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Don’t let the market ruin higher education, C of E paper argues

13 March 2020

C of E’s Education Office argues against ‘marketisation’

istock

UNIVERSITIES should be places of wisdom, community, virtue, and faith, a new paper from the Church of England Education Office states.

The paper, Faith in Higher Educa­tion: A Church of England vision, was launched at a reception in the House of Lords on Wed­nesday even­ing. It maintains that “scholarship presupposes a God who is there.” And it argues against “marketisa­tion” and “economic in­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­stru­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­ment­al­ism” in the sector.

The paper also picks a course between the two views of education as a private or a public good: “To think of a university as only pro­viding private goods which belong to one person ignores the social benefits of a thriving higher educa­tion sector. But higher educa­tion is not simply a state-provided public good like street lighting. . . The nur­tur­ing of intelligent citizens is neither a purely private good, nor simply a public one.”

Faith in Higher Education was put together by the C of E further educa­tion and higher education de­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­velop­ment group, chaired by the Bishop of Winchester, the Rt Revd Tim Dakin, who is the Church’s lead bishop for further and higher educa­tion. The paper notes that the uni­versity sector has grown expon­­en­tially in recent years, and employs 429,000 people in 352 institu­tions. It is said to represent about £21.5 billion (1.2 per cent) of the UK’s GDP, and adds £95 billion to the economy.

The Anglican stake is through 11 universities in the Cathedrals Group, educating 100,000 students each year, and a wide network of univer­sity and college chaplains.

In a foreword to the paper, Bishop Dakin outlines a vision “of a humane education, inspired by wisdom, com­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­munity, virtue and the common good. It is a vision of an education in which religion, faith and spirituality take their proper place.”

On the topic of wisdom, the paper says that the pursuit of knowledge cannot be divorced from its social and ethical context. Nor can the world and human affairs be ex­­plained away in simplistic terms. “If we are wise, we will be comfortable with, and celebrate, thick, multi-layered and comple­­­mentary descrip­tions of reality. Higher education should aspire to be comprehensive, with each discipline respecting the insights of others.”

Similarly: “Wisdom also rejects eco­­nomic instrumentalism. Al­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­though from the perspective of wisdom knowledge is never without a purpose, that purpose is much broader than material prosperity. It can also serve aesthetic, environ­mental and political ends.”

Nor is the pursuit of knowledge futile. A presupposition that God exists means that “there is something worth arguing about.”

The paper argues for the im­­portance of community, of which mutual trust is an essential element. It also maintains that there is a link between academic excellence and virtue. “Academic freedom is what enables scholars to make a distinctive contribution to collective wisdom. . .

“Such freedom is not freedom from accountability to others. Rather it is the freedom to be a unique exemplar of a life spent in pursuit of what is true, just and useful.”

On the subject of faith, the paper notes: “Even a basic knowledge of Christianity on the part of most well-educated people can no longer be assumed, let alone any under­standing of those other religions whose presence in the British Isles is more recent.

“This is no mere intellectual loss. As world events since the turn of the millennium have painfully reminded us, religions can be powerful forces for good and ill. The successful nego­tiation of religious difference is vital for the common good.”

It urges higher-education institu­tions to be “more self-aware of their own faith-inflected histories . . . and those of the bodies of scholarship they exist to preserve, transmit and develop.”

In addition: “Higher education institutions should take seriously the fact that we are all spiritual be­­ings, made with a longing for the divine. This dimension of human existence and aspiration will there­fore not be arbitrarily excluded from the study of subjects and com­mun­ity life but will always be a welcome presence, however tenta­tive and ex­­ploratory.”

The paper also touches on free­dom of speech, diversity, and the contribution that chaplains make to intellectual as well as the pastoral life of their institutions. And it ac­­knowledges the pressures on stu­dents, lecturers, and non-academic staff, many stemming from the market­isation of the sector.

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