Taxpayer-funded discrimination

How far should the British state go in enforcing the private religious prejudices of its citizens?

Three weeks ago, Bishop Grosseteste University College (BGUC) advertised for a new principal. BGUC was established in 1862 as a teacher-training college within the Anglican Diocese of Lincoln. Now with over 2,000 students, it has also branched out into the cultural and creative sectors. Its degree programmes were formerly validated by nearby universities but in 2006 BGUC was granted its own taught-degree awarding powers.

So it is now a "university college". And it has made an application to the Privy Council for upgrading to full university status. There is every likelihood that this will be granted. So whoever is appointed to be the new principal of BGUC will become the first vice-chancellor of Bishop Grosseteste University.

But whoever that person is, they must - as the advert makes clear - "be an active member of a church in sympathy with the Church of England and someone who will espouse the mission and history of BG, upholding and developing its Christian ethos."

If BGUC were a private foundation, I would have not the slightest problem with this. But it isn't. Most of its income comes from UK student fees. It's a very safe bet that most of these fees are paid with money borrowed from the Student Loans Company, which obtains its funds from the UK Treasury - or, to be more precise, from you and me through our taxes. The finances of BGUC are therefore regulated by the Higher Education Funding Council for England.

The salary of the new principal will thus derive from taxpayers' money, the spending of which the government supervises. So the Funding Council - and indeed the Privy Council - must have agreed that the post could be restricted to members of the Anglican Communion. No Jews (unless, I suppose, they are baptised Anglicans) need apply. No Catholics, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, atheists or agnostics. The headship of this taxpayer-funded university will be restricted by means of a religious test.

Some of you might say: "But what about Alderman's defence of publicly supported faith schools? He can't have his cake and eat it!" Well, I do support the principle of state-maintained faith schools. But there have, indeed, down the years, been many examples of state-aided Jewish schools having excellent non-Jewish teachers and head-teachers. And why not? A head-teacher's job is to provide educational leadership while naturally respecting the particular ethos that a school may wish to project. The job of a vice-chancellor is, similarly, to provide educational leadership, to be the chief executive and chief academic officer of the institution, and, incidentally, to be its chief accounting officer. I simply fail to see why the successful discharge of these purely secular duties should depend on the incumbent's private religious beliefs.

For some years, I was a member of the governing body of Heythrop College, a college of London University established and funded by the Jesuits. At that time, the office of principal of Heythrop was restricted absolutely to Jesuits. Now that the college is taxpayer-funded the restriction has disappeared. I'm currently a visiting professor at York St John University which, like BGUC, originated as an Anglican teacher-training academy. The statutes of York St John did once stipulate that the office of vice-chancellor be restricted to Anglicans. But the stipulation has now been erased.

Apologists tell me that BGUC is one of a handful of "cathedral city" Anglican training colleges, recently upgraded to universities, that still enforce a religious test on those holding posts at the level of vice-chancellor.

But this makes matters worse, not better. And to add insult to injury, applicants for the BGUC post are being asked to complete an "equal opportunities" monitoring form.

BGUC claims it is acting within the law, which does indeed permit religious discrimination in employment - but only where a "genuine occupational requirement" can be demonstrated. To argue (as a BGUC spokesperson did in answer to my inquiry) that the holder of the office of vice-chancellor needs to be an Anglican is quite disingenuous, and, in fact, an affront to the taxpaying public.

Last updated: 11:45am, October 23 2012