O come all ye barbarians

November 17, 1995

I find myself time and time again at odds with the deep conservatism that begins to appear more and more like a virus infecting clerics who work in institutions of higher education in Britain.

I am now in the position of having had bites of most types of delivering higher education in Britain over the past 20 years. I was an undergraduate at Reading University, studied theology at Cambridge and am now coming to the end of a six-year contract as the chaplain to the University of North London.

I cannot say that either at Reading or at Cambridge I felt valued or part of the community. There are small groups of friends I met there with whom I stay in touch, but, despite both universities' recent bids to draw me into alumni societies and invest large sums of my money in their development schemes, I feel no sense of loyalty to them or ties of affection.

One had a chapel, the other did not. Oddly it was only in the one without a chapel that the church seemed to take an interest in my welfare. I say these things not because I feel in any way hard done by - my time in these places was enjoyable and enriching - but because I am troubled by the construction of a golden age of higher education to which articles like that by Richard Burridge contribute (THES, October ).

Why "customers" are almost always seen in such a disparaging light I do not understand. Does Burridge think that shoppers leave their brain as a deposit when they collect their supermarket trolleys? Does he believe they are unaware of what is indeed value for money and what is not? Does he never shop around for a bargain himself? I cannot be the only person who would like to ask all universities exactly what tuition I get when I pay tuition fees and what redress can I claim if they do not supply it. How is this all calculated?

And does Burridge want to return to a system that he himself refers to as elitist? What Robbins created for the 1960s was an opportunity for those whom higher education had always kept at bay to embark on careers in professions that had effectively ring-fenced themselves. Much of this ring-fencing still exists.

In the light of this, shouting "barbarians" is highly suspect. The castle draw bridge was lowered so that they could come inside, an action much supported by appeal to Christian theology! The alliance that Burridge describes between monasteries and colleges may not have been a conspiracy to deny knowledge to the masses but that it did so cannot be denied.

Christianity, I believe, is about discovering what there is in this life to have faith in and helping others to do the same. That open access to higher education will necessitate finding new ways of allowing more people to have faith in themselves, their abilities, their prospects and those of their families seem, to me, a good thing. That this will cost money and that we must wrestle with that also seems inevitable. That we have not got it right straight away does not mean we should give up.

Brian K. Shipsides

University of North London

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