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The unique selling point of Church universities: serving the public good

09 February 2018

What could set church universities apart? How about spirituality, suggests John Gay

The Angel, by Amy Goodman, overlooks students at the King Alfred Campus at the University of Winchester, where a high number of first year students listed a desire to explore the spiritual dimension of life while at university

The Angel, by Amy Goodman, overlooks students at the King Alfred Campus at the University of Winchester, where a high number of first year students li...

AT A recent conference on security and intelligence studies in Oxford, various people asked me what I did. Research and development relating to church universities, I said.

One laughed, and assumed that that was my cover for other activities. Most, however, looked slightly intrigued and somewhat puzzled. Was I working in the United States? Were these the places that trained clergy? No, they are all in England, and they are all proper universities, I explained.

As the conference was held in one of the ancient foundation colleges with a chapel, and brimming with ecclesiastical history, near to Christ Church and the University Church, several volunteered that Oxford and Cambridge were, at least historically, church-foundation universities, and, in some significant senses, remained so today. The 19th-century creations of Durham and King’s College, London, were also often identified.

But then being told “four down, 14 to go” brought looks of genuine surprise. No one got beyond a further three. Once I went through the list, however, most were recognised as universities — but not as Church-related ones.


The 14 Church-related universities in England

Freestanding Church of England universities

Bishop Grossteste University, Lincoln
Canterbury Christ Church University
Plymouth Marjon University
University of Chester
University of Winchester
York St John University


Freestanding Roman Catholic universities

Leeds Trinity University
Newman University Birmingham
St Mary’s University Twickenham


Dual or mixed-mode universities

Liverpool Hope University
University of Chichester
University of Cumbria
University of Gloucestershire
University of Roehampton


THE 14 universities listed, together with the University of Wales Trinity St David, form the Cathedrals Group, so named because many of the universities are in cathedral cities. They say that they are the only group of universities in Britain with a commitment to serving the public good which springs from their faith-based values.

Collectively, they have more than 100,000 students studying the arts, humanities and social sciences, business and management, and sports studies, and with a focus on preparation for the public sector, such as nursing, social work, and youth community work.

Most were founded in the 19th century as colleges to train teachers for the mushrooming school system initiated by the Churches. It was only during the 1970s that they began diversifying. They remain, however, important providers of new teachers: about 30 per cent of all primary-school teachers and 16 per cent of secondary-school teachers are trained in the church universities.

They are campus-based, and pride themselves on providing friendly and welcoming environments. But they often struggle with what their religious foundations mean today.


MOST of the student-aged population is not conventionally religious. A recently published survey by British Social Attitudes revealed that, of the 18- to 24-year-old population in Britain, 71 per cent said they had no religion. Of the rest, six per cent were of another faith; five per cent were Roman Catholic; 14 per cent were members of another Christian group; and only three per cent were Anglican. It is little wonder, therefore, that the marketing campaigns of the Anglican universities do not focus on their Anglican credentials.

But replace “religion” with “spiritual”, and the position begins to look more encouraging. Since 1988, every state-funded school has been required to offer a curriculum that includes promoting pupils’ spiritual development.

Admittedly, “spiritual” is a slippery term to define, and Ofsted has had difficulty finding ways to inspect it. But because it cannot easily be measured is not sufficient reason to diminish its importance.

If the school system can take spiritual development seriously, might this not also be a way forward for the church universities to show that they take their religious foundations seriously?


RECENTLY, the University of Winchester undertook a rebranding exercise, using an external marketing company that sought the views of students, staff, and other stakeholders. The university emphasises its position as a values-driven institution, and so the consultants looked in particular at its expressed values.

They recommended, on the basis of their consultation feedback, that the values should be reduced from six to three, and that the three should be compassion, “Individuals matter,” and, to some people’s surprise, spirituality.

Each year, as part of their enrolment process, all the new first-year students were asked what they thought they would benefit from most during their time at the university. This year, 150 put as their top expectation the opportunities to explore the spiritual dimension of life, even though more than half of these students gave “no religion” as their personal position.

This could well be the tip of the iceberg. It is highly likely that, had students been asked to rank their expectations in order rather than simply choose their top one, spiritual exploration would have been a significant expectation for many more.

This whole area of the spiritual fits well with the student-aged zeitgeist. At Winchester, one of the early results has been the change of the Dean of Chapel’s title to Dean of Spiritual Life.


BUT can the church universities create the time and energy to develop this area, when so many pragmatic forces are pushing them in a more utilitarian direction? Already, they are having to respond to the implications of various government initiatives, including the new Office for Students, the next research excellence framework [REF], the teaching excellence framework [TEF], and the knowledge exchange framework [KEF].

With the departure of Jo Johnson as Minister for Higher Education, and the arrival of Sam Gyimah, perhaps there will be yet another framework coming along soon? Could the church universities beat Mr Gyimah to it by creating a spiritual exploration framework: an SEF?


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

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