Will the UK's Bible colleges survive into the future?

(Photo: Griszka Niewiadomski)

With the International Christian College in Glasgow and St Michael's College in Cardiff both recently announcing their closures, to what extent are UK Bible colleges in a state of peril?

Reverend Richard Tiplady, Principal of the ICC, says that from where he is sitting, the nation's Bible colleges are facing a lean future.

"Of the ten largest bible colleges in the UK, only one is growing," he says.  

In the case of the ICC, the numbers were beyond the pale. Between 2000 and 2013 the annual intake of new undergraduate students dropped from 57 to 16.

What is causing this decline? Are Christians less interested in academic study around the Bible these days? Are people taking up alternatives, or not taking up anything at all? Or are there other explanations for the current malaise?

According to Reverend Tiplady, one of the biggest problems is simple demography.

"There are fewer young people in the country each year hitting the age of 18. There are also fewer Christian young people among them," he says.  

The UK's birth rate has dropped considerably since the days of the baby boom, with average children per woman of 1.98 in 2011 compared to 2.93 in 1964.

In 2010 the ONS predicted that by 2017 there will be 4.9 million teenagers in the UK, compared to 5.4 million teenagers in the UK at that time.

In 2001 the census showed that teenagers made up 7.6 per cent of the population. In 2011 that had dropped to 7.4 per cent.

The 2011 census also revealed that the average age of a British Christian is approximately 50, not the primary age most people choose to go to Bible college.

So demography is one problem, but another big one according to Rev Tiplady is competition.

Bible colleges were usually thought of as the first port of call for Christian students, particularly Evangelical Christians, who wanted to enter church ministry. But now, two competing visions of Christian qualification have emerged.

Many more evangelical Christians are open to studying the Bible in departments of theology at more mainstream universities, rather than head to a Bible college.

"People from evangelical churches would usually choose a Bible college rather than a university theology department, because theology departments were thought of as dangerous places.

"That's no longer the case, there's lots of evangelicals teaching in university theology departments all across the country."

Rev Tiplady also notes that many evangelicals are choosing to enter into a more informal type of church ministry education, learning on the job as a kind of understudy to a church pastor.

"There has been a rapid growth in informal, non-validated, apprentice like training, run by churches and groups of churches. These are seen as more practical, more ministry focused.

"These are seen as something of a response to the move towards validated degrees that Bible colleges made about 20 years ago, thereby becoming more academic.

"Lots of people felt that not all those entering ministry needed this kind of academic qualification, they need a more practical education."

So with many people looking for a more 'hands on' church education experience, and many others happy with the teaching in the more mainstream environment of university theology departments, the advantages of the traditional Bible college experience are apparently seen by many as increasingly obscure.

For the ICC in Scotland, this is made even worse by the fact that unlike all the mainstream Scottish universities, they can't offer their courses for free.

"Because we still need to charge, not only are we uncompetitive, but students who come to our college cannot get a loan, because there are no facilities to get student loans in Scotland," Rev Tiplady explains.

"Our students get a small grant from the Scottish government, of £1,800. Our fees are £5,500.

"Also, because universities in England are now charging £9,000 per year, Bible colleges in England are cheaper than universities for the first time ever."

So for the ICC, demography, new church education trends, and simple economics have come together to bring about their downfall. And while Bible colleges in England do not have such a worry when it comes to mainstream competition, the demographic climate is hardly just a Scottish issue.

Yet some Bible colleges are resisting this trend. Steven Jenkins, the dean of Mattersey Hall told Christian Today: "Our intake remains strong. We currently have 230 students enrolled on one of these degree programmes and in recent years this number has remained fairly stable."

The student body and 10 members of staff have just returned from nine national and international mission destinations, and it may be that the inclusion of missional activity as part of the course has kept up the attraction of studying at the college.

Mattersey Hall also has a slight demographic advantage, since they are associated with the Pentecostal Assemblies of God denomination, which has a strong tradition of attracting immigrants and those of ethnic minorities.

Among those groups, birth rates are higher, and Christian fervour is less diminished compared to the wider UK population. The 2011 census revealed that the UK is home to 1.2 million foreign-born Christians, including many Polish Catholics and evangelicals and pentecostals from Africa and Latin America.

The British Bible college of the future may be very much more diverse than it is at present.

Calvin L Smith, of King's Evangelical Divinity School, also told Christian Today that their institution is doing well.

"In recent years King's Evangelical Divinity School (KEDS) has seen steady growth in student intake and credits completed, and we recently expanded our B.Th. and M.A. degrees with additional modules to attract a wider group of students."

Expanding in courses has had its benefits, but Mr Smith suggests another factor at work.

"As a wholly online provider with a wide audience, offering courses at a lower cost than traditional taught courses and focusing on our 'niche' area (biblical interpretation), KEDS has on the whole weathered the storm," he says.  

Online education is a rapidly growing field, with websites like the Khan Academy, Udacity, EdX and ALISON offering services either for free or at significantly reduced costs.  Huge overheads like buildings, equipment, and textbooks become non issues or suitably cost effective.  Fortune magazine estimates that there are over 1 million people enrolled in online courses globally.

Maybe then the Bible College in the UK can survive, but in a very different form from how it is today.