A vision of higher education that extends beyond "degree factories" is being presented by church universities and colleges amid a "crisis in economic values" in the sector.
At the inaugural conference of the UK chapter of the College and Universities of the Anglican Communion (CUAC), representatives of institutions reflected on the implications of the economic downturn and the role of market economics in higher education.
Ten years ago in his inaugural lecture, Richard Burridge, a member of CUAC and dean of King's College London, spoke out against the "business economics that has been brought to bear on the old image of the cushy existence of the ivory tower". That pressure drove the sector to expand without a corresponding increase in resources.
But Reverend Professor Burridge told last week's conference that the cuts now faced by the sector were "no longer a case of trimming fat". He said: "We have cut into the bones already, so all that is left is amputation."
He reiterated his concern that the traditional concept of universities as places "turned in one direction to find out what is best for society and pass it on from one generation to another" had been replaced by the "pick'n'mix of the supermarket approach to higher education" in which the only means of assessing worth is value for money.
He said: "We have moved away from seeing higher education as an heirloom or treasure, something passed from one generation to the next, with a sense of responsibility for the future and graduates repaying the investment by their contributions to the life of society.
"Rather higher education is (now seen as) something I buy for myself.
"In the bleak, nihilistic universe of Nietzsche, Richard Dawkins or monetarist ethicists, those who do not contribute to the gene pool or give 'value for money' in economic terms can be discarded, hence the drive for 'efficiency savings' in the National Health Service or higher education and the ever-growing waste heap of the long-term unemployed."
But Professor Burridge suggested that the financial crisis might provide the opportunity to present anew the Christian belief that people should be "valued for who they are, not what they do", and in the common interest.
Jeremy Law, dean of chapel at Canterbury Christ Church University, asked how higher education might look "if it's about learning in order to participate in life, rather than learning to gain dominance".
In this view, he said: "Education does have something to do with the economy, but with the fundamental economy of life.
"It is about learning sympathy, about learning how to place oneself in the system of life. Ultimately ... education is about learning to place oneself in the story of creation and redemption ... Translated more broadly, it's about learning to live."
He added: "Education is not something that can be bought and sold because it's the matter of life itself."
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