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Small, specialised, and popular with students

10 June 2016

The Government’s new idea of a university is about providing a workforce with a narrow set of skills, says John Gay

GOVERNMENT White Papers rarely make for exciting reading and the present one, Success as a Knowledge Economy, about our universities, is no exception. And yet its proposals and their consequences will radically reshape the future landscape of higher education (HE).

Jo Johnson, the Minister for Universities, introduces the White Paper as follows:


Our universities rank among our most valuable national assets, underpinning both a strong economy and a flourishing society. Powerhouses of intellectual and social capital, they create the knowledge, capability and expertise that drive competitiveness and nurture the values that sustain our open democracy.


Unfortunately, this is the only significant statement about the wider purposes of HE in the whole document.

The Paper itself adopts a highly instrumental approach. This is evidenced by a count of significant words. Words about choice appear 179 times; economy 115; social mobility 98; employment 79; competition 74; and the market 49. In contrast, culture appears only three times, values once, and the common good not at all.

The title is also a giveaway: Success as a Knowledge Economy. It is all about universities’ providing a better-skilled workforce for improving the effectiveness of the economy. Perhaps this is not surprising, given that the responsibility for universities is now with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, and not the Department for Education.


THE Paper outlines what it sees as the main weaknesses of the current system: uneven access, which favours the advantaged; inflexible and outdated courses; student dissatisfaction with courses and the associated teaching; great variations in quality among the universities; and employers’ suffering skill-shortages.

At the root of the problem, it identifies insufficient competition among universities, and a lack of information available to students about the quality of courses and teaching, which thus makes informed choices difficult.

So the main solution proposed is the creation of a competitive market. Successful universities will be allowed to charge more; unsuccessful ones, less. New universities will be encouraged. In the past, there have been minimum-size restrictions, requirements for a broad range of subjects, and complex validation processes, managed by existing competitor universities. All that will change.

New small, specialist universities are envisaged — some focusing on only a single subject-area, such as business studies, law, or engineering. And they will be enabled to spring up quickly. The converse is also envisaged; for, in a competitive market, the weakest go to the wall: unpopular courses, and in some cases whole universities, will “exit the market completely”.


STUDENT choice is going to be the key driver of the changes; and for students to make informed choices, they will need much better information. The Paper identifies a lack of information about teaching quality as a primary concern, and is proposing a Teaching Excellence Framework to match the existing Research Excellence Framework.

While research productivity can be measured through journal-article and book outcomes, the Paper recognises that assessing teaching quality is less easy, and so it is proposing a gradualist build to it; a technical consultative paper has been published.

The Government has, however, already identified what it sees as a key proxy for teaching quality — students’ employability and the future salary levels of students — the latter being available through accessing the tax records of former students. This will not be good news for universities that turn out artists, nurses, social workers, and theologians.

To achieve its aims quickly, the Government intends to streamline the regulatory framework, and cut red tape. Ten national bodies, including the Office for Fair Access and seven research councils in various subject-areas, will be reduced to two.


THERE are particular implications for the church universities. Many of their students are in the “softer” curriculum areas, such as art and design, and not in the “harder” subjects, such as the sciences, which lead to high graduate salaries. So they will need to campaign for a broader view of HE and its associated measures of teaching quality.

While we need scientists, business entrepreneurs, and money-spinners, we also need palliative nurses, primary-school teachers, and poets.

There is one aspect of the White Paper to which the foundational aims of the church universities are well attuned: the requirement to widen participation in HE by doubling the proportion of students from disadvantaged backgrounds, and increasing the number of black and minority-ethnic students. This is part of the plan to increase social mobility, and provides an opportunity for church universities to play to their strengths.

Buried in the Paper there is, however, a potential bear-trap. In the past, if a university wished to change its foundational documents, it had to get Privy Council authority to do so. It the future, this will not be necessary.

This could encourage a watering-down, or even an elimination, of the Church-related aspects in the church universities — unless the foundation members of the governing bodies are alert to the risk, and are prepared to take a stand.

The criteria for enabling small specialist universities could lead some Bible colleges and theological colleges, perhaps on a consortia basis, to set up their own universities. This could reinvigorate the Church-relatedness of its higher education sector, but it could also negatively affect the Anglican identity of the existing church universities.

In the Church of England, we are well attuned to what is happening in the school sector, and are well equipped to enhance our contribution. When it comes to higher education, we tend to be on much shakier ground. This White Paper offers both challenges to and opportunities for the Church. We need to rise to them.


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


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