HOW you view the start of the new academic year may depend on where you are sitting. If you are a sixth-former thinking of applying to university in the next couple of years, the news is good. There will be an abundance of available places, owing to the declining number of 18-year-old EU and overseas students applying in the UK as a result of Brexit.
At the same time, some universities are still in expansionist mode. There will also be more supermarket-type inducements, such as BOGOFs offering a free MA course after a first degree, fee reductions for family members, or a free iPad. Essentially, it is a buyer’s market.
Good news for the buyers, however, is bad news for the sellers. The Higher Education Bill currently going through Parliament promotes the marketisation of higher education through competition between universities, with students-as-consumers as the drivers. But fees and living costs over three years are leaving an average student with a debt of more than £40,000. Moreover, concerns about graduate unemployment, uncertainties over the economic implications of Brexit, and the attraction of alternatives such as advanced apprenticeships are leading many potential students to ask whether a degree is really worth it. Empty seminar rooms are a vice-chancellor’s nightmare.
ALTHOUGH the HE Bill was drafted before Brexit, it nevertheless included within its economic model a strategy for dealing with contraction: the weakest universities will be allowed to “exit the market”. How are the church universities likely to fare within this constrained and competitive environment? In many ways, of course, they will be competing, and playing to their strengths, like everyone else — standing out from the crowd by highlighting their distinctive features, such as their manageable size, pleasant locations, supportive communities, and humane values. But could they make more of their Anglican foundations?
Contrast this with the schools sector: here, Anglican identity is trumpeted from the rooftops. Few parents would not know the special identity of their children’s school, and most dioceses regard their schools as being a central part of their mission. Recently, the schools team at Church House has been expanded; an impressive vision statement for education has been produced; and a programme for more secondary schools has been announced. The Church is certainly riding high on its schools.
The same cannot be said about its universities. Those that emerged out of the former teacher-training colleges are among the newest to gain university status, and have been conscious that the rules of the game have been made by the older and bigger players. Being upfront about a religious foundation is not part of the game.
Statistics on the changing religious landscape reinforce this attitude. Recent polls reveal that more than half of all white British people say that they have no religion. A suggested reason for the growth of these “nones” is that church leaders have lost touch with society on issues such as gay marriage and abortion. This is particularly true for students, for whom equality issues relating to sexual orientation and personal morality are high priorities. Bridging the gap between their students and their foundation sponsors is a daunting task facing the church universities.
THERE are, however, areas of work that the universities can develop and that are distinctive of their foundations. An obvious one is working more closely to support teachers and heads in church schools and planning for the Foundation for Educational Leadership, which is already under way. Expanding their expertise in RE — in Religious Studies generally, and Christian theology specifically — is another area of potential investment.
A recent report by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on RE, Improving Religious Literacy (July 2016), has highlighted the need to improve the religious literacy of the adult population. Here is an opportunity for the church universities to take a lead, both with their own students, and by offering bespoke courses for particular professions, such as the police, health and social workers, and business managers. Perhaps most important of all, explicit links can and should be highlighted between a university’s Christian foundation and the values and ethos that it markets.
Thirty years ago, it was the norm to play down the distinctiveness of church schools. Fears about raising their profile proved to be ill-founded, and the church-school sector has thrived on its distinctive contribution. There are good reasons that the church universities can and should do likewise. But, to achieve this, they will need the Church itself to be more aware of their potential and see that its stake in education goes beyond its schools.
The Revd Dr John Gay is Honorary Research Fellow at the Department of Education, in the University of Oxford, and Visiting Professor at the University of Winchester.