Catholic higher education – a bright future?

Catholic higher education – a bright future? All Hallows College, Dublin

In recent years, Mary Immaculate College students have volunteered at a school for children with special needs in Siliguri, India. It is a small operation run by religious sisters and struggles to survive.

Just across the road is a highly-resourced fee-paying boarding school. Over the entrance is a giant crest containing a cross, an image of the Sacred Heart and a motto in Latin. The school’s website displays a photograph of a beautiful but non-existent Church. In fact, it is not a Catholic school. It is a private for-profit school run by wealthy businessmen. Why the pretence? Because in India Catholic education ‘sells’. Catholic schools have the best reputation. They are known to put their pupils first, to have the most dedicated teachers and to get the best results.

Globally, Catholic education is flourishing

At a time when we here in Ireland may be in danger of losing confidence in the mission of Catholic education it is useful to remind ourselves that globally, Catholic education is flourishing. Since 1970, the number of Catholics worldwide has remained a constant 18% of the increasing world’s population. Yet during this same period the number of pupils in Catholic primary schools has doubled and those in Catholic post-primary schools has trebled. The number of Catholic Higher Education institutions globally is also growing, especially in Africa, Asia and the Americas.

In Ireland we have tended to think of Catholic schools and colleges as an extension of the family and the parish. We see their role as serving primarily the Catholic community. In other countries, especially where Catholics are in the minority, Catholic education has also been understood as an important leaven in society generally. It serves evangelisation by witnessing to the Christian understanding of the human person and by enabling constructive dialogue between the Gospel and the wider culture.

A trajectory of decline

In Ireland, however, the Catholic influence in education is in decline. Nowhere is this more evident than in the higher education sector. Back in 2011, in an effort at greater consolidation of resources, the Higher Education Authority (HEA) sought the merger or closure of smaller higher education institutions. Most of these were Catholic.

In 2013, the Catholic Education Service (CES) listed 14 Catholic Higher Education Institutions (CHEIs). The following were in the area of initial teacher education:

-Froebel College, run by Dominican Sisters.

-The Marino Institute of Education, founded by the Christian Brothers and linked to TCD.

-Mary Immaculate College, founded by the Mercy Order and whose Trustees include as Chair the Bishop of Limerick, linked with the University of Limerick.

-The Mater Dei Institute run by the Dublin diocese.

-St Patrick’s College Drumcondra, founded by the Vincentians.

-St Angela’s College, Sligo, founded by the Ursuline Sisters.

-St Mary’s University College, Belfast.

-St Patrick’s College Thurles, a former diocesan seminary that was training secondary teachers.

The CES also identified the following as Catholic institutions dedicated to theology, pastoral care, humanities and social studies: All Hallows College, Carlow College, the then newly-founded Loyola Institute at Trinity College, The Milltown Institute, The Priory Institute (Tallaght) and St Patrick’s College Maynooth.

In the past six years the landscape has changed considerably:

-Froebel College of Education was incorporated into NUI Maynooth in 2013.

-The Milltown Institute closed in 2015.

-All Hallows College was closed and the campus sold to Dublin City University in 2016.

-St Patrick’s College, Thurles, was incorporated into Mary Immaculate College in 2016.

-The Mater Dei Institute and St Patrick’s, Drumcondra, were incorporated into Dublin City University in 2016.

-St Angela’s College, Sligo, is edging towards incorporation into NUI Galway.

This leaves the Marino Institute of Education, Mary Immaculate College and St Mary’s in Belfast still functioning in the teacher education sector, and Carlow College, St Patrick’s College, Maynooth, and the Loyola Institute in TCD, serving ministry, theology and the human sciences, while the Dominican Priory Institute continues to run programmes online. The Marino Institute of Education is under the co-trusteeship of Trinity College. The Loyola Institute, though founded by the Jesuits, has had difficulties securing formal recognition as a Catholic entity.

At first glance this might still seem like a healthy presence in higher education for a small country. The reality, however, is that colleges that are publicly-funded are prone to internal secularisation while those dependent upon the Church for resources, though freer to determine their ethos, struggle for survival financially.

Unfortunately, there is no reasonable expectation that the trajectory of merger and closure outlined above is not set to continue.

New initiatives

In the past few weeks several Church-owned properties have been put on the market. Many were former educational facilities, including Clonliffe College, once the Dublin diocesan seminary, and the Milltown Institute. The monies raised have been ear-marked for several worthy causes: social justice projects such as the provision of affordable housing, contributions to the redress scheme for abuse survivors, care of elderly priests and religious, and investment in the legacy of religious congregations.

Consider re-investing in higher education

Given, however, that many of the facilities being sold off were educational it would seem in keeping with the intention of donors to consider re-investing some of these monies in Catholic education. If so, the priority should be in higher education given that this is the sector that has been hit hardest in respect of a Catholic presence.

Such investment is needed to ensure that we have teachers who are genuinely formed in the Catholic tradition to teach in our schools and so that high quality theological formation is available to people, lay and cleric, who will minister as chaplains and in our parishes.

It is not just about the pragmatics of training personnel, however. Catholics see education as a life-enhancing gift essential to human dignity. This view of education is an indispensable counter-balance to the increasing tendency in public policy to measure educational outcomes in terms of their contribution to economic productivity and the market-place.

What are the options?

Attempts to found a new Catholic university in Ireland in recent years have barely got off the ground. In the present climate it could be very difficult to garner the necessary resources, which are considerable, receive formal state recognition and meet the ever-increasing demands for high quality research, teaching and learning required of a contemporary university.

Co-operation but with eyes open

More feasible is enhanced co-operation in the delivery of Catholic education within higher education institutions whose futures seem secure, at least for now. For example, coinciding with the incorporation of St Patrick’s College, Drumcondra, and the Mater Dei Institute into Dublin City University, a Centre for Catholic Religious Education was established and a number of posts in Catholic theology and religious education guaranteed. Along similar lines, the trustees of St Patrick’s College, Thurles, surrendered their valuable campus to Mary Immaculate College along with a generous financial endowment on condition that an Irish Institute for Pastoral Studies would be established and resourced to serve not only the diocese of Cashel and Emly but the Church nationally.

Such initiatives have been commonplace in other countries but are in their early stages here. They remain fragile. Yet if successful they can imbue confidence in similar forms of partnership and co-operation into the future. If they fail, of course, that will convey a different message.

Partnerships between Church and publicly-funded higher education institutions can be win-win. The internationalisation of Irish higher education campuses is a key strategic goal in higher education. A Catholic identity is immensely advantageous for networking given that the Catholic Church is the largest provider of education worldwide after state authorities.

The increased availability of bursaries and scholarships for students and for research projects endowed by religious bodies is welcome” 

What’s needed is for religious congregations and dioceses to work together to develop a shared vision and strategy for Catholic higher education in Ireland into the future.

The increased availability of bursaries and scholarships for students and for research projects endowed by religious bodies is welcome.  Yet better co-ordination would allow for greater critical mass and longer-term impact.

Religious authorities need to approach negotiations with secular universities and Catholic colleges that are publicly funded with their eyes wide open. It is essential to secure the necessary commitments that would allow for the Catholic vision of education to inform and underpin initiatives being supported by Church funds.

What’s needed most, however, is to recover confidence within the Irish Church in the mission of Catholic education, and invest accordingly.

Fr Eamonn Conway is Professor and Head of Theology & Religious Studies at Mary Immaculate College – University of Limerick.