Thursday, 16 August 2012

Three University Colleges set to become Catholic Universities

The September 2012 issue of FAITH TODAY carries an article entitled Degrees of Change. This covers the expectation that, at some point during the Autumn, the three Catholic University Colleges - St Mary's in Twickenham, Newman College in Birmingham and Leeds Trinity - will become Universities in their own right. The barrier that has so far existed to this step is the requirement that, to be a University in their own right, these colleges needed to enrol at least 4 000 students. That regulation has now been scrapped. The article is based on conversations with the principals of Newman and Leeds Trinity Colleges.

The FAITH TODAY article has prompted two lines of thought. The first is prompted by the repeated reference in the article to the way in which the student is put at the centre of what the Catholic Universities-to-be do, with the smaller size of the institutions compared to other universities being a factor in this.
When we say our students come first, and that they're names not numbers, we know that really does mean something. Lots of universities say it, of course, be we feel there's a depth to our pledge and that we really do practice what we preach ...

Our basis is what Cardinal Newman said - he always believed that the rationale for a university was its students, and we've always seen ourselves as a student-centred institution. The individual is genuinely central for us.
Care for the students at an individual level is, of course, a quite praiseworthy practice. But it does not define either a specific identity as an educational institution or a specific identity as a Catholic institution, and the Universities-to-be possess both of these identities. One would hope, for example, that local sports clubs might have the same sense of the individual with regard to their members. A quick - very quick, so corrections in the com-box if necessary - glance suggests that Cardinal Newman's assertion that the rationale of a university was its students has a more specific reference. The context of his discussion was a distinction between the teaching function of a university - without which a university would indeed have no students at all - and the research function of a university, which Newman preferred to identify with (research) academies separate from (teaching) universities. See the first paragraphs of his preface to The Idea of a University. The other element of Newman's sense of the place of the student was that he saw the purpose of the education given by the university as being in the cultivation of the intellect and an associated integration of knowledge. The student-centredness that Newman sought to express appears more specifically educational than generically pastoral, and can be associated with an identity as an educational institution.

My second line of thought is prompted by what the FAITH TODAY article has to say about the proportion of the student body at the Universities-to-be who are Catholics:
At their inception, all three catered very largely for Catholic students: today, the number of Catholic students at Newman is around 15%. "Other Christians make up around 55% of the total, Muslims make up around 13%," says [the principal of Newman College]. "Beyond these groups, we have Hindus, Sikhs - and, of course, non-believers"

But it doesn't matter, he says, what creed students belong to, or whether they don't believe at all: it's individuality that's prized at the new Catholic universities. And at a time when access to higher education is high on the agenda the Catholic institutions have long championed the right of students from any background to have the chance to study there.
 I do find it interesting to reflect on the implications of that low proportion of Catholic students. I am not at all of the view that the student body needs to be predominantly Catholic for a University to have a Catholic identity.The provisions of the Apostolic Constitution Ex corde ecclesia recognise that not all the student body of a Catholic university will be Catholics; the Constitution does not make any comment on the proportion of Catholics to non-Catholics among the student body, only doing so as far as the faculty are concerned (see Article 4-4 of the General Norms). But, without making any statement that their non-Catholic students are not valued members of their learning communities, surely the Universities-to-be should be seeking to increase the proportion of Catholic students following their courses, just as they might seek to increase applications from minority communities? One side of this question has to do with the educational and Catholic identity of the institutions themselves - is that identity sufficiently educational and is it sufficiently Catholic? The other side has to to with the wider Catholic community and its appreciation of educational and Catholic identity in universities in general and in Catholic universities in particular - do they really understand the vision of a Catholic higher education institution, as it is expressed in Part I of Ex corde ecclesia, for example?

What I found most telling in the remarks accredited to the principal of Newman College was the observation that, "it doesn't matter, he says, what creed students belong to, or whether they don't believe at all". In the intended sense that non-Catholics, and even those of no religious belief, should be able to study at the Catholic Universities-to-be, this is unexceptional. But if you put it beside Ex corde ecclesia's two-fold statement of the educational and Catholic identities of a Catholic University, and the expectation of Article 4-4 of Ex corde ecclesia's General Norms that all students are to recognise and respect the distinctive Catholic identity of the University, then it does begin to matter what the students believe. Though they may not hold Catholic beliefs, they nevertheless do need to share something at least of the two-fold identity, with perhaps the advancement of human dignity and of a cultural heritage, and an at least latent recognition of some form of transcendent goal in life, a minimum measure of that. Clearly, this cannot be formulated in the manner of "admissions criteria", and it would be utterly inappropriate to attempt to do so. On the other hand, and perhaps just as much for Catholic students as for non-Catholic, it should be recognised that students should be educated to share, in so far as they are able, in the two-fold identity of the Universities-to-be.

To finish: Ex corde ecclesia's statement of the two fold identity of a Catholic University, alongside which can be placed a statement of identity agreed between the three Universities-to-be :
12. Every Catholic University, as a university, is an academic community which, in a rigorous and critical fashion, assists in the protection and advancement of human dignity and of a cultural heritage through research, teaching and various services offered to the local, national and international communities. It possesses that institutional autonomy necessary to perform its functions effectively and guarantees its members academic freedom, so long as the rights of the individual person and of the community are preserved within the confines of the truth and the common good.
13. Since the objective of a Catholic University is to assure in an institutional manner a Christian presence in the university world confronting the great problems of society and culture, every Catholic University, as Catholic, must have the following essential characteristics:
"1. a Christian inspiration not only of individuals but of the university community as such;
2. a continuing reflection in the light of the Catholic faith upon the growing treasury of human knowledge, to which it seeks to contribute by its own research;
3. fidelity to the Christian message as it comes to us through the Church;
4. an institutional commitment to the service of the people of God and of the human family in their pilgrimage to the transcendent goal which gives meaning to life".

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