Higher Education and Research Bill: Bishop of Durham supports amendment on Archbishop of Canterbury’s historic role in conferring degrees

On the 23rd January 2017, the Bishop of Durham, the Rt. Revd. Paul Butler, spoke to an amendment to the Higher Education and Research Bill, which would protect the Archbishop of Canterbury’s historic right to confer degrees. The amendment was tabled by the Bishop of Portsmouth, the Rt. Revd. Christopher Foster, who was unable to attend the debate. Viscount Younger of Leckie responded on behalf of the Government:


The Lord Bishop of Durham: My Lords, my friend the right reverend prelate the Bishop of Portsmouth is unable to be in his place this evening, but in his place I bring before your Lordships Amendment 268A. I endorse all the general comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Murphy of Torfaen, about the Cathedrals Group of universities. While I am not armed with the expertise, his amendments appear to make sense for the particular purpose.

I am sure that almost all noble Lords in the Committee are aware that the Archbishop of Canterbury has possessed the power to confer degrees since the Ecclesiastical Licences Act 1533. Certainly the landscape of higher education has changed in the almost 500 years since then, when the only other English degree-awarding institutions were Oxford and Cambridge. The Higher Education and Research Bill that we are rightly considering so carefully is very welcome in recognising that changing landscape and legislating to ensure that the sector continues to evolve as successfully as it has done so far.

Amendment 268A deals with a particular corner of that landscape and it may help to indicate briefly how this power is exercised. Lambeth degrees, as they are often informally called, are now issued in one of two distinct ways. The first is following examination or thesis, under the direction of the Archbishop’s Examination in Theology, usually referred to as the AET. Since 2007, the AET has been offered as an MPhil research degree, with the opportunity to extend to a PhD. These research courses are offered at a level that meets QAA requirements but at a reasonable cost and with user-friendly access. Although allocated research supervisors will be fully qualified to offer guidance and criticism, the emphasis is on individual research, requiring a high level of self-motivation and commitment to study. Students on the AET have access to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator and although, as one document rather charmingly puts it,

“the Archbishop is not a university”,

this provision is included within the current HEFCE register.

The second is the awarding of higher degrees—often, though not always, doctorates—in a range of disciplines to those who have served the Church in a particularly distinguished way and for whom an academic award would be particularly appropriate. They can be awarded in divinity, law, arts, medicine or music. It could therefore be said that in addition to the scholarly merit required of a possible recipient, they have an honorary character. Indeed, some past and current Members of this House have been recipients; for example, the noble Lord, Lord Sacks, was awarded a doctorate of divinity in 2001.

While originally conveyed by the Act of 1533, the Archbishop’s power to award degrees was recognised following the Education Reform Act 1988, within the relevant statutory instrument—for connoisseurs, it is the Education (Recognised Bodies) Order 1988, no. 2036—and under the Further and Higher Education Act 1992, to which Amendment 268A refers.

Lambeth degrees are not given lightly—surely no degree is lightly awarded—and they are regarded as a great honour by their recipients. Archbishop Justin—the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury—places great emphasis on the rigour of the AET, and he is not alone in his belief that the course makes a valuable contribution to theological research. The AET enables those from all backgrounds among the Anglican communion around the world, who may not have access to the privilege of studying for an English degree any other way, to do so, and diversity among the small group of students who study for the AET is rightly valued highly.

As an example, in Durham we are currently hosting a highly gifted young Burundian while he undertakes research for a Lambeth PhD. He is on the staff of the newly founded Bujumbura Christian University in Burundi. On his return there, he will play a significant role in its development. His research is in the ethics of entrepreneurial business development in a developing nation. Currently, only 3% of Burundians study at a higher education institution, so his involvement in developing a new one is significant for the nation as a whole. The Lambeth degree process is thus serving the poorest and neediest nations. It is of real significance and needs to be maintained.

This is simply a saving amendment, and I hope that the Minister will say whether it is the Government’s intention to adopt this amendment or to offer one of their own to the same effect on Report in order to ensure that this long-standing, beneficial and, indeed, unique provision is explicitly respected in the Bill. If the Minister is unable to be so definite, perhaps he might be willing to arrange a meeting before Report to discuss how best the necessary provisions can be made.

Viscount Younger of Leckie (Con, Minister) [extract]: Briefly, I thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Portsmouth—and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham, who spoke on his behalf—and the noble Lord, Lord Murphy, for tabling Amendments 268A, 338ZA and 338ZB. I know that my officials have already been discussing some of these issues with the most reverend Primate’s office, and rather than trying to respond to these amendments today, I offer to meet the noble Lord and the right reverend Prelates to discuss specific issues in more detail outside the Chamber. I hope that will be helpful, rather than going into all the arguments this evening.

(via Parliament.uk)