Theology and Religious Studies risk disappearing from our universities, says the British Academy

23 May 2019

Theology and Religious Studies disciplines must confront significant challenges or risk ‘disappearing from our universities’ at a time when they have never been more needed, says the British Academy in a new report showing a steep decline in student numbers.

In what is the first comprehensive analysis of Theology and Religious Studies provision in the UK, the report – Theology and Religious Studies provision in UK Higher Education – reveals that there were about 6,500 fewer students on such degree courses in 2017-18 than six years ago, when fees were increased.

The decline has led to the closure or reduction in size of several university theology departments. For instance, the UK’s specialist theological institution, Heythrop College, founded in 1614, closed its doors in 2018 after over 400 years of teaching.

The report also highlights significant gender imbalances between Theology and Religious Studies students and staff. While women made up 64% of students on first degree programmes in 2017/18, they made up only 35% of doctoral students and 37% of academic staff. In other similar humanities subjects 53% of academics are women. Meanwhile, the average age of academic staff is 47 years old compared with around 43 in Philosophy, Classics or History – and the average age has been rising.

If unaddressed, the profile of TRS teaching staff could prove to be a stumbling block to recruiting students from the next generation, who increasingly value diversity, leading to further ‘pipeline’ problems in the disciplines.

Warning of the ‘pipeline’ problems, Professor Roger Kain FBA, Vice-President of Research and Higher Education Policy at the British Academy, said:

This report comes at a critical time for Theology and Religious Studies. Not only are the subjects’ popularity on the wane but the problem is confounded by the profile of their teaching staff; if more ethnically and gender diverse groups do not rise through the ranks, there is a danger that these highly relevant disciplines disappear from our universities.”

Sir Diarmaid MacCulloch FBA, Professor of the History of the Church at the University of Oxford, said:

“Despite the rise of secularism in the West, religion continues to play a dominant role on the world stage. Religious extremism, religion-infused nationalism, and tension between religious communities are just some of the many challenges we face today. Religion is more, not less, relevant than ever before, and the study of it should reflect this.

“As an academic community, we must strive to ensure that our Theology and Religious Studies reflect the world they seek to explain.”

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