Going to university in the UK is far from a uniform experience. The type of university that a student attends strongly affects the sort of people that they will meet, the sort of activities they will spend their time in, and the sort of person that they are being shaped to be. In their book, Christianity and the University Experience, Mathew Guest and his team suggest that there are, in fact, five different ‘sorts’ of universities (ancient universities, red brick universities, the ‘plate glass’ universities of the 1960s, ex-polytechnic universities and the ‘cathedral group’ universities). I want to add a sixth – the specialist higher education college – which fell outside of their remit, but which is different in flavour again to the other types of institution.
To many outside of the university world this comes as quite a surprise: most people think that the university experience is effectively the same for all students. In particular, churches (and even Christian Unions) can overlook the particular challenges and openings that different sorts of universities bring for the gospel. Though I work for UCCF, this isn’t any sort of ‘official’ position; it’s just the reflection of someone who’s been in student ministry in the UK for more than a decade, who’s had the opportunity to work with each of these university types in some measure.
These descriptions will, naturally, only be brushstrokes. I’m particularly aware that they’ll apply to some contexts less than others. London, for example, requires a completely different strategy, given that so few students live close to where they study (and so many students commute in from their parental home). But I’m hopeful that these posts might stir some thought on how we might more adequately reach students across the nation.
I’m convinced that student mission works best when local churches are themselves active, but also when they encourage their students to be active in mission through their local Christian Union. This partnership also works best when churches don’t try to replicate ministry that the CU can do better, and vice versa. For that reason, I’ll suggest activities that both of these groups might undertake which can be of mutual benefit to each other.