Thursday, 30 July 2015

One in, one out

There’s another change coming in the collegiate line-up of the University of London. In addition to the forthcoming inclusion of City University, London, there’ll be the departure of Heythrop College.

Heythrop is a small College, with a Catholic ethos and a focus on philosophy and theology. Originally founded in the early 17th century, it gained a Royal Charter and has been a member of the University of London since 1971. And recently – early in this century, if my memory serves me rightly – the College was recognised for public funding, and came within HEFCE’s remit.

So what’s happened? The College’s Principal sets it out in a public letter: in short, the College is too small to bear the overheads and complexity of being a modern university institution, and the Society of Jesus is no longer able (or perhaps willing) to provide funds to keep the College solvent. There had been merger discussions with St Mary’s University, but these had not borne fruit. And so there was no viable future.

The statement from the College’s Governing body included a sentence which I had thought was a face-saving formula:
Both the Governors and the Society of Jesus are committed to finding a way in which the mission and work of the College, including the ecclesiastical faculties, will continue in a new form after 2018.
After all, by leaving the University the College lost the possibility of awarding degrees through the University of London, and that is a valuable thing to give away.

But it seems that I had judged harshly. Through a conversation with a scholarly and learned person I learned that in 2013 the Bellarmine Institute – the part of Heythrop College which maintained specifically Catholic links – had been reinstated as a Pontifical Athenaeum by the Congregation for Catholic Education, part of the Vatican Curia, and hence had a right to award
ecclesiastical bachelors (STB, BacPhil), licentiate (STL, PhL) and doctoral degrees in Philosophy and Theology
This, of course, harks back to the method by which Europe’s ancient universities were founded – by Papal Bull. Ecclesiastical degrees play a significant qualifying role in the Catholic religious hierarchy, so the College may well continue tru to its original mission.

There’s a hard lesson here for other institutions, too. Heythrop was too small to survive (its turnover was amongst the very lowest of UK institutions, and it had run a financial deficit in both 2012-13 and 2013-14). It couldn‘t make a merger work. And so it will cease to trade as a regular UK university. Not, perhaps, the university failure that some had predicted, but nevertheless there’s a reasonable case to be made that Heythrop has been a victim of the marketization of HE.

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