Heythrop College: innovation can’t save first victim of £9K fees

Catastrophic predictions of university closures in the UK are back in the news after another tumultuous recruitment season. However, it is not since Henry III dissolved the old University of Northampton in 1265 – under pressure from worried scholars in Oxford – that any major higher education institution has been forced to shut its doors for good.

That 753-year sequence (which excludes various institutional mergers, name changes and a renegade Lincolnshire college closed in the 14th century) will come to an end next month when Heythrop College, a constituent college of the University of London with its own Royal Charter, is shuttered.

Founded in 1614 in what is today Belgium, Heythrop began life as a college to train English Jesuit priests. It moved to England in the late 18th century as the persecution of Catholics spread from revolutionary France. In 1970, the college relocated from Heythrop Hall in rural Oxfordshire to London’s Cavendish Square. More than two decades later, in 1993, the specialist theology and philosophy institute moved to its current home amid the multimillion-pound town houses of Kensington Square.

However, it became the first casualty of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government’s 2012 tuition fee reforms as its recruitment dwindled after the introduction of £9,000-a-year tuition fees. Millions of pounds were provided by the Society of Jesus to tide it over, but the institution eventually announced in 2015 that it would close in 2018, following the breakdown of a potential merger with St Mary’s University, Twickenham. A surprise offer to become a college of the University of Roehampton in 2016 also came to nothing because of a lack of support from senior Jesuits over governance arrangements, according to Catholic newspaper The Tablet.

“Even though you’re a small institution, you still have to do the returns for the teaching excellence framework, the research excellence framework and, now, the knowledge exchange framework,” said Claire Ozanne, Heythrop’s principal since January 2017, outlining the growing administrative burden that has contributed to the college’s demise.

With larger universities in London better able to absorb these bureaucratic costs, and able to lure students with attractive campus facilities, smaller institutions such as Heythrop may be a thing of the past, added Professor Ozanne, who has led Heythrop while also continuing as deputy provost at Roehampton. “Institutions such as UCL have grown rapidly in the past few years, and I do worry that we will not have a diversity of institutions,” she said.

Some observers might wonder if a specialist institution such as Heythrop was ever likely to survive in the ultra-competitive London market without diversifying its subject mix beyond theology and philosophy. However, Professor Ozanne rejected the notion that the institution had been unwilling to innovate. “Heythrop has been very creative in building on what it has done well over the years,” she said, citing its creation of a new undergraduate degree in the Abrahamic faiths in 2007.

Expanding into different disciplines was a far harder task, admitted Peter Gallagher, vice-principal (academic), who said that Heythrop had not been able to replicate the success of its philosophy degree introduced 20 years ago.

“We thought psychology might work well, but that did not feel true to our core,” he said, adding that the subject was perhaps better suited to larger institutions with associated social science departments and medical schools.

“However, we did not feel like we were selling our souls by offering it,” Dr Gallagher said, dismissing the charge that Heythrop staff had been too high-minded to venture beyond their traditional strengths. The institution had also considered investing in student facilities at its tiny campus to boost recruitment, but it could not because “you need capital to do that”, Dr Gallagher added.

As such, Heythrop’s campus, which overlooks High Street Kensington Tube station, will soon be turned into luxury housing after the site was in May 2017 for a reported £100 million by its owners, the Society of Jesus. The society insists, however, that the sale price was far lower and will “represent a small return” on its investment in 1993.

The task of winding down the college is now almost complete. Professor Ozanne and her team have made sure that standards remained high for last year’s valedictory cohort of 120 final-year undergraduates. Some 250,000 books from the college’s library have been moved to the University of London’s Senate House library, with the federal university prepared to offer continued assistance on degree certifications for graduates once Heythrop disappears.

“We’ve aimed to keep a really vibrant academic community going, and we really worried whether we would be able to retain academic staff [in the final year],” Professor Ozanne said of the practicalities of keeping enough teachers on board while also helping them find other work.

“That hasn’t been a problem because there is such dedication among staff and students who wanted to remain part of Heythrop until the end,” she added.