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Scholarship and significance

28 September 2018

The Christian foundations of church universities help to distinguish them to students entering higher education, says John Gay

University of Winchester

The idea that individuals matter, that compassion is important and that spirituality is valued are distinctives of student life at the University of Winchester

The idea that individuals matter, that compassion is important and that spirituality is valued are distinctives of student life at the University of W...

THE recently published British Social Attitudes survey does not make encouraging reading for the church universities. Of the 18- to 24-year-old age group, only two per cent now say that they belong to the Church of England: down from nine per cent in 2002. No wonder their marketing directors fail to focus on their universities’ Anglican status.

Yet, irrespective of the personal religious positions of their students, the Anglican foundations of church universities have led directly to features that are very marketable: their relatively small size, the nature of their communities, their institutional values, their friendliness, their pastoral and academic support, and their emphasis on educating for careers in the public services. Their curriculum, however — what they teach, and how they teach it — has remained a secret garden.

Does this matter? Should there be any connection between a university’s Christian foundation and its curriculum? Several of the 12 Anglican-related universities make no reference on their websites to any link between their foundation and their curriculum; but some do.

Bishop Grosseteste University, Lincoln, says that its mission as a university is “inspired by the university’s Church of England foundation”, and its Vice-Chancellor, Canon Peter Neil, is clear that there should be, and is, a close connection between the foundation, the selection of subjects, and how they are taught.

So, their focus is on subjects concerned with improving the human condition, especially teacher training and education studies. Even their new area of geography looks at the real-world issues of social, ethical, and environmental justice through the prism of sustainable development.

The University of Winchester’s Vice-Chancellor, Professor Joy Carter, says that “in all that we do, we are driven by our values inspired by our Christian foundation.” She goes on to describe Winchester’s key values as “compassion”, “individuals matter”, and “spirituality”.

But do these high-sounding statements have any substance in lecture-room reality? To test this, a review was undertaken of the programme descriptors of each of the university’s courses, which concluded that the majority did, in fact, reflect the university’s values.

Interestingly, Liverpool Hope University and Canterbury Christ Church University, both of which emphasise their church foundations, jointly undertook a research project about schools, looking at whether what happens in the classroom of a church school is any different from that in a community school.

The main focus was the extent, if any, to which teachers applied their school’s claimed Christian ethos to their teaching and learning. The lead author, Professor Trevor Cooling, sees their published research and its proposals as being equally applicable to universities.

The equivocal relationship between church foundation and curriculum is a longstanding one. Originally, the church colleges were able to set their curriculum within a theological framework, but, by the end of the 19th century, this was challenged by the growth of the university-based training colleges, which were secular in character and of higher academic status. Teacher training was now emphasising intellectual attainment over spiritual development.

Then, from the 1920s onwards, a form of educational psychology, emanating from the prestigious London Institute of Education, became the dominant curriculum driver, and was assimilated by the church colleges without any serious critique. Although the outward signs of being a church institution — such as clerical principals and compulsory daily chapel — remained into the 1950s, their educational curriculum had become largely secular in its underlying assumptions.

This secular world-view was reinforced in the late 1960s, when the colleges began to award education degrees and their validating bodies started to scrutinise the academic credentials of their lecturers. Many of them, having come from school headships, did not have degrees themselves, and so embarked on Open University (OU) ones — not always realising that the education courses had a strongly secular and Marxist flavour.

They then used this curriculum when they returned to their colleges; it was often enhanced by handouts taken directly from the attractively produced OU course books. So, once again, many teachers were brought up on a style of educational curriculum which was at odds with the foundation aims of their training colleges.

In the 1990s, after research that highlighted external expectations that the church colleges should be applying Christian insights across the whole of their curriculum, an ecumenical project — Engaging the Curriculum — was launched. Activity was substantial. Although wound up in 2000, when grant funding ended, through its bulletins, books, and conferences the project had a significant awareness-raising impact, and has not been superseded by anything comparable since.

The view that education can be neutral and objective has long since been shaken. It is now widely recognised that the secular view of life is just as much an interpreted view as any other view — including the Christian one.

The time is right, therefore, for the church universities to develop once again — on a collaborative basis — the relationship between their Christian foundations and the curriculum they offer.

Even if not overtly religious, many young people are searching in the general area of spirituality and personal meaning. A curriculum that offers hope, personal development, and vision, besides being academically and professionally rigorous, could well open up a niche market for the universities.

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

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