university types

This is a series on reaching students at the various kinds of UK higher education institutions. Last we thought about reaching students at ancient universities, red brick universities, plate glass universities and ex-polytechnic universities. Yesterday we considered the ‘cathedral group’ of universities. In this final post, we’ll think about specialist colleges.


Example Universities: Leeds College of Art, Leeds College of Music, Royal Northern College of Music

Specialist colleges in a nutshell: Specialist colleges offer degree level education, but are small (often with less than 1500 students) and have a particular group of courses that the institution offers. Music colleges, art colleges and agricultural colleges would be examples. Often these colleges are internationally renowed. The college tends to be based in a small number of buildings which are close to each other.

Opportunities at specialist colleges: There often aren’t any other student-run societies in specialist colleges other than the CU, making what is offered novel. A small number of Christians can easily make a big ‘spash’ – it’s easy to get to know everyone through wandering around workshops etc. Conversation is easy, and the nature of students being at specialist college often means that they are extremely passionate about their course (and the way it intersects with Christianity). It can be easy to draw a crowd during the day time.

Challenges at specialist colleges: Christians are often very small in number. Students in art colleges can be very hostile to Christianity because of the perception that is forces one single view of the world, which should be open to challenge. Venues can be hard to come by in college. It can be hard to draw together students outside of college time.

Ideas for mission for CUs at specialist colleges:

  1. Get used to asking people what they are currently working on, and why – in art and music colleges, compositions often reflect the deep values of the students
  2. An acclaimed artist who is a Christian can easily draw a crowd, and explain the difference that their Christian profession makes to both their art and the way that they live in the art world
  3. Film discussions can work well in art and music colleges – arthouse films can work as well as more mainstream films
  4. A photography competition or exhibition around a theme can be an excellent way of initiating conversations with others in college. Asking people to write 100 words about why they have submitted what they have submitted and placing this next to their work is stimulating for all who come too. A cheese and wine evening at the opening of the exhibition with a short introduction by a Christian can be in keeping with the event.
  5. Informal lunchtime events, such as Grill-a-Christian panels in college, can work excellently

Five ideas for building mission for churches near to specialist colleges:

  1. Offer space in your church buildings to exhibit work or allow compositions to be performed – students are normally very keen to show off their work to a wider audience
  2. Take a group along from your church to degree shows and concerts: this communicates love and will help you meet students of the college
  3. Often specialist colleges have a high number of international students – ensure that they are offered hospitality and meals, as many will be very keen to have an experience of genuine British culture whilst here. Many are more open to the gospel than their British peers
  4. Volunteer to cater for a Christmas event: there may not be anything else happening in the college, and a short message could be included
  5. Pay attention to aesthetic details in your key evangelistic events – students at art or music colleges will find it difficult to see through naff decor or music. Things don’t have to be perfect, but a clear commitment to excellence communicates a passion for the common graces that these students are passionate about too.


This is a series on reaching students at the various kinds of UK higher education institutions. Last we thought about reaching students at ancient universities, red brick universities, plate glass universities and ex-polytechnic universities. Today’s post considers the ‘cathedral group’ of universities.

Example Universities: York St John, Cumbria, Liverpool Hope, Leeds Trinity

Cathedral group universities in a nutshell: Cathedral group universities are former Roman Catholic or Anglican colleges, which have received the right to award degrees in recent years. Most of these universities began as teacher training colleges, and most of them still have a strong emphasis on teacher training. However, they have expanded to also teach a number of other degrees – often in the health professions, but also others which reflect their Christian foundation (theology, youth work etc.). Cathedral group universities are small, often based around a small central campus, though some have mutliple campuses across mutliple towns. A very high percentage of students are local, mature, part-time (or a combination of the above).

Opportunities at cathedral group universities: The geographical layout of campuses means that a CU group can very easily get a big ‘splash’ so that everyone on campus at that time can know what is happening – this provides great opportunities for forms of first contact evangelism.  Many attending cathedral group universities are at least sympathetic with the university’s Christian ethos and are willing to give Christians a hearing. The scale of the university gives it an intimate and friendly feel which leads to strong friendships being built amongst students (especially those who’ve moved to be at university).

Challenges at cathedral group universities: The biggest challenge is that most degrees involve regular placements, sometimes very long blocks of placement. This can disrupt any sense of momentum over the course of a term or year, and can punctuate attendance of students at an events week. (In practice, this normally makes the first term the key one for evangelism). Whilst the Christian ethos can make students willing to give the gospel a hearing, it can also cause students to assume that they are familiar with its content. A lower percentage of students are actually on campus at any one time compared to other universities, making lunchtime events difficult. In formerly Catholic colleges, there are added complexities concerning similarities and differences between Roman Catholicism and evangelicalism.

Ideas for mission for CUs at cathedral group universities:

  1. Do an Alpha or Christianity Explored course on campus in the first term, helping students who’d describe themselves as Christian to learn the crux of the Christian gospel for themselves
  2. First-contact evangelism – a ‘cake for a question’ table, a question board or a text-a-toastie can be very effective, especially if based somewhere visible on campus during the day
  3. Consider doing an ‘events week’ in the first term, when more students are around before long placements kick in. Do it early enough in term that there’s time to draw alongside those who want to investigate things further
  4. Meals are a great way to demonstrate the gospel’s generosity and welcome, and provide a great opportunity to deepen friendships. A ‘Come Dine With Me’ group can accelerate friendships with non-believers in a fun way. ‘Inviting the campus to dinner’, having a number of meals hosted by CU students on the first night of an events week can be a great start to the week
  5. A Theology Network group can present the gospel in an engaging way to religious studies and theology students at the university, sometimes one of the hardest groups to reach

Five ideas for building mission for churches near to cathedral group universities:

  1. Coaches take students to placements very early in the morning. Most students won’t have had breakfast. A church that offers bacon butties to queueing students will do wonders for building relationships, and create lots of gospel conversations
  2. Don’t forget these universities as you plan your term plan – they often come back earlier and finish later than other universities, and churches do these students a disservice through arranging their programme around the other universities in the city
  3. Like at ex-polytechnic universities, clubs and societies are normally small in number at cathedral group universities. A church football team will be popular amongst lads who are looking for an opportunity to play. Similarly, hockey and netball groups can engage female students.
  4. Students at cathedral group universities are often practically-minded, doing vocational degrees. Evangelistic events which help students see the difference that knowing Jesus in everyday life are often engaging, as are hearing testimonies when shared
  5. Term generally goes on longer in the summer, making outdoor-based activities possible for churches whilst students are still around. Barbecues and picnics in the summer before or after a Sunday service can be a great way to introduce non-Christian students to the gospel and to genuine Christian community

Tomorrow, for the final post in the series, we’ll think about specialist colleges of higher education.

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.

sheffield hallamExample Universities: Sheffield Hallam, Leeds Metropolitan, Central Lancashire

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.

leeds met logoIdeas for mission for CUs at ex-polytechnic universities:

  1. 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
  2. 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
  3. 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
  4. 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
  5. 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:

  1. 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
  2. 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
  3. 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
  4. 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
  5. 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.

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; and yesterday those at red brick universities. Today’s post is on plate glass universities.

York UniversityExample Universities: York, Lancaster, East Anglia

Plate glass universities in a nutshell: Plate glass universities date from the 1960s, and were mainly built as landscaped campuses on green field sites found at the periphery of cities. They typically have a higher percentage of state school students than both ancient and red brick students, still attracting a large number of international students (who are particularly congregated in certain departments). They offer degrees in a wide range of subjects: some more ‘vocational’ degrees are world renowned.

Opportunities at plate glass universities: Plate glass universities are often based on completely self-contained campuses based around bustling walking corridors – making them friendly, safe and social places where students enjoy spending time and available for the whole of the working day. There’s also often plenty of public space that can be booked. Lunchtime events can work particularly well, and hall groups can be very effective. Many first year and postgraduate students live on campus, making evening campus-based events (including international cafes) accessible to them. Some first contact initiatives can be run across the campus, capturing the wider university’s imagination. The campus is discrete, and this can focus Christians’ minds about their mission field.

Challenges at plate glass universities: It’s often difficult for returning students to live on campus, placing initiative on first year students to make the most of missional opportunities within on-campus accommodation. Many students often live a good distance away from the campus (sometimes needing to catch a bus to get to it), meaning that evening events essentially need to be pitched at one group or other to be accessible. It can be difficult to cater for evening events on campus as student kitchens become a limiting factor.

UYCUIdeas for mission for CUs at plate glass universities:

1. Plate glass universities are a type of university in which lunch bars can work very effectively, engaging a large number of non-Christians and training the CU in conversational evangelism
2. Campus-wide first-contact events (such as a campus-wide text-a-toastie) can realistically engage a huge percentage of those living on campus, sowing seeds and acting as an advertisement for other upcoming evangelistic events
3. Plate glass universities are often world-renowned for certain vocational degrees (particularly law, international business management, accounting and finance, computing etc.) amongst others. Arranging for a Christian who is successful in this world to share their story can be very effective, especially in engaging international students on these courses
4. CU small groups are well worth investing in strongly at these universities – campus life can be something of a bubble, and it’s possible for non-believers to get to know a wide range of Christians, to hear the gospel and to see the goodness of the gospel lived in community. These can be particularly powerful during events week, when a well-advertised series can become known about across the university
5. Consider running two follow-up groups after a major set piece event (such as a carol service or an events week) – one on campus and one in the city: that way, the course can be accessible to students wherever they live

Five ideas for building mission for churches near to plate glass universities – this can be quite hard, given that the campuses are often self-contained and miles out of the city but, beyond encouraging students into the local CU, here are a few ideas:

1. Many international students at plate glass universities are extremely lonely – the self-contained nature of the universities can draw international students away from experiencing life in the wider city. Many live on campus even outside of term time. Christian hospitality in real homes in these contexts can be extremely powerful
2. Arrange for lifts to and from campus to church, particularly for key church gatherings and guest services – without these, many non-believers will consider church too far away and effectively non-accessible
3. Offer to host or cater for a CU event – as mentioned above, the students will be severely restricted in their own food preparation on campus and will seriously value your help!
4. In some cities, churches are better placed to reach students on a night out in the city than the CU is, given that not all students live in the city. Liaise with the CU and with other churches to see if you might catalyse a late-night club ministry
5. If your church has the correct licences, consider showing major cultural and sporting events on a large screen – students may not have anywhere very exciting to watch these events on campus, so it shouldn’t be hard to make them attractive, and to use them to get to know some students

Next time, we’ll think about the ex-polytechnic or ‘new’ universities.

This is a series on reaching students at the various kinds of UK higher education institutions. Yesterday we thought about reaching students at ancient universities; today we’re considering those at red brick universities.

 University of Leeds

Example Universities: Sheffield, Leeds, Manchester, Bristol

Red brick universities in a nutshell: Red brick universities were founded towards the end of the Victorian era in key British cities. Originally specialising in science and technology, they now offer a range of courses in many traditional academic disciplines, plus also in a few key vocational areas. International student numbers are high. There is a higher proportion of state-educated students than at some ancient universities. There is normally a ‘precinct’ of university buildings close to the city centre; first year accommodation is normally in halls of residence some distance from where lectures take place. Christian Unions are relatively large, and there is normally a wide range of local evangelical churches spread across the city.

Opportunities at red brick universities: Whilst life in a hall of residence isn’t quite of the quality of life in college, halls do make it easy to make a wide range of friendships which can be maintained over three years. There is often a very rich extra-curricular emphasis based around a thriving Students’ Union building. Whilst in the evenings, students can be spread out across the city they are often within a close proximity during working hours, making lunchtime events particularly easy to run. Like their colleagues at ancient universities, students at red brick universities enjoy ideas and aren’t frightened to think. Christian students are often spread across a wide range of churches, often reducing church ‘politics’ and making inter-denominational unity attainable.

Challenges at red brick universities: In the evenings, students can be spread across a wide area, sometimes making it difficult to find a venue that is easily accessible to a wide range of students. Security concerns in larger cities also put some students coming in the evenings, if they think they might need to walk home alone. Red brick university cities often have a strong music scene, lively nightlife options and a range of other activities offered by both the university and the city – if students perceive a lack of quality from Christian activities, they’re much less likely to come.

sheffield CU logoIdeas for mission for CUs at red brick universities – like CUs at ancient universities, there are lots of possibilities here, but here are five key ideas:

  1. There are normally loads of clubs and societies at red brick universities – encourage each CU member to join one
  2. CUs at red brick universities can arrange some large set pieces and can be creative with venues: people are used to go into town in the evening, and so a carol service in a cathedral or even events week activities in central venues allows more creativity than venues on campus
  3. It’s not unusual to be able to get several hundred people to a lunchtime event if it’s held near the most bustling point of the university precinct (often the Students’ Union Building): these apologetic events can engage with people’s real questions and train the CU for personal evangelism
  4. There may be opportunities to engage certain university departments – perhaps those with large numbers of Christian students, or those who Christian academics on the faculty. Lunchtime events can be particularly effective here
  5. International Cafes often thrive at red brick universities – there are vast numbers of international students who appreciate British hospitality in a city that can often feel large, threatening and impersonal

Five ideas for building mission for churches near to red brick universities:

  1. Like at ancient universities, there are lots of international students (and their families) who come to red-brick universities. Yet the larger city environment can mean that international visitors get swamped by the city and are desperately lonely; Christian hospitality has an amazing role to play here
  2. Quality both matters and appeals to students at red brick universities, who are used to being offered quality in everyday life in the university and in the city more widely. Who is gifted to a high quality within your congregation – in media, in design, in music, the arts etc.? How could these gifts be used in mission? Could they be offered to the CU to use too?
  3. Students will be likely be accommodated over a wide geographical area, some of them quite far away from where you meet – how can you make ‘guest services’ more appealing to students who may need to make quite an effort to get there? A free shuttle service? Walking buses? A meal afterwards? These little gestures demonstrate a commitment to non-believing students
  4. Red brick universities often maintain something of their original scientific specialism. A high-quality church day themed on Christianity and Science, featuring input from a Christian academic in science, will be of massive help to the Christian scientist students (as well as your wider church family), and may catalyse all sorts of other outreach in science departments
  5. Red brick CUs can sometimes struggle to attract enough ‘CU Guests’, graduates who work voluntarily alongside the CU during an events week, seeking to support and catalyse mission. Offer ministry trainees or members of your church staff for the whole week – they can then help to act as a local form of ‘follow up’ after the events week has finished, and personally invite seekers to church.

Tomorrow we’ll think about the universities founded in the 1960s – the so-called ‘plate glass’ universities.

This is Part 1 in a series of reaching students at the broad range of UK universities, and concerns ancient universities.

Durham University
Example Universities: Oxford, Cambridge, Durham

Ancient universities in a nutshell: These institutions have a global reputation. They are normally centuries old, collegiate-based and are concentrated into a small geographical area. There is a wide spread of traditional academic subjects offered, and a strong emphasis on research. Students are high achievers and are more likely to have been privately educated. Very high numbers of international students are in the student cohort. There are often well-known churches in the town, and a sizeable Christian Union with an influential history.

Opportunities at ancient universities: Plenty. It is easy to make a range of friends, both in quality and quantity. Shared college life accelerates the process of making friends, and there is often a developed extra-curricular and sporting programme (both in college, and across the university). The layout of the university means that students are never very far away from one another – it is relatively easy to draw a crowd of students either at lunchtime or in the evenings. Students at these universities often enjoy thinking (even beyond their own academic discipline) and can be willing to discuss ‘big issues.’

Challenges at ancient universities: The busyness of life at these universities can spread students very thin. The presence of a large cohort of Christian students often spread across a small number of local churches can sometimes lead to an unhealthy ‘competition’ between evangelical churches. Churches and CUs compete for time in what is an already crowded marketplace. ‘New atheism’ is at its strongest and most vociferous in some of these universities.

DICCUIdeas for mission for CUs at ancient universities – there are too many here to list, and here are just five:

  1. There’s an opportunity to engage a high proportion of the entire university through a well-planned and advertised events week or carol service
  2. Those living in college will probably never have the number of good friends that they are sharing life with in college: college CU groups have one of the best opportunities for sharing their lives as they share the gospel anywhere in the UK – make sure they’re well-resourced
  3. Regular lunch bars will give you the opportunity to intrigue non-believers and train the CU to answer their friends’ questions – almost certainly you will have an accessible venue, and fellow students will genuinely want to hear how a response is made
  4. Have an alternative ‘Freshers Fair’ after an early central CU meeting, where CU members share the clubs and societies they are part of. Encourage everyone present to join at least one more – witness is much easier when there’s more than one Christian present
  5. The CU is probably big enough and well-enough resourced to be able to support and arrange evangelistic events to particular groups – within departments, those with particular interests, creatives etc. Encourage CU members with shared passions for these groups to get together and give them permission to try new ideas in engaging these groups

Five ideas for building mission for churches near to ancient universities:

  1. Start a ‘local link’ scheme through which church members offer hospitality to international students (and their families, where appropriate). As a church it might be possible to arrange excursions for international students too
  2. Encourage postgraduates and academics within church to informally mentor undergraduate students in their discipline – demonstrating how they have found satisfactory answers to the intellectual challenges within the discipline, and sharing opportunities for witness
  3. Let the Students Union and Volunteering Society know about community projects your church is involved in – these groups are often looking for local projects to support, and may give you contact with a range of students (Christian and non-Christian)
  4. Host a guest service the Sunday after key CU outreach points (e.g. Freshers’ Week, the carol service, events week), arranging a meal afterwards and making it easy for seekers to hook into church life
  5. The CU is normally poorly placed to reach the vast number of postgraduate students at ancient universities. Talk to the postgraduate students in your churches about how the church might better catalyse mission amongst postgraduates.

Tomorrow, we’ll think about red brick universities.

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.