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From students to citizens

23 September 2016

Universities should be repositories of values and thoughtfuness about the common good, argues Stephen Heap

THEIR doors are open wide. Our universities are ready to receive the increasing number of students who will soon be travelling across the country, or from another land, to begin a new year in higher education.

What is, or should be, on offer for them? What does, or should, a university education involve? They are topical questions, answered in particular ways by the Higher Education Bill currently passing through Parliament. They are questions that Christians have long engaged with. Cardinal Newman famously answered them in his book The Idea of a University by saying that education was an end in itself, not necessarily for external gain. You go to university to get an education.

Amen to that; but maybe more needs saying about getting skills for the workplace, for example, and how education might equip students for service. In fact, Newman did say more, including that a university should help people to develop the capacity for “arranging things according to their real value”. Universities are about helping people discern the value of, for example, a particular course of action or world-view.

As Newman also said, they are about helping students to make judgements. That is a useful skill at work, but has much wider applications, including how students live as citizens in a world that faces challenges such as poverty, threats to the environment, and living with difference. The world needs citizens who can engage well with such issues, who can discern what is to be valued in contrasting approaches, different perspectives, and courses of action, and who can, as the former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Williams puts it, “exercise thoughtful responsibility”.

A new collection of essays by Lord Williams and other Anglicans,The Universities We Need: Theological perspectives, due out next month, argues that universities should be working to form students into graduates who make citizens. Professor David Ford, for example, writes of universities’ helping students to become graduates who are “wise people committed to the common good”.


SIMILAR sentiments appear in the mission statements of various Anglican universities. That of the University of Chester, for example, says: “The University seeks to provide all its students and staff with the education, skills, support, and motivation to enable them to develop as confident world citizens and successfully to serve and improve the global communities within which they live and work.”

The University of Winchester says that its mission is “to educate, to advance knowledge, and to serve the common good”. York St John seeks to “inspire our students and staff to reach their full potential, advance knowledge, and make a positive contribution to the world”.

If graduates are to make such a positive contribution, and “exercise thoughtful responsibility” towards the common good, they need to leave university with particular “attributes”, including a sense of social responsibility and a global outlook, York St John says. In practical terms, this happens at York St John when British and international language-students are brought together to learn how the world looks from different “cultural perspectives”, and when Human Geography students are helped to understand homelessness in York and how it relates to global economic processes.


SUCH attributes may also be developed through volunteering. Chester students spent nearly 40,000 hours doing local voluntary work last year, and more than 1500 students spent time abroad, on projects such as working with children with HIV in Romania and developing schools in Malawi. Such activities help students to think about global realities, encourage an ethic of service, and help them develop wisdom — important steps on the road to becoming “confident world citizens” committed to service and the common good.

Thinking about values is part of becoming such citizens. Winchester University’s Institute for Values Studies and chaplaincy-based King Alfred Award both give students opportunities to explore what it means to be a citizen in a globalised world, and how humankind can live peaceably with creation. Many of its courses also help students to think about how to work ethically in the careers that follow.

Universities are, at least potentially, a bedrock of values. They are about helping students to become graduates skilled for work, and also equipped to face the world’s challenges in a values-based, socially responsible, and thoughtful way. They do important jobs for their students and for society. Their doors are open wide.


The Revd Dr Stephen Heap is a visiting professor at the University of Winchester.

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