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The God-shaped gap in the market

by
10 February 2017

Church universities can make a unique contribution within an increasingly commercialised system, argues John Gay

Giving back: students from the University of Winchester take part in a Community Action Day, clearing rubbish around the Stanmore housing estate, where many of the students live

Giving back: students from the University of Winchester take part in a Community Action Day, clearing rubbish around the Stanmore housing estate, wher...

IT IS not easy being a vice-chancellor, a governor, or a staff member of a university at the moment. The Higher Education and Research Bill, launched last summer, has certainly caused a flurry of critical response. At the heart of the Bill is the concept that higher education is a product that students choose and buy, and that universities advert­ise and sell.

It is a marketplace. There will be a market inspector, the Office for Students. Those uni­versities with the best stalls will do well, and those with the least attractive ones will suffer, and may even go out of business. Further­more, new stallholders will be encouraged.

This commercialisation of higher education is based on a very different model from the traditional one. As the Bill progresses, many attempts will have been made to soften or reverse its impact. The Parliamentary Select Committee on Education is investigating. The House of Lords has tabled more than 500 amendments, and most universities have been responding, especially through their national organisations.

When the Bill first came to the Lords, the Bishop for Higher Education, the Rt Revd Tim Dakin, the Bishop of Winchester, while welcoming the focus on students and the improvement of higher education, highlighted three significant concerns.

First, the Bill did not include a definition of what it meant to be a university today. This was a serious worry, as new and very different universities were being proposed.

Second, the Bill threatened the autonomy of existing universities, leading to a reduction in their variety — which could affect the church universities. He also echoed wide­spread anxiety about the proposed metrics for the Teaching Excellence Framework.

Moreover, for the first time in legislation, there was no formal recognition of the part played by Churches as long-term providers of higher education. So an amendment was introduced by the Bishops in the Lords on the need to maintain a diversity of provision, including church universities, to protect the range of choice for students.

 

THE Government has rightly emphasised that students expect value for money. Paying for their higher education means running up debts of more than £40,000. They expect their degrees to lead to jobs. So does the Govern­ment. Indeed, the tightness of the fit between degree and job is a central plank in the Gov­ernment’s plans to assess the quality of teach­ing: the higher the salary level com­manded, the better the teaching must have been.

This assumes, however, that employers select and reward applicants according to the quality of their degree. But do they? What do employers actually look for? A reasonable degree, certainly, and sometimes in a particu­lar subject. But if you do a Google search of the top ten attributes that employers seek, words such as “teamwork”, “verbal and writ­ten communication”, “flexibility”, “initia­tive”, “problem-solving”, “self-motivation”, and “organisation” occur repeatedly. Studying for a degree may be a necessary part of devel­op­ing these attributes, but it is unlikely to be a sufficient one.

What a university can offer towards the dev­el­opment of these soft skills through its wider experience is equally significant: feat­ures such as living in community, volun­teer­ing, leadership positions in student societies, part-time work, and participating in sport, music, and drama. Here, church universities have much to offer. A holistic view of a person is central to their foundational nature. Can this outlook survive in the emerging market­place?

 

CHURCH universities are small and, there­fore, vulnerable. The overall number of 18-year-olds is continuing to fall; part-time and EU students are disap­pearing. Without a commitment to research or community engage­ment, many new universities will offer cut-price degrees, but risk narrowing what it means to be a university.

Given the cost of a degree, and the attrac­tion of alternatives such as advanced-level apprenticeships, or, after A levels, going straight into a job with prospects, the pool of potential students may shrink. The Govern­ment’s proposals for a swath of new institutes of technology to help regenerate our industrial capacity provides yet more competition for students.

Assuming that the Government sticks to equating graduate earnings with good teach­ing, the church universities will be disad­van­taged. Teacher education remains one of their vital components, to which, in recent years, have been added other caring profes­sions, none of which generate City-level salaries.

For most universities, marketing and branding are now the order of the day. But browse the websites of a range of universities, and an irony emerges: they start looking the same. Smiley faces, high rankings in various league tables, shiny new buildings, endorse­ments from celebrity alumni, mortar boards thrown in the air on degree days, all over-painted with gallons of optimistic gloss.

So, how can church universities present themselves to potential students in ways that are true to their Christian foundations, and that also make sense in the atmosphere of the marketplace? The Vice-Chancellor of the University of Winchester, Professor Joy Carter, says: “As well as their degrees, the really distinctive contribution of the church universities is the value-added opportunity they offer of acquiring soft skills essential for the workplace and for the wider good of a cohesive society.”

 

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

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