Hilary Topp national co-ordinator, Student Christian Movement

06 July 2018

Education is about the whole person — it doesn’t have to always be about success

I was attracted by SCM’s openness and its deep spirituality. It was founded in 1889; so it’s the oldest national Christian student organisation in Britain. It was instrumental in the early ecumenical movement and founding the World Council of Churches, and we have a strong tradition of social-justice campaigning.

 

People often ask about our relationship with the Universities and Colleges Christian Fellowship (UCCF), the umbrella organisation for most Christian Unions (CUs). The honest answer is that SCM’s mission is different: ecumenical, student-led, inclusive, and focused on working for justice.

 

We want every student to find a vibrant, open, and inclusive Christian community, where they can explore faith and be inspired to put that faith into action. We have about 22 student communities at universities and churches, a network of individual members, and link churches and chaplaincies. We have an online platform, SCM Connect, that links new students with local churches, chaplaincies, and student communities. Students can join SCM from 16; so we also represent people in FE and HE colleges, and also the Open University.

 

I grew up in a small Anglican church. As a teenager, I went with my friends to an Evangelical Brethren chapel. At university, I joined the CU, but it wasn’t the right community for me. I was always asking questions and being met with: “We’ll pray for you,” when I just wanted honest answers.

 

I had a difficult time in my second year, and found a wonderfully supportive group, MurthSoc [Methodist and United Reformed Society], who welcomed everyone. There was always hot chocolate and plenty of biscuits, and I felt accepted just as I was. I want all students to find a community like that.

 

Research published in 2013 found that Christian students’ faith while at university remains largely unchanged. University is where faith is both questioned and deepened, discovered or rediscovered. A recent SCM blog post by a student read: “It’s surprising that my conversion to Christianity lies on the foundations of ecclesiastical architecture, Movement magazine, and fair-trade coffee, but that’s the way it goes sometimes.”

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We’re supported through prayers, assistance, and donations from SCM friends, occasional legacies, and grants for projects from trusts, and we have a live appeal to raise funds to employ regional development workers in Scotland, the north-west, and the Midlands. Some of our students also support us; but we try to keep costs down for students who participate in our activities.

 

Students choose our campaigns, shape our strategy, and set policies. Our trustees are all students and recent graduates, and they’re elected by our members; so this gives students a voice and a community to represent their own interests.

 

I think it’s important not to underestimate what SCM can achieve as a charity and as a community. Many of our groups work with other Christian student groups organising events, engaging in mission, and campaigning on social-justice issues. We’re also involved in interfaith work locally and nationally, and quite a few SCM groups get involved in Interfaith Week and campaign against climate change, food poverty, and for refugees.

 

We also aim to represent students’ own interests more widely. We were very involved in opposing the increase in tuition fees.

 

I think tertiary education should be funded from central taxation, but it should be genuinely accessible to anyone at any point in their lives.

 

Higher education hasn’t been dumbed down, but perhaps it’s oversold. It’s become very commercialised, and there’s a lot of pressure now to get a degree to get the job you want. That can take the joy out of learning, and creates a huge amount of pressure to be “successful”.

 

Going to university shouldn’t be a transactional arrangement — you pay your money, you work really hard, and you get your qualification, and if you’re lucky you might just get your dream job. That’s a very individualistic view, and can justify ever higher fees. Education is about the whole person. It’s a social good, and it has intrinsic value: it doesn’t have to always be about success. As Christians, we shouldn’t lose sight of that. Part of higher-education chaplaincy is to say: “You’re important and loved as you are, not because of what you achieve.”

 

University chaplains have a really difficult job, caring for the spiritual needs of the whole university community, people of all faiths and none. They’re on the front line when there’s a tragic event. They’re uniquely able to do that, and, sadly, they have to do this quite often.

 

Some universities are reducing funding for chaplaincy, which is worrying, because chaplains do a huge amount of work supporting students with poor mental health, and at times of crises. Certainly the pressure of financing studies and securing work doesn’t help, and universities should be providing support in what can be a very high-pressure environment; but we need to campaign for better NHS mental-health provision for all.

 

There’s a brilliant Rabbit Café run by the chaplain at Brunel University. She got staff to bring in their pet rabbits for a pop-up café in the chaplaincy where students could cuddle the rabbits. It was really popular.

 

My understanding of God has changed so much that now I’m not sure what was God and what was an overactive imagination. I grew up assuming that God was real, and never questioned it, and probably thought God was a man sitting on a cloud. Now, I think of God as more of an underlying reality. I’d say I encounter God in other people, in the natural world, and in a Quaker meeting for worship.

 

I had a happy childhood. My parents were both teachers. We had an old sky-blue camper van, and would go to Wales whenever the forecast was OK. My sister and I would sleep on the front seats, and my brother in a roll-out bunk. My partner and I live in Birmingham now, in a happy but slightly messy house with our two children.

 

My degree was in Environmental Sciences at the University of East Anglia. After some voluntary work, including at the Iona Community’s Camas Centre, and teaching biology for two years in Zanzibar, I went back to UEA to do an MA in Development Studies and Education, and then did a PGCE in Secondary Science at Sheffield.

 

If my children go to university, I hope they won’t be working a part-time job to pay for it, or worrying about what they’re going to do next, and that they’ll make the most of their freedom to discover what they are really passionate about.

 

I love walking, painting pictures, camping, going on holiday, getting to the top of mountains. We walked up a mountain in the Lake District at Easter, and our five-year-old was very excited to find a snowman on top.

 

Silence is a pretty good sound.

Our Government’s complicity in selling weapons to dodgy regimes around the world, and generally subsidising the arms trade, makes me angry. That, and the amount of money we spend on the military, nuclear weapons, and the arms industry compared to schools, hospitals, and social services.

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I enjoy facilitation, and spend some of my spare time creating workshops, activities, and strategy review days for charities and small businesses. I love helping people to realise what they already know, and bring their own spirituality into discerning the best way forward.

 

I’m also looking forward to being deputy moderator of Churches Together in England’s triennial forum in September 2018. Part of my brief is to encourage more 18-to-35s to be involved.

 

I feel hopeful, even though I know how awful the world is at times. Little things make me feel hopeful: sunny days, time spent with good friends, kind words, helpful strangers.

 

As a Quaker, I think prayer is more about listening to God and to ourselves.

I’d choose my partner, John, if I was locked in a church with anyone. Having two small children means we don’t spend much quality time together; so it’d be lovely to have a few hours to sit and chat.

 

Hilary Topp was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

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