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Universities in survival mode

19 June 2020

Church institutions must play their cards right, John Gay advises


Bubble life? Distancing for the next generation of students

Bubble life? Distancing for the next generation of students

WHAT is the future for the church universities, post-pandemic? Will they survive the inevitable fallout? This depends in part on how they can handle the immediate issues.

The effects of the lockdown on students vary according to their university year. Final-year students have had their courses cut short. They have been worrying about the nature of their final exams, what their resultant degrees will be worth, and whether there will still be any jobs for them. Furthermore, all their friends suddenly disappeared, and there were no end-of-course parties and farewells.

Returning students have different concerns. What will they returning to? Will they be able to come back on to campus, or will their next phase be home-based, following online programmes instead? If the latter, why do they have to pay full fees? Will they be able to afford the fees now the evening job flipping burgers has gone? Many already have debts which they were hoping to pay off in their first job — but now that job looks unlikely.

What about those looking forward to starting university this September? The first fresher weeks away from home are vital for resetting who you are and making new friendships. But what will it be like? Will it all be online and virtual, or will there be some real face-to-face campus life?

The current in-term is “blended”, implying a mixture of both, but what proportion will be campus based? Will the current planning for “bubbles”, whereby students live and work in the same small group, be attractive enough to compensate for the lack of a wider student experience?

The universities must give a clear answer, the Office for Students says, so that students can decide what to do: accept a place, defer for a year, or look at other career options.

How have the universities themselves been coping? Their initial priority has been their existing students; new technologies require new ways of working even for the most technophobe lecturer. Inevitably, an enormous amount of energy is being expended dealing with the immediate consequences of lockdown.

And there are precious few precedents to learn from. Few if any universities would have had pandemics factored into their risk registers or insurance policies.


WHAT are some of the immediate consequences for the universities?

Already they are facing large income losses from cancelled conferences, summer schools, and closed halls of residence. Come September, further losses will accrue if they don’t fill all their places — and, for the less prestigious universities, there is a serious risk. Although a five-per-cent cap has been put on the additional students that any university can recruit, because the more prestigious ones will be losing many of their lucrative overseas students, they will now be fishing much more in the home-market catchment areas of the church universities.

Looking outwards has always been one of the values enshrined by the church universities; and so, unsurprisingly, they have been taking a range of actions to help in lockdown. Besides supporting their own staff and students, they have been providing accommodation for frontline workers, developing teaching resources for parents to use with their children, giving equipment to hospitals, and making personal protection equipment, including 3D face masks.

Students on nursing and paramedical courses have been volunteering to work in hospitals. One particularly thoughtful student project has been to provide hand cream for hospital staff whose hands get wrecked by repeated washing.

Given that national rebuilding will require universities to prioritise meeting the needs of the economy, it is fortunate that there are already two significant theological works available which place universities in a wider context. An edited volume by Stephen Heap, The Universities We Need: Theological perspectives (Routledge, 2017), includes chapters by David Ford, Suzy Harris, Mike Higton, Rowan Williams, and John Wood. There is also Faith in Higher Education: A Church of England Vision, written by a development group chaired by the Bishop of Winchester, the Rt Revd Tim Dakin.

Also, as an immediate theological response, an online conference was due to be held on Wednesday, designed to stimulate theological reflection on the global pandemic. The initiative was led by Professor Neil Messer, of the University of Winchester, who received offers of written papers from more than 160 delegates. Many of the papers were from early career scholars, and also from those in Church rather than academic posts.

There was also an international involvement. Copies of the presented papers are on open access. Both publications and the online conference are timely expressions of the part that theology still has to play in society.


HOWEVER well the church universities are able to handle the immediate issues, there are dark clouds ahead for them, institutionally.

Paradoxically, it was a recent report to the Government by the sector’s main representational body, Universities UK, which launched an early threat. The report proposed “a transformation fund to support universities over the next 2 to 3 years to reshape and consolidate through federations and partnerships or potentially merge with other higher education institutions, further education colleges or private providers”. While the Government has not, so far, agreed to a transformation fund, the merger genie has been let out of the bottle.

Other problems for the church universities include their relatively small size — an average of 7000 — whereas the figure for all English universities is 15,000; they are essentially teaching rather than research-focused universities; two-thirds of their students study liberal arts, whereas few study the “hard” sciences; and they are low-tariff universities accepting students with modest entry qualifications.

They do, however, have some strong cards to play. They are much less dependent on overseas students, who account for only 5.6 per cent of their student body as opposed to 20.8 per cent for all universities. They have an excellent record for social inclusion, which is a government priority. A quarter of all teachers are trained by them.

Also, they have a niche market among those students who have no wish to go to a large, more anonymous university.


CANON Professor Peter Neil, Vice-Chancellor of Bishop Grosseteste University and acting chair of the Cathedrals Group of universities, acknowledges this when he speaks of the distinctiveness of church universities: “The Cathedrals Group of universities provide life-changing experiences for people from many backgrounds that are under-represented in UK higher education. To meet the challenges ahead and begin levelling-up society in the aftermath of the pandemic, it is vital to recognise and value the distinctive support, settings, and ethos that church-founded institutions add to the choice of HE provision across the UK.”

Central to that vision in what he says is the group’s “key role training the next generation of public-sector workers”. He speaks of having to navigate through “the difficult period ahead”.

The Vice-Chancellor of the University of Winchester, Professor Joy Carter, is clear that there should be a future for “smaller free-standing universities, such as the church universities, which have a long tradition of producing values-based graduates, many of whom become teachers and other servers of the common good. We also contribute hugely to our regions, both socially and economically. Bigger is not always better.”

Despite a strong case for remaining free-standing, some of the church universities might well be “encouraged” into other arrangements. These could well result in the diminution, or even disappearance, of the university’s Christian foundation. There are already cautionary lessons to be learnt following the so-called “massacre” of the church colleges of education in the 1970s. While each university will undoubtedly consider what is in its best interests, it would be sensible for some advance modelling to be undertaken on the range of other arrangements which might be in keeping with their Christian foundations.

These arrangements could include:

1. Remaining free-standing, building further on strengths and also considering possibilities such as: becoming teaching rather than research and teaching; playing an additional part in FE work; downsizing and subject-focusing.

2. Mergers, partnerships, or federations between two or more free-standing church universities, either Church of England only or with Roman Catholic universities, following the successful model of Liverpool Hope.

3. Adopting an internal collegial structure as part of a merger, in which one college is the explicitly Christian foundation and the rest of the university is secular. Durham University is an example, and there are also a number in North America and Australia.


Both my previous article on 14 February (Education, 14 February), and the paper’s editorial four weeks later (Comment leader, 13 March) called for serious research and investigation into the part that the church universities could play in the future. A time-frame for the work of at least a year was envisaged.

Ten days after the editorial, the country went into lockdown. Pre-pandemic leisurely timescales are now no longer appropriate: modelling needs to start immediately. Once October comes, and universities see how many students have signed up, parlous financial viability will drive some to start thinking of linking up with others. At that point, developed models for continuing their Christian foundations will be needed.

How might this be achieved? There is already available research and statistical information and evidence from the recent past which can inform modelling. One way forward could be through a specially convened policy think tank. But could this be achieved? Or will it be each university working out its own salvation irrespective of its church foundation?


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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