Small but ambitious: Catholic college expands its opportunities

A teaching institution is thinking big in the suburbs of Birmingham. John Morgan reports

July 8, 2010

What would you expect from a small, teaching-focused Catholic college, named after a cardinal about to be beatified by the Pope?

Probably not a high number of Muslim students, interest in research, or an ambition to attract students from South America. But all are found at Newman University College.

Located in Birmingham's southern suburbs, Newman began life in 1968 as a Catholic teacher-training college and now has 2,600 students. It is named after Cardinal John Henry Newman, the theologian and educationalist who in the 1850s wrote The Idea of a University and spent much of his life in and around Birmingham.

The post of principal is one of the few college roles that must be filled by a practising Catholic. Current principal Peter Lutzeier points to Newman's success in widening its subject portfolio, increasing its undergraduate applications by 20 per cent on last year, and achieving "excellent" graduate employment rates.

"I try to avoid talking about the 'student experience'," Professor Lutzeier said. "We talk about formation, about providing a formative education. Formation goes back to Catholic thinking. In essence, our approach is the whole person, the whole individual."

Students and staff clearly have a sincere commitment to improving life for the surrounding residents of Bartley Green, one of Birmingham's more deprived areas. Nearly all students are involved in volunteering schemes in charities and schools, while the college shares its sports and leisure facilities with residents.

The Catholic ethos is far from exclusive. Many parents in Birmingham's large Muslim population think the college's religious heritage ensures a good environment for their children. Newman is also aiming for university status, although current rules dictate that only institutions with more than 4,000 full-time equivalent students are eligible.

Professor Lutzeier, whose career includes spells at universities in Germany and the US, sees international links as a way of encouraging Newman students to study abroad.

He wants to attract students from areas with high Catholic populations, including the Philippines and South America. That could be achieved through partnerships with Spanish and Portuguese universities, Professor Lutzeier said.

Another key development is a new £30 million library building, for which building work is scheduled to start in September.

The college entered the research assessment exercise for the first time in 2008 and won £50,000 of funding in the fields of history, education and sports studies. This has sparked a culture of research involvement among staff.

"We will always be small," Professor Lutzeier said, "but we will be an important part of the higher education landscape."

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