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Going to University

By Stephen Heap.

In this article, I will go behind the headlines and explore a little more of what is happening in our universities, which may be of interest to ministers of all denominations. It is likely that most will know someone who is either a student or staff member at a university. I make that prediction because in recent years the university sector has grown enormously, with more universities, more students and more staff than ever before. Nearly forty five per cent of eighteen to twenty five year olds now go to university as undergraduates. Others go later in life, and some go, or stay on, as postgraduates. There are a lot of students out there! There may even be a university on your ‘patch’.

The forty five percent refers to the whole of the United Kingdom. However, universities are a devolved responsibility. Arrangements for them vary in different parts of the UK.  This article is mainly about England, but those in other parts of these islands may recognise some of the story.

If there is a fair chance that most know a university student or staff member, there is also a fair chance they will know about recent increases in student fees in England and elsewhere. They hit the headlines, and are likely to have been mentioned by at least some of those at university, or thinking of applying, or their parents. Most universities now charge students close to the £9,000 p.a. maximum allowed.

One thing to notice is that the fees do not need paying ‘up front’. Almost all home students are eligible for a loan to cover the fees, plus grants to help with maintenance. The loans are repaid after graduation and once a salary level of £21,000 p.a. has been reached.

Despite that, some feared the fee levels would deter people from going to university, and perhaps especially deter the poor. In fact, there was a drop in applicants in the first year of the new system, which began in academic year 2012-13, but since then the numbers have increased again, including from lower socio-economic groups. Over half a million students began first degrees in the UK in autumn 2014, the highest figure ever, of whom 447,500 were from the UK, up 3.2% on last year. Young people from lower socio-economic groups were 10% more likely to enter university in 2014 than in 2013, and that is part of a continuing trend, though the wealthy are still far more likely to attend than the poor.

That does not mean everyone who would otherwise have gone to university has done so under the new system, and, arguably, one person deterred from university who wanted to go and had the ability to go is one too many.

There is evidence that some do not go on to do post-graduate work because of the difficulty of getting financial support. The government took steps to address that in the 2014 Autumn Statement, in which George Osborne announced plans to introduce loans for some post-graduate students.

Money for universities needs to come from somewhere and the argument is put that, as students gain from education, so they should contribute. That is a fair point. The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) reports that, in narrow economic terms, graduates earn an average of £9,000 p.a. more than non-graduates, though the gap is narrowing. Research done for BIS also suggests graduates tend to be healthier, less involved in crime (except violent crime!) and more involved in their children’s education than non-graduates. Graduates do gain from education. Equally fair is the point that society also gains from an educated population – a functioning democracy needs them and a healthier and less criminal population is also cheaper for society! So there are grounds for arguing that society should contribute to the costs of education alongside the individual.

For Christians there may be unease at the particular funding system chosen. It is a system predicated on debt. Most people, in order to go to university, have to take on a debt. Debt is something Christians have often felt nervous about or, indeed, opposed to. Muslims may share a similar concern, perhaps heightened for them by the Quranic ban on interest.

There are, however, other things going on for universities of which the fees and loan system are but a part and symbol. Just what is happening can be seen by looking at two documents upon which the present system is largely based and the effects the policies they advocate are having. The first of those two documents is the report of the Independent Review of Higher Education Funding and Student Finance, chaired by Lord Browne, and often called the Browne review. That report came out in October 2010. The second is the June 2011 Higher Education White Paper, Students at the Heart of the System.

A key theme of both documents is that competition should be introduced into the university system, on the grounds that this will improve quality. The argument is that, by giving students loans with which to pay university fees, and also giving them information about courses, students will be given resources to choose and purchase the course best for them. Universities will then have to compete for students. Such competition will lead to universities improving the quality of what they offer and that in turn will lead to an improvement in the overall university experience and system, or so it is argued. “Competition generally raises quality’ and ‘genuine competition … (is) in our view a surer way to drive up quality that any attempt at central planning” says Browne. “The forces of competition replace the burdens of bureaucracy in driving up the quality of the academic experience” says the White Paper. What is not considered is what impact competition might have on the educational process, which actually relies on co-operation as well as competition. That is true of, for example, the lecturer-student relationship, and of the need for various disciplines to co-operate when working on complex research issues.

It will be noted that here is an application of market principles to universities. However, it is not a pure application of such principles. For example, there is, at present, a cap on the number of ‘customers’ a university can have and a limit to what they can charge. Also, while Browne and the White Paper envisage some subject areas being entirely dependent on attracting sufficient students and their fees to make them viable, other subjects have continued to get direct government support. The latter are typically expensive to teach and, to quote Browne, “deliver significant social returns such as to provide skills and knowledge currently in shortage or predicted to be in the future.” Browne continues: “Typically, the courses which may fall into this category are courses in science and technology subjects, clinical medicine, nursing and other healthcare degrees, as well as strategically important language courses”.

That is a very particular list. It may raise questions about what makes something ‘strategically important’, which will be returned to below. It may also raise questions about what happens to other subject areas which may not be hugely popular, and thus not recruit large numbers, but which some may consider important. Theology is possibly a subject area of interest to readers of Ministry Today. What has actually happened to theology and religious studies courses is that there has been a massive decline in applications and enrolments since the new fees regime began. In 2011-12, there were 3,665 students entering undergraduate theology and religious studies courses. In 2012-13, the first year of the new fees, there were 2,160. Apart from the more narrow concerns that may raise for the church about, for example, the general pool of knowledge of biblical knowledge amongst the population, any decline in already low levels of religious literacy is a serious matter for a society learning to live as a multi-faith society and a world where religion is a powerful force shaping societies and individuals, perhaps especially given that its influence is not always positive.

A similar drop in numbers can be seen for arts, humanities and social sciences overall. In 2011-12, there were about 430,000 undergraduates entering those subjects; in 2012-13, only about 360,000. Some courses in these areas are being closed as student numbers fall and as universities need to secure their financial future.

To understand why Browne chose that particular list of subjects, it must be recognised that in Browne and the White Paper is a very particular view of what universities are for. What both stress is the economic function of universities. They do not claim that is all they are about, but that is what is prioritised. So, for example, Browne says “there needs to be a closer fit between what is taught in higher education and the skills needed in the economy”. Universities then are to provide workers with the skills needed in the economy. Conversely, they are to provide students with the skills needed to get a job – and re-pay the loan! Given the reality of the loan, the debt, and the rhetoric about the economic aims of universities, it may be that prospective students are increasingly likely to take more obviously vocational courses, and courses more likely to lead to better paid jobs – or they may prove more discerning than that!

The other role for universities stressed in Browne and the White Paper is enhancing social mobility. This is to happen both through increasing the number of entrants from lower socio-economic groups to universities generally, and also increasing the number of such entrants to so called ‘elite’ universities. Both those roles are likely to be affirmed by Christians as important in themselves. Work is one way in which people contribute to the common good and provide for self and family. Enhancing social mobility is a way of loving the neighbour. However, my own Christian faith leads me to think this is a rather limited view of what universities and education are about, and universities with such a narrow focus are not likely to be the universities society needs. Christian faith says human beings are called to love God and one another, to seek the good both for individuals and the community under God. If education is to prepare us for that, then part of being educated must be learning to handle questions of what is good. It must also be about what is true, for part of living a good life is dealing with the world as it is.

Against such a background, education must have to do with helping people face questions about how to live the good life, both in abstract terms and in facing the particular challenges which arise for individuals and society. In fact, whether people believe in God or not, and whether they think about education from a Christian perspective or not, questions about how we live in a good, peaceful and sustainable way are rather pressing, as can be illustrated with reference to the environmental crisis, for example, or to questions of how society copes with those who do not hold what are often called the broadly liberal views of the majority (on sexual ethics, for example), or how society learns to live as a secular, multi-cultural, multi-faith society with all the questions that raises, from how animals should be slaughtered to how we even discuss what it means to be good and what is true. How to handle such questions without resorting to enmity and violence is clearly an important issue. A university education which fails to at least have such issues on the agenda is simply not preparing people for living in the world as it is. 

If not, the universities are not only failing society, but are also out of step with the various traditions of what it is to be a university. Cardinal Newman, in his classic work The Idea of a University, argues that education is an end in itself, not needing any other justification. However, he does think students accrue other attributes in pursuing education in this way, not least ‘wisdom’ for life. Nearer to the present day, the Robbins report of 1963, which did much to shape universities in twentieth century Britain, argued that universities are, among other things, for “the search for truth” and “the transmission of a common culture and common standards of citizenship”. Another significant twentieth century document about universities, the 1997 report on Higher Education in the Learning Society, says universities are to “be part of the conscience of a democratic society” and “to play a major role in shaping a democratic, civilised, inclusive society.” Those reports are saying universities are about society and its good.

Contemporary theological commentators on universities make similar points. Rowan Williams stresses the role universities have in helping to form citizens. That once meant universities equipping an elite to govern. With the spread of democracy, every citizen has a role, and needs equipping for that role. That equipping can happen in various ways, but traditionally it is something universities have been involved in and there is good reason for them to be so now, given the number of young people who pass through them. In a 2012 lecture to the Colleges and Universities of the Anglican Communion, Williams spoke of universities being about “equipping potentially every citizen with the intelligence that is needed for public life to be healthy, diverse and constructive, with ways of handling and ways of overcoming toxic conflict”. Such ‘public intelligence’, he argues, is “not a self-evident quality of many societies; that’s why universities are important.”

David Ford also writes about universities helping to create good citizens. The aim, he says, in his Christian Wisdom (Cambridge, CUP, 2007), is to help students become “wise people committed to the common good”. He also argues in his 2003 Gomes lecture that universities should be about “The long term flourishing of the world”. Mike Higton makes similar points in his A Theology of Higher Education (Oxford, OUP, 2012). Therein he reflects on education in the light of the Eucharist in Anglican Common Worship, and argues that universities must always be about seeking the good for individuals and society, including the good to which the Eucharist points.

Here we are in the realm of why what is happening in universities might be important to Christian ministers. Universities are likely to be significant shapers of young people and what they think life is about. As ministers, we proclaim a gospel which holds certain ways of living both as individuals and in society to be good. Are our universities shaping lives and societies towards the good?

Maybe one thing all this might say to Christian ministers is how important it is for us to help young adults think about life in more than economic terms. Encouraging them in getting an appropriate job is good in itself, but there is work to be done also in helping them think about the nature of society, the big issues society faces, and how individuals seek the good in and for society. If government does not recognise the importance of that as part of education, we must. Of course, that is a work which is important not just with the young. The church as a place for the facing of big issues seems to fit with a church which is about a Kingdom and, of course, Kingdom perspectives are what the church will want to offer into such debates.

It may also be that the church needs to be involved in promoting and influencing debate about education, including universities. The church has a long-standing interest in education. Most Christian traditions in this country have been involved in founding schools, colleges and universities. Perhaps we need to remind ourselves of why education matters to Christians. Historically, it has been about providing people with skills, helping them climb out of poverty, what would have been seen as civilising people, and about developing God-given talents and a sense of responsibility in the use of those talents in the service of the community. There has also at times been a more narrowly evangelistic agenda; teaching the truth of the gospel. Does the church continue to have such interests in education and what does the faith of the church lead it to want to say about education, including universities, at present? Might it lead to the church wanting to raise questions about universities with parliamentary candidates, for example?

Some of those reading this may be university chaplains or student workers, perhaps do some teaching, be university governors or council members, or have some other contact with a university as part of your work. Perhaps I can raise some questions you may want to reflect on.

  • What vision inspires you to do such work?
  • What are you doing to contribute to the educational work of the university in fulfilling your role?
  • What are you doing to support staff, many of who may share a fuller view of education than that in Browne and the White Paper?

Universities are massively important in shaping lives and societies. This article argues they need to be about shaping them for the good. Christian leaders of all denominations might want to think about how they can help with that.

Stephen Heap

Baptist minister, until recently the Church of England’s National Higher Education Adviser and a Visiting Professor at the University of Winchester

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You are reading Going to University by Stephen Heap, part of Issue 64 of Ministry Today, published in July 2015.

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