John Charmley: I haven’t lost faith in universities

Cardinal Vincent Nichols after his installation as chancellor of St Mary’s University (Mazur/

As I watch the new students arriving, I reflect that this is the 43rd year that I have been involved in the process. In 1974 I arrived as a fresher at Pembroke College, Oxford, one of the smaller and friendlier colleges; now I watch as pro vice-chancellor at St Mary’s University, Twickenham, one of the smaller, friendlier universities. Across that period, the world of higher education has changed beyond all recognition. In 1974, fewer than 10 per cent of the population went to university; now more than 40 per cent go.

Back then, universities were funded by the government, with students receiving grants. This meant that they were restricted in terms of the number of students they could take. Now, we are effectively funded by students’ fees, and the only limits on numbers are those one can recruit.

There is a tension between past and present. From the past we inherit a great weight of governmental regulation of everything from our research outputs to the details of our teaching practice, all of which costs money. In the present, we should be spending money from student fees on our students and their experience, rather than on a bureaucracy on the scale of the old USSR. At some point that tension needs resolving.

What has happened is that a whole industry dealing in league tables has developed, which ranks universities by the various criteria reported via the regulatory processes. In what has become a highly competitive market, these tables have become of vital importance for parents and students contemplating investing more than £45,000 in a university education. In that context, it was good to see St Mary’s rise from 116th to 99th place.

It is easy to take a snobbish point of view of these things, but what students say about the quality of their experience, and what the statistics say about their chances of getting a job, as well as the number of them getting good degrees, all matter hugely. The fact that St Mary’s students are doing well in all these areas is a testament to their own hard work and that of my colleagues. Whatever the wider context, universities remain communities of scholars and students, and they are places where lives are changed.

I often hear, not least from those of my own generation, the view that there are too many universities and that too many students go to them who should not.

That is not a view one hears in America, China or India. In the early 1960s the Robbins Report recommended a modest increase in the numbers of 18-year-olds going to university, and on the back of that some of those universities that are now in the top 20, including Warwick, York, Lancaster and East Anglia, were founded.

The gloom-mongers then were saying that the country did not need what it turned out it did need: a better-educated workforce. If one examines the courses universities offer, and the way they offer them, employability figures show whether we are meeting employers’ needs. At St Mary’s more than 95 per cent our graduates are in employment within six months of graduating. Morally, we can say that we are delivering both what our students and the country need.

The moral argument is one that ought to come naturally to a Catholic institution. I came to St Mary’s not simply to help a fledgling university become an excellent one, but also to help build a Catholic university. Unlike many former faith-based universities, St Mary’s has not moved in the direction of loosening those ties, but of tightening them. We are owned by the Diocese of Westminster and the Catholic Education Service. Cardinal Nichols is our chancellor, Bishop Moth the chairman of our board of governors. This is not about creating the Catholic equivalent of a madrassa; it is about making diversity a reality.

Britain is, we are told, increasingly secular, so it might seem counterintuitive to emphasise our Catholic identity; but since that is what inspires all we do, and since we believe that the qualities of our faith are of universal application, there is a compelling logic in it.

Faith matters to many, even in a secular society, and in believing that each student is a child of God with a unique destiny, we tailor our “student experience” in a way that puts them centre stage. That, one might say, is good “customer relations”, but for us it is a moral imperative. Doing what is right is also, it turns out, profitable. For once we can serve Mammon by serving God.

Forty or so years on, whatever else has changed, the excitement of changing the life chances of young people has not abated. That has always been why most of us came into higher education, and it is why I am still here.

Professor John Charmley is pro vice-chancellor for academic strategy at St Mary’s University, Twickenham