London's Jesuit College faces a challenging future

On Monday’s Feast-day of St. Edmund Campion S.J., perhaps the most illustrious and gifted of the British Jesuit martyrs, Heythrop College announced that, beginning the next academic year, undergraduate students would no longer be enrolled. Heythrop has been, since the 1970s, a constituent college of the University of London, awarding UoL degrees. The decision, reached by the college’s governing body and announced by its Jesuit principal, Michael Holman, S.J., follows a lengthy period of travail and uncertainty for the college even as it has been celebrating the 400th anniversary of its establishment as a training base for clergy for the then English Mission. Like many other smaller UK colleges, particularly those specializing in the humanities, Heythrop has suffered from government higher education policy decisions which tend to favor subjects that more obviously contribute to the economy; surely a rather narrow interpretation of the common good.

Heythrop’s announcement, in a press release, confirmed that discussions are under way with another Catholic higher ed. institution, St. Mary’s University, towards a possible future “strategic partnership.” Heythrop's Governors confirmed, Tuesday, that “all current students at Heythrop College will continue to receive degrees from the University of London upon successful completion of their studies. This continuity of education is guaranteed. A group of staff and students has already been established to focus on this over the coming months.” The statement confirmed that “[R]ecruitment will continue for postgraduate programmes and for the professional programme for the Catholic priesthood” while undergraduate recruitment, for a range of BA programmes in philosophy and theology, would cease. The college emphasized that “its valuable and important mission in the teaching and research of theology and philosophy [would be] maintained and developed in years ahead.”

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In recent years, successive UK governments have adopted policies that are changing the face of higher education here in England and Wales. Scotland, under its partially-devolved government, has moved in a different direction. The introduction of tuition fees in government-run universities (broadly the equivalent of a state university in the United States) has hit recruitment hard, especially to undergraduate courses, and has largely turned higher education into a marketplace. Smaller, specialist colleges such as Heythrop suffered under this new funding regime; pro-rata, a reduction of even a few dozen enrolling students hits them much harder than it would a larger university. Against a background of the “market-place” rapidly becoming much more commercial and competitive, there have been rumours of larger universities quietly dropping their entry requirements by one or two grades, thus vacuuming up some students who would otherwise have applied to Heythrop.

College Principal Holman noted that “We are all well aware of the challenges we face in meeting the costs of an autonomous college of the University of London. These challenges are all the greater in the more competitive world of higher education which this government has been introducing. The gap between income and expenditure has been bridged for many years by the Society of Jesus but their capacity to continue to do this is limited.”

An effect of a development like this is to emphasize the necessary vigilance that humanities subjects are not marginalized because they lack immediate economic benefit to society. In some of our public discourse here, we are beginning to see the occasional return of the concept of the common good yet, at the same time, it’s a highly secularized society and you hear many voices questioning if faith has any place in the public square at all; not least in the academy. It is unlikely that the pressures that Heythrop College has experienced are simply signals of a general decline in the humanities—the interest is still there and both philosophy and theology still attract plenty of students at secondary school level. But it’s going to be ever more important for people of faith, and all those of good will who would oppose superficiality in our culture, to remain alert to the risk of marginalizing these and all humanities subjects. Perhaps one way is to take the concept of the common good and to insist that its definition is not limited to economic results alone?

Heythrop traces its roots to modern-day Belgium and France, where, in 1614, a college was established for the training of Jesuit and other priests for what was then the English Mission. It was far too dangerous to operate in England at the time. The institution moved to England as the situation eased in the 19th century, eventually settling in the village of Heythrop, near Oxford, whence it got its current name. In 1970 it moved to London, joining the University of London as a specialist college of philosophy and theology, awarding London degrees while continuing to train Jesuits and others for the Catholic priesthood. In the quatercentenary year, pontifical faculties were re-established, and the college’s Bellarmine Institute inaugurated, for the ongoing formation of Jesuits, other religious and diocesan seminarians. St. Robert Bellarmine, S.J., is Heythrop’s patron saint. The college’s current location is in Kensington, west-central London.

David Stewart, S.J., is America's London correspondent.

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