On a bright May morning last year, I made my way to the Bloomsbury Baptist Church to begin a new job as the Education Assistant to the Free Churches Group. The first day's work was to support the Hope in Higher Education (HE) Conference. It all felt unfamiliar and exciting. In many ways, just like how young people and adults entering university for the first time might feel. A mixture of nerves, anticipation and new experiences!
The conference was in the form of a forum to enable plenty of conversation and ideas to develop among the participants. The Forum was the next step in the Free Churches developing a response to the issues and opportunities in the HE sector; in particular, by articulating a way forward following the publication of the Hope in Higher Education report by the HE Working Group. The Report can be read HERE.
The HE Working Group has been chaired by Revd Dr Stephen Heap. The keynote address was presented by Professor Les Ebdon. Pictured below.
It was well-attended with over 30 people many different Free Church denominations. All of the participants cared deeply about the key issues in higher education and the place of faith on the university campus. Many of those present were in university chaplaincy roles and it was clear that this is a key part of understanding and developing the potential in university from a faith and free church perspectives.
There were workshops on key issues in higher education, the place of religion on campus, chaplaincy and student work and local churches and higher education. The workshops were full of lively debate with actively engaged delegates. People at the forum were from a wide variety of church denominations and professional backgrounds which added to the texture and pace of the conversations. People showed a positive generosity in listening to each other and thinking about different perspectives.
Open Space Forum in the afternoon kept us all on our toes, following our delicious lunch. (Open Space Forum activities pictured below). This technique helped us to review and distill some of the key points from the presentations and workshops; a summary of issues and possible actions has emerged from the whole forum which can be taken forward as part of our positive action for free churches and HE.
The UK is facing a time of challenge and change for the HE sector, as well as a situation that those gathered felt we could make a positive response to. In the 2010 report on A Free Church Voice on Education a commitment was made to articulate the nonconformist Christian voice in education with conviction and confidence. This Hope in HE Forum in May 2016 offered an opportunity for us to shape and progress this goal.
From my perspective, with a first day in a new job, it gave me a great introduction into the care and compassion which free churches' folk have for higher education. It was a time of debate, hospitality, passion and prayer. Just as students entering HE for the first time need to manage a transition into a new world, the new work for me is a challenge and an opportunity. I will continue to pray that the work of the Free Churches' Group can offer a grace-filled and transformative contribution to Hope in Higher Education. I have very much enjoyed seeing this important work develop over the last year. We now have a vision and policy statement and are working on delivering an Action Plan.
One of our main conclusions, as a forum, is to produce a positive statement about the breadth and passion of those involved in HE from the Free Churches' perspective. A more comprehensive report from the Forum can be found HERE. This will help to raise the profile of higher education in free churches and give the free churches a solid platform to campaign and develop resources to complement higher education.
Sara Iles, Education Assistant, Free Churches Group
(This article was originally published in August 2016)