Theology, religious studies at risk at UK universities, British Academy warns

Keble College Chapel, University of Oxford.
Keble College Chapel, University of Oxford. | Wikimedia Commons

Theology and religious studies in British higher education is suffering a major decline, according to an educational group that specializes in humanities and social sciences.

The London-based British Academy recently released a report titled “Theology and Religious Studies Provision in U.K. Higher Education,” which found that there were approximately 6,500 fewer students enrolled in theology and religious studies courses in higher education during the 2017-2018 academic year than in 2011-2012.

“While the study and research of theology and religion remains an attractive area for many, it has seemingly fallen foul of the many challenges faced by the higher education sector, and particularly since the reforms to fees and funding in 2012: the number of students studying theology and religious studies degrees has fallen by a third,” noted the report’s Foreword.

“Fewer students means additional pressures on schools and departments to demonstrate their worth or face closure. The U.K.’s specialist theological institution, Heythrop College, founded in 1614, closed its doors in 2018 after over 400 years of teaching.”

The report also found that there was a significant gender gap and age gap when comparing theology and religious studies with other fields.

Women made up 37% of academic staff in theology and religious studies, versus 53% for similar humanities subjects. While the average age for academic staff in theology and religious studies was 47, in the fields of philosophy, classics, and history the average age was 43.

Professor Roger Kain, vice president of Research and Higher Education Policy at the British Academy and co-author of the report, said in a statement last week that the report came at “a critical time” for the academic field.

“Not only are the subjects’ popularity on the wane but the problem is confounded by the profile of their teaching staff,” said Kain.

“… 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.”

Much has been made about the erosion of Christianity in the United Kingdom in recent times, as seen with declining membership and attendance, as well as large numbers of church closures.

In February 2018, the U.K.-based research group YouGov released a report in which respondents ranked religious studies as one of the least important subjects students should learn in school.

YouGov surveyed about 1,600 Brits on what they considered the most important subjects taught in school, including drama, music, religious studies and physical education.

YouGov found that only 12% labeled religious studies "very important," with the majority saying it was either "not very important" or "not at all important."

The only subjects ranked lower than religious studies were drama at 8%, classics at 7%, and Latin at the very bottom with 3%.

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