth in the national ranking, and a further six were around average or above. In terms of percentage annual increase, Liverpool Hope had the highest, and York St John the third highest scores.

Apart from marketing, do these percentages really matter? Yes, they do. The Government is keen to measure teaching quality, and to allow the highest-scoring universities to increase their fee level — currently capped at £9000 p.a. Although better metrics may be devised, in the immediate future it is likely that this survey will be used as a proxy for good teaching. After all, customer satisfaction is the order of the day.

But does the customer always know best? Years later, looking back on my A-level history lessons, I realised how fortunate I had been. The lessons were split: half learning facts and quotations to ensure we got good exam results, but the other half on discussion and debate properly to educate us.

The mission, values, and aims sections of the church university websites all still project a view of education that is broader and deeper than today’s generally utilitarian approach. Producing graduates equipped to drive the economy is important, but not the sole function of education. Wider aims, such as producing mature, responsible, and confident world citizens, prepared to serve the common good, are equally, if not more necessary.

In fulfilling these wider aims, the church universities are fortunate in having a rich heritage to draw on. Accessing this cultural fund in a usable way, however, is not always easy. Most college histories tend to be written from an institutional point of view: dates, structures, the reigns of principals, achievements, alliances, and so on. But two recently written accounts adopt a different approach, and look at their college from the perspective of the students and staff.

 

THE story of Sarum St Michael, in Salisbury, told in Inspired to Teach, by J. Head and A. Johns (www.inspiredtoteach.co.uk), spans the period from 1841 to its eventual closure in 1978, and is told through a mixture of individual pen portraits, anecdotes, life histories, and photographs. The lives of the individual staff and students, and the effect that the college ethos had on them is the central theme.

Teacher training was the focus, but they were also imbued with a wider experience based on the community and spiritual character of the college.

The second, Alumni Voices, by S. Spencer, A. Jacobs, and C. Leach (Winchester University Press), is an oral-history research project that delves under the surface of a similar institution, now the University of Winchester, listening to the voices of former students and staff.

Two key issues were: how can an institutional ethos be defined; and what do students gain in addition to their academic qualifications. They concluded that both staff and students, down the years, greatly appreciated being part of a community guided by the ethos and principles of the institution, which, in turn, were generated by its foundational values. These values had a lasting impact which their students took into their professional lives, and shared with others.

As the Bishop of Winchester, the Rt Revd Tim Dakin, who holds the C of E portfolio for higher education, has said: “It is important that the church universities, as an integrated but distinctive component within higher education, continue to build on their founding visions. This will require both theological underpinning and vigorous strategic planning.”

John Howson’s companion article overleaf warns of the risks facing the church universities from the changing trends in higher education. Within this climate, developing and marketing their distinctiveness will be both pragmatically sensible and in keeping with their foundational missions and values.

 

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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