I wish to draw attention to a major incoherence in government policy that threatens the future of all ministerial education colleges.
The “user pays” principle has increased the cost of educating prospective clergy to £27,000 over three years – charges that have reduced our bachelor’s intake to zero. Major denominational institutions such as Wesley House Methodist College in Cambridge have been forced to close their doors to undergraduates. Our once-substantial postgraduate numbers have dwindled because of rising fees. By September 2014, we had none on campus.
A Church of England initiative launched last year, which other churches have been encouraged to join, aims to meet the problem by establishing a common award in theology for ministry and mission. It is validated by Durham University and awarded at the BA and MA levels, yet because it is classified as a professional qualification it escapes governmental prescription of charges. We will join this ecumenical venture in September.
The “business model” itself held out further hope for survival in that the imposition of double fees for foreign students incentivised the sector to sell its wares overseas and so balance the books. We have worked on teaching the new common award MA by distance learning and recently established with Anglia Ruskin University a doctorate in Orthodox Christian studies to attract foreign students and their higher fees. What we did not anticipate was government obstruction.
The bulk of our intake comes from overseas, yet an application to UK Visas and Immigration for “trusted sponsor” status made by the Cambridge Theological Federation has languished unattended for more than a year: we have faced inexplicable delays punctuated by a sudden unannounced inspection, then demands for more information, prolonged silences, no decisions and no explanations. We and our fellow colleges have had students knocking at the door, waving provisional acceptances, yet we are unable to let them in. Meanwhile, insolvency looms.
It cannot be that the government intends to destroy Christian theological education or that Christian colleges are suspected of harbouring terrorists. Rather, it seems that there is a major failure of policy. Bureaucrats are afraid to act because there is no clear direction or are overwhelmed by the volume of work. Meanwhile, the ship sinks.
Principal and administrator
Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies, Cambridge