I AM very concerned about student debt. It hits particularly hard those entering the public services, in which few will ever earn high salaries. Many enter these professions out of a sense of idealism or vocation, accepting that public-service pay will never be high. They should not, additionally, have to face crippling long-term debt.
This is an overwhelming concern for the Cathedrals Group, because a significant proportion of its students are preparing for public service.
A solution might be a public-service covenant, in which the Government provided substantial bursaries or greatly reduced fees for anyone training to be a teacher, nurse, youth worker, social worker or something similar. Alternatively, the Government might wipe out the student debt of anyone entering these professions after their first years in service.
Such a covenant could play a vital part in the well-being of society, offering a vision for the common good.
The church universities’ focus on courses associated with public service is now disadvantaging the institutions themselves: new quality measures so far proposed are equating teaching excellence with the salary levels that their graduates can expect to attain.
This direction of assessment is a long way from my hope, expressed in my maiden speech in the House of Lords five years ago, that students should learn to co-operate as well as compete if they are to help build societies with social purpose.
Several successive governments have agreed that widening participation in higher education is a matter of social equity, and, at the same time, economically desirable. The church universities — Anglican, Roman Catholic, and ecumenical — are making a significant contribution to this aim. Between them, they have about 100,000 students: roughly the same number as all the Welsh universities put together.
They serve students from all faiths and none, and their commitment to widening participation and inclusion is strong. This derives principally from their foundation values.
These foundation values will underpin the Church of England’s vision documents for further and higher education, which are due to be published later this year. They will also draw attention to the disparity between higher and further education, and the undervaluing of technical and vocational qualifications.
We must see how the Church can help to redress this imbalance and engage with further-education institutions, especially since we do not, as yet, run any ourselves. To sponsor a strategic locally significant FE college would send a practical signal of our commitment to this sector.
We have also seen the catastrophic effect that marketisation has had on part-time students. As a result of setting a purchase price for education by charging fees directly to the students, there has been a 60-per-cent drop in part-time-student numbers in the past decade.
There is clearly an appetite among the young, including those in the “elite” universities, for something beyond the materialistic world. And, where Christian communities have focused on meaningful outreach, young people have responded positively.
Our national plans and work must be grounded at diocesan level, or they will fail. So, for instance, church representatives on university governing bodies, of whom I am one, have an important part to play, and it is one that they should take very seriously.
Finally, my own experience working in Africa and then managing a multinational agency has reinforced my view that, as part of an international communion, we should contribute to, and learn from, Anglican colleges and universities abroad. Linking the national with the local and with the international is, I believe, a key way forward for education.
The Rt Revd Tim Dakin is the Bishop of Winchester. He was in conversation with John Gay.