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Higher education — has the C of E lost the plot

14 February 2020

A focus on schools means that church colleges have been ignored, John Gay argues

University of Winchester

The Strip Plaza at the University of Winchester

The Strip Plaza at the University of Winchester

A NEW decade, a new government, a new relationship with Europe. The future of further and higher education, like so much else, is uncertain.

Two likely trends will be the shift in balance and resourcing from higher education towards further education and the continuation of the Government’s utilitarian view of the purposes of universities.

The latter will be reinforced by the proposed “Value for Money” review trailed in the Conservative manifesto promise to tackle “low-quality courses” and to shift funding to “priority subjects”.

None of this is good news for the church universities of the Cathedrals Group. The value of higher education measured primarily in market terms goes against much of what they stand for. Individually, to survive the decade as universities, they may have little choice but to dance to the tune of the piper. But, in doing so, will they still be church universities?

What is clear is that the market makes universities compete with each other for students and for resources, and so collaboration be­­comes difficult. Yet there are individuals and groups within the church universities who are strongly committed to working out what their church foundation means, and who will be so much more effective in doing so if they can unite across university boundaries.

They need external drivers to enable this to happen. A key one should be the Church of England itself. But can it repair its relative neglect of further and higher education and at the same time maintain its church schools work?


CHURCH of England schools are a very successful and popular brand. Most are prim­aries and, as such, relate very closely to the Church’s parochial structure. They are sup­­ported by professional teams of diocesan advisors, and a national Division of Education provides strategic and policy overviews and guidance: school, parish, diocese, Westminster, all working together. At a time of numerical decline in so many areas of church life, it is no wonder that church schools are trumpeted as such a success story.

But, in achieving all this, there has been col­lateral damage. At a dio­cesan level, most boards for education have, in practice, become boards for schools. So, too, at the national level. For example, the official history of the National Society, celebrating 200 years of work in educa­tion, devotes a mere six of its 100 pages to the church colleges of education.

That is despite the fact that the Church was a pioneer of teacher education, and still has a part to play in relation to its 12 church uni­versities, which edu­cate 100,000 students.

The author, Lois Louden, in her intro­duction, regrets that she can only tell their story “in the barest outline”.

At national support level, there are at least eight officers concerned primarily with schools; yet there has not been a full-time national higher education officer for several years now. Instead, some — but not all — aspects of that post have been incorporated into the further-education officer’s existing position.

In 2013, the Archbishops’ Council did designate, for the first time, a lead bishop for further and higher education (the Bishop of Win­chester, the Rt Revd Tim Dakin), and he has a full-time public-affairs assistant to help.

But, in comparison with the national sup­port for schools, and at a time when the further and higher education world is getting in­­creas­ingly complex, the Church’s capacity to engage with that world remains slim.


RESEARCH is a central component of uni­versity work, and so I turned to the British Academy-sponsored British Religion in Num­bers to see what publicly available studies had already been undertaken. There were 83 listed on church schools, but only one on the church universities — and that was in the 1980s when they were still colleges of higher education.

Research was undertaken through the An­­glican Identity Project (2011-14) sponsored by the Division of Education, but only some of its results and conclusions were made available, and then only to a very limited readership.

Subsequently, the University of Winchester has been undertaking follow-up research, partly on its own Anglican identity and partly on the wider aspects of the Church’s involve­ment in higher education. A verbal presenta­tion of the material, conclusions, and implica­tions was offered to each of the other church universities, and a high level of take-up in­­dicated a considerable interest in the issues raised.

All this is a good start, but needs to be built upon.

One way forward would be through a national research prog­ramme to examine the ways in which the church universities can make an appropriate contribution — as Chris­tian foundations — to the future development of further and higher education in England. To have full credibility it would need to be driven by a well-respected external research body.

As well as the Cathedrals Group uni­vers­ities, there are other Anglican-foundation higher-educa­tion institutions which could well be partners in the project. These include the older Oxbridge colleges which have the promotion of religion as one of their charitable objects, King’s College London, and St Chad’s and St John’s Colleges, in Durham. A partner­ship with the Methodist and Roman Catholic member­ship of the Cathedrals Group would be an added bonus.

Experience of the collaborative Church Col­eges Research Project of the 1980s, and the follow-on Engaging the Curriculum Project of the 1990s, suggests that institutions are more likely to work together if the research is externally led, if there is funding for their involvement, and if the outcomes are going to be made public.


THE threats are clear. The University of Derby is an example of where the assets of a church college disappeared almost without trace into a larger secular institution.

Also, it is not clear how the church-founda­tion elements of the University of Wales Trinity St David at Lampeter and Carmarthen might be retained within the emerging new University of Wales.

A review of the websites of the other Ca­­thedrals Group universities suggests that some of them may be finding it difficult to square their church foundations with current realities. Even if names and institu­tions re­­main, how many others might be lost effec­tively as church foundations by 2030?

What is needed is a fully collaborative, well-funded and hard-nosed research and develop­ment programme to help the existing church-foundation universities work out how to be effective as church foundations in the years ahead.


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

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