This is a series on reaching students at the various kinds of UK higher education institutions. On Monday we thought about reaching students at ancient universities; on Tuesday those at red brick universities and on Wednesday those at plate glass universities. Today’s post is on ex-polytechnic universities.
Ex-polytechnic universities in a nutshell: Polytechnics were formed in the 1960s, and were designed to be a Higher Education outlet that focused on degrees especially helpful for business and commerce. In the early 1990s, they were converted to universities: they then expanding very quickly, offering vast numbers university education. As a result, they had to acquire buildings as they could. Today, they are often sprawled right across cities. Degrees are still mainly vocational. Ex-polytechnic universities have a high percentage of local students, and those who are the first from their families to ever go to university. Ex-polytechnic universities have a low percentage of Christians in a wider university cohort who are less churched than those at other university types.
Opportunities at ex-polytechnic universities: Many ex-polytechnic universities have strongly under-developed extra-curricular activity, often making the Christian Union the most active group on campus – this can make it easier to attract a crowd, especially in the evenings, as there isn’t much alternative. Christian Unions are well placed to enrich life and to offer community in an environment where not much exists to those who can be easily ignored. Given that many students have never met a Christian, a witness with integrity is extremely powerful.
Challenges at ex-polytechnic universities: There are plenty. Students are spread across cities throughout the day – there are no ‘walking corridors’ like at other universities, making lunchtime events sometimes hard to build to a critical mass. Traditional halls of residence do not exist, reducing both the number of friendships that the average student makes and the options for evening events. Christians feel small in number and can cling together. Non-believers have often heard nothing whatsoever of the gospel, making evangelism slow. There is a widespread suspicion that the gospel is irrelevant to the real questions of life. Lectures are generally less didactic, meaning that the prospect of coming to ‘hear a talk’ can be somewhat alien. Students disappear on placement for long blocks of time. Others commute in and aren’t around at all in the evenings.
- The key this is to think small and to champion personal relationships – students at these universities can be at the most apathetic but can be challenged when they see Christianity authentically lived in community. Regular meals together can be powerful here
- The personal touch especially counts in this environment – water-bottling at club nights and ensuring students can get home safely is a proven way of making strong relationships
- All students love stories, but especially those at ex-polys. Getting Christians who are established in their profession to speak about the difference that Jesus makes at work can be powerful, especially if their profession relates to the most popular courses in the university. Similarly, profiling those whose life stories engage with the big apologetic questions – suffering, other religions, science etc. – brings these questions into a real-life realm that these students love
- Seeker Bible studies, such as Uncover, can be very effective in ex-polytechnic universities to introducing Jesus – its discursive, encourages questions and is best within the context of friendship
- Students at ex-polytechnic universities have loads of questions about Jesus and Christianity but little opportunity to ask them. A table where a student is giving a cake or a prize in exchange for asking a question can be just the catalyst for great conversation
Five ideas for building mission for churches near to ex-polytechnic universities:
- Arrange extra-curricular activities for students – many of the things that students take for granted at other universities (sports teams, societies etc.) are under-developed at ex-polys: a church football team can be a great way of meeting students if Christian students are invited to bring their friends
- Ask students to use the practical skills from their degrees within church life. Arranging an event? Advertise for the help of an Events Management student. Designing a flyer? Advertise for a Graphic Design student. Students will be keen to add the experience to their portfolios – and it can be a great way to make contact with non-believing students
- Students who’ve moved to be at ex-polytechnic universities especially are after a ‘home from home.’ Meal times together on Sundays (and even during the week) will attract both Christian students but also their non-Christian friends
- Try building in discussion time to church gatherings. As mentioned above, students at ex-polytechnic universities are less used to hearing long blocks of monologue, and will process what they are hearing better as they hear Christians speaking about real-life examples, and being able to ask questions
- Many students at ex-polytechnic students are practically minded and love volunteering. Advertise for students to join in community projects, and you’ll probably find yourself making good links with a range of students, including non-believing students
On Monday, we’ll think about the ‘cathedral group’ of universities.