Opinion & Features

The inside story of the St Mary’s revival

Cardinal Vincent Nichols after his installation as Chancellor of St Mary’s University (Mazur/catholicnews.org.uk)

When the board of the largest Catholic university in Britain tried to recruit Francis Campbell as its vice-chancellor in 2013, he was intent on turning it down.

“If somebody had said to me then, ‘Where will you be in 10 years?’, I would have said, ‘In another diplomatic posting,’ ” insists the former British ambassador to the Holy See.

Considering the series of crises St Mary’s was undergoing at the time, one could hardly blame him. His predecessor had just stepped down after facing heavy criticism for merging the school of theology, philosophy and history with the school of communications, culture and creative arts – a move critics felt would undermine the school’s Catholic ethos. The dispute had became acrimonious, leading to the departure of staff members.

Simultaneously, the Quality Assurance Agency had launched an investigation into a hypnosis course being offered by the university. Its report found a series of failings that it said were putting academic standards at risk.

Campbell had even composed an email declining the position, but chose not to send it. “I thought I’d wait as I was going to Mass in Westminster Cathedral … and when I came back I was in a different frame of mind.”

That “different frame of mind” was, he says, to be open to a request. “You are asked to discern and it’s not always down to your will,” he says. “There is this wonderful lesson from Newman about not knowing at times what your purpose is, but at the end all will be reconciled.”

I meet Campbell, a Northern Irishman, at his office on a beautiful autumn morning. The sunlight beams through a window overlooking the impressive grounds of St Mary’s, which stretch to 50 acres. Clad as he is in suit and tie, there’s little chance of mistaking him for one of the students enjoying campus life outside.

He comes to his present position with an impressive history. He was not only the first Catholic to hold the post of British ambassador to the Holy See since the Reformation, he was also the youngest ever to be appointed, at the age of 35. Campbell, who is now 46, also served on the staff of Tony Blair during his tenure as prime minister, first as a policy adviser and then as private secretary for foreign affairs.

How is he adjusting to life in academia? “Diplomats tend to be highly adaptable to new surroundings,” he says. “You’re not frightened by a new environment. You know what you know, and what questions you need to ask when you don’t, and not to be embarrassed about asking those questions.”

The university’s current performance suggests that, two years into the role, Campbell is adapting well. The crises have abated. He has overseen St Mary’s transition from a college into a university, as well as a 10 per cent jump in annual revenue to £45.9m, thanks to a boost in student numbers to 5,292.

Not one to rest on his laurels, Campbell is eager to tell me about his vision for the future. His ambition for St Mary’s is for it to become the most improved university in Britain, as well as a centre of excellence for scholars and research.

The university recently launched its first corporate plan, Vision 2025. A £100 million investment is going towards learning facilities, research, accommodation and sports grounds. The funding will come from undergraduate recruitments, mainly international and postgraduate, as well as conferencing, philanthropy and borrowing.

The plans sound promising, yet Campbell must know he’s walking a tightrope. After half a century in which universities were financed by the government and students were supported by grants, the introduction of £9,000 annual tuition fees has driven a ferociously competitive marketplace. Other challenges include the removal of the cap on student numbers, which has given universities the freedom to eat into their rivals’ market share as much as possible.

In order to survive, Campbell is examining how universities with a similar faith identity have developed and internationalised. He points to top Catholic institutions such as the University of Notre Dame and Spain’s University of Navarra as good templates to follow.

“People assume these universities always were at this scale and this level. They weren’t,” he says. “They had a period of really significant investment. We tend to think sometimes that in order to reach a certain level of success, the university has to be centuries old. It doesn’t.”

As St Mary’s embarks on expansion, some fear it could threaten the institution’s Catholic identity. Today, a mere 18 per cent of students identify as Catholic, and only 30 per cent as Christian. This is a far cry from its modest inception as a Catholic training college for seminarians in 1850, when its founder Cardinal Nicholas Wiseman first opened its doors.

One staff member told me: “Up until the late 1970s, St Mary’s was more like a seminary for Catholic teachers. Even in the 1990s, there would be 1,200 students, a thousand of whom would be Catholic. Today, we may have more Catholics but the natural feel of the place has changed year on year since those days,” Anther staff member adds: “It faces the challenge of trying to be authentically Catholic in terms of its mission, particularly in the teaching of subjects such as theology and ethics, whilst also operating within a secular university system.”

Campbell is well aware of the university’s Catholic identity. He sees it in the chaplaincy; the graduation ceremonies which alternate each year between Westminster Cathedral and the university’s chapel; and most of all, in the opulent Waldegrave Room. He draws my attention to a photograph of Benedict XVI listening to Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks in 2010 (Baroness Warsi was also present), which sits proudly on his shelf. “The three Abrahamic faiths, standing in front of that fireplace, with just an entire community of interfaith on this single platform, having an encounter. Surely that’s what a university with a faith identity should be, one that provides a space for a genuine encounter between differences, one which doesn’t say ‘leave your differences aside’.”

Campbell is conscious that Cardinal John Henry Newman’s works should go to the heart of education at St Mary’s. “We are examining the way we teach. So are we moving from lectures towards seminars? Towards problem solving? Are we looking at the broader societal issues, and how is that coming into the curriculum?” he asks rhetorically.

All well and good, but aren’t prospective students predominantly interested in university rankings?

St Mary’s, strong in teaching training, sports science and theology, comes in at number 118 in the independent Complete University Guide, which measures excellence across a range of indicators, including entry standards, research quality, student satisfaction and graduate prospects. The university falls behind local peers Roehampton (66), Middlesex (89) and Kingston (104), as well as fellow Catholic universities Leeds Trinity (101) and Newman University (117). Campbell says the league tables are only a rough guide. “Your end is not the league table. It’s the fact that you are providing an excellent service for the student that is coming through your door,” he says.

In a Times Higher Education “mock league table” of teaching excellence – part of higher education reforms coming into force next year – St Mary’s has been ranked number 41, he points out. Impressively, St Mary’s is ranked number one in London for student satisfaction, having jumped 24 places in the past year. Campbell attributes this to the university’s strong sense of community, shared between students and staff alike.

“Our cleaners are our cleaners, our security is our security, our maintenance people are all our own, none outsourced to a private company.

“You’ll have somebody who’ll stand up and say, ‘That cleaner got me my degree. They knew my timetable. They’d knock on my door every single day to make sure I was up out of bed, like a parent.’ The cleaners take a pride in their students. They’ll know all our first years by name.”

A key part of Campbell’s strategy involves making St Mary’s a centre of excellence for scholars. He has overseen the opening of the university’s Centre for Study of Modern Slavery, as well as the Benedict XVI Centre for Religion in Society, first proposed after the German pope’s visit. The Benedict centre is looking to foster links between theology and the social sciences by carrying out research projects on the aftermath of Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae and the non-religious population of Britain, among many others.

Seventy-two staff members were hired last year across the university, including the former education secretary Ruth Kelly and Mgr Roderick Strange, a theologian and expert on Cardinal Newman.

Indeed, Campbell’s recruitment of “star” scholars has been a boon for the university.

A faculty that includes Mary McAleese, former president of the Irish Republic, and Sir Vince Cable, former business secretary, has recently been strengthened by the addition of Greg Dyke, former chairman of the BBC and the Football Association, and Philip Booth, former director of the Institute of Economic Affairs.

Despite these achievements, Campbell worries about shifts in the control of teacher-training programmes. In recent years, the government has increased the number of places and funding on school-based schemes such as School Direct, in which schools recruit and train students on the job, in an attempt to improve the quality of state education. As a result, the number of places funded through universities has fallen, with some teacher-training courses even facing closure. Any further changes in government policy could see St Mary’s under threat, as a third of its enrolment figures come from teacher training. “You have to have a strategy,” he says. “The worst thing you can do is respond in an ad hoc or instant way.”

To this end, his experience as a diplomat will help him. He has adopted a collective approach to decision-making, conscious of all different perspectives being considered. Indeed, up to 3,000 comments and opinions were shared over an 18-month period, resulting in the Vision 2025 plan.

Ever the diplomat, Campbell smiles: “If there is a dissenting opinion to a decision, we will take it. Often the dissenting opinion is the most important.”

Amy-Jo Crowley is a financial journalist at Mergermarket