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Good learning

13 March 2020

IN AN article last month, the Revd Dr John Gay, a regular contributor on the topic of higher education, lamented the fact that the Church of England had neglected the sector for many years (Education, 14 February). This week, a small group led by the Bishop of Winchester suggested a remedy, if only in theoretical terms. They championed higher education not because it made students more economically useful — which is, in any case, less likely now than before — but because it made them better. In their view, learning makes students more virtuous, since (to paraphrase) it involves close attention to the world and its people, and thus the Creator.

This vision, outlined in the paper Faith in Higher Education, is in answer to the question, what are people being educated for? Perhaps the biggest problem with the university sector is that this question is not really being asked — or if it is, the answer is too often phrased in economic terms: “They’re being educated for £9000 a year. . .” The paper is relatively mild in its criticism of a sector that has become increasingly commercial over the past decade, investing large sums in infrastructure and now exhibiting signs of institutional anxiety over attracting enough students to balance the books in an increasingly competitive market.

The vision outlined in the paper is a sound one. (There is always an element of idealism in the spelling out of any vision. The authors propose that social and pastoral tasks should be conducted by academics rather than specialist staff. The current troubles at Christ Church, Oxford, would suggest otherwise.) The depiction of wisdom rather than knowledge as a goal successfully draws in the concepts of right action. Wisdom is knowledge plus understanding. A wise person can be relied upon to act more sympathetically than a knowledgeable person, and, although such sympathy is not the exclusive preserve of religious people, it is, none the less, best informed by the love of God and neighbour.

The question, then, is what the right action is for a Church to take. The C of E is heavily invested in education, but overwhelmingly in the early years. It has nearly 4500 primaries, narrowing to just over 200 secondaries and a handful of further- and higher-education institutions with an Anglican foundation. It is all very well to pronounce on what higher education should be about, but to be taken seriously you have to have some skin in the game. This has long been the position of the Church in the financial markets. More applicably, it was the prevailing view two decades ago, when the General Synod got behind Lord Dearing’s proposal to expand the Church’s stake in the secondary sector (News, 15 December 2000). Now that the vision has been extended to higher education, the next step is clear: a thorough investigation into how the Church can be a player in protecting and promoting what is good in universities.

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