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Education: Church roots of universities now start to matter

14 June 2019

John Gay examines how church-based universities survive in an ever-changing environment

Ming Kit Wong, Selwyn College Chapel, Cambridge

Selwyn College Chapel, Cambridge

Selwyn College Chapel, Cambridge

A SURVEY of university vice-chancellors, Protected Past, Precarious Future, published by PA Consulting on 17 January, revealed their fear that the current trends in higher education will divide the sector into winners and losers. While most think that outright institutional closures are unlikely, 60 per cent expect a wave of cutbacks, partial closures, mergers, and takeovers.

Two contrasting groups of universities are structurally associated with the Church of England: the four oldest ones of Oxford, Cambridge, Durham, and King’s College, London, and 11 of the newest ones within the Cathedrals Group. The difference between the two groups is substantial.

Having emerged out of colleges of education, the Cathedrals Group universities are among the newest, and have had little time to build up the full panoply of university features, especially in the area of research. If the vice-chancellors’ predictions are correct, then some of them risk becoming losers. A news story last week highlighted the problems likely to be caused by the recent Augar report’s recommendations on student fees (News, 7 June).

The report also continues the attack on what are deemed to be low-financial-value subjects such as the creative arts, business studies, and social studies: subjects in which the church universities recruit strongly. And, to make matters worse, it recommends a rebalancing between HE and FE, with a resourcing shift towards the latter.

Taking up the challenge in the report to bring HE and FE work more closely together within one institution, however, could well be the salvation for an enterprising university.


GIVEN the challenging environment within which they are now working, it is perhaps not surprising that the Cathedrals Group universities tend to be reticent about their religious dimension, and sideline it in their websites. They are struggling to recruit new students and remain solvent in an increasingly competitive market.

Their marketing managers know that, with only three per cent of 18- to 24-year-olds identifying as Anglicans, highlighting their university’s Church of England credentials would not be a smart move.

It is better, it is thought, to translate their foundations into terms more fully appreciated by students, such as focusing on environmental-protection issues, teaching quality, and student support. This may be sensible, although, unless the linkage with the religious foundation is made explicit, it can easily recede over the horizon.

By contrast, the religious dimension in the life of the typical Oxbridge undergraduate college is clearly presented in its website.

There are good reasons for this contrast. In 2010, most of the older Oxbridge colleges ceased to be “exempt” charities, and came under the direct supervision of the Charity Commission (see note, below).

In preparing the new trust deeds, the commission enshrined within them the original purposes for which the colleges had been founded. For the pre-20th-century colleges, the promotion of education and religion were normally their twin purposes. So, their typical current charitable object reads: “The advancement of education, religion, learning, and research”.

The tie to the Church of England is usually clear in the chaplain’s or dean of chapel’s job description, and in the rubrics relating to the chapel and the type of services to be held. In their annual report to the Charity Commission, the colleges need to demonstrate that they are fulfilling their religious, along with their other, objectives. What better way to do this than by highlighting their chapel, chaplain, chapel services, their chapel choir, complete with organ and choral scholars, and their associated charitable outreach activities?

While most of the Durham colleges have non-religious foundations, two are explicitly Anglican. One is St Chad’s, where one of its two objects is “to advance education, learning, religion, and research within the college in accordance with the principles of the Church of England”; the Dean of Durham acts as the “guardian of the Christian character of the college”; and its current strategic plan states that “We live as the community which nurtures spiritual as well as intellectual growth.”

The other college, St John’s, includes within it, as an integral part, the Evangelical Anglican theological college of Cranmer Hall. Although the university itself ceased to be Anglican in 1909, it still maintains ecclesiastical elements, including having the Bishop as Visitor, and the Dean as an ex officio member of the University Council. In 2012, it became responsible for validating the Church of England’s national Common Awards programme for clergy training.


KING’S COLLEGE, London, was established in 1829 as a Church of England college with “the express purpose of ensuring that its students received an education that took seriously the religious dimension of life”. Its current royal charter states that, in advancing education and promoting research, it “shall have regard both to its Anglican tradition and the diverse beliefs and backgrounds of its members”.

Part of this is achieved through a unique programme that enables King’s students, staff, and alumni to explore religious and cultural perspectives, alongside their main programme of study. There are two series of lectures each year, on every campus. It is normally a three-year programme, with a two-hour annual examination. More than 2000 students follow the course each year, leading to a formal qualification: an Associateship of King’s College.

Oxford, Cambridge, and Durham all have demonstrable elements which relate to their religious foundations, which are safeguarded by their accountability to the Charity Commission. Although King’s is an exempt charity, it still needs to show that it is operating within the religious parameters of its royal charter. By contrast, there are no similar safeguards within the Cathedrals Group. They are “exempt” charities, accountable not directly to the Charity Commission but to the Office for Students, which is unlikely to be interested in their Anglican origins.

If the vice-chancellors’ scenario comes to pass, the Cathedrals Group universities will need support from the Church of England. In return, and quite reasonably, the Church could expect them to be more explicit about their Anglican identities. It would not be in the Church’s own reputational interests for its stake in higher education to be primarily within the elite ancient universities. The Church of England and its Cathedrals Group universities need each other.


Note: The 2006 Charities Act required all the so-called “exempt” charities not directly under the control of the Charity Commission to have a Principal Regulator which, in the case of the universities, was the Higher Education Funding Council for England [HEFCE]. This body already had an advisory committee relating to the 14 Cathedral Group universities but the committee was dissolved just before the Council itself was replaced by the new Office for Students. The Oxford, Cambridge, and Durham colleges, however, were considered to be sufficiently autonomous and independent not to have a principal regulator ,and so they ceased to be exempt and came under the direct supervision of the Charity Commission and needed new trust deeds created by the Commission.

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