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.