Axe hovers over world of academic theology

by
28 July 2010

by a staff reporter

UNIVERSITY theology departments are facing a turbulent autumn with rounds of staffing cuts and closures.

The Student Christian Movement (SCM) said that it was “very con­cerned” over the plans of some uni­versities to axe courses and shed staff. Redundancies are likely to occur in departments across the country, as the higher-education sector suffers from swingeing government spend­ing cuts.

The reduced budget for universities means that an estimated 200,000 students will be left without university places this autumn.

Bangor University has announced that its School of Theology and Religious Studies will close, and the course will be “phased out”. The de­partment will merge with the equi­valent department at Trinity Saint David.

A spokesperson for Bangor Uni­versity said: “This is part of a new strategic approach to the subject in Wales, which is designed to safeguard and strengthen theology teaching, and which will result in the creation of a national centre of excellence in teaching and research in theology and religious studies.”

At the University of Birmingham, which has one of the largest and strongest theology and religion de­part­ments of any university in the UK, up to a third of staff could be cut. An ongoing review of the department will report this autumn. Eleven members of staff are earmarked for redundancy.

A source at the university said that morale among the staff of 30 was “very low” while they waited for the announcement, after a consultation period. “It’s not easy being a theology department in a secular university at the best of times, though the report from the review did commend the work of the department. But life is very difficult for staff here at the moment.”

Other theology departments, such as Oxford Brookes’s, have been re­shaped, and many staff have left.

The future of theology depart­ments, one lecturer said, depends on “whether they are marketable and successful at attracting research students; if they are, then universities are happy”.

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The national co-ordinator of the SCM, Hilary Topp, said: “We are very concerned that theology departments are suffering from cuts like this. Theology is an important subject for people to study: it increases the un­der­standing between Christianity and other faiths.” Theology depart­ments, she said, were often seen as being easier targets than more “commercial” subjects.

Last year, students at the Uni­versity of Sheffield’s Biblical Studies department managed to save their course from closure after the uni­versity’s senate ruled that they had not been properly consulted. A wide­spread review and consultation exercise is now under way.

Universities had a period of expansion under Labour, who say that funding rose by more than a quarter from 1997 to 2009, although in their last year of government they began cutting it back.

The present Government has cut a further £211 million, reducing 20,000 promised new university places to 10,000. Further spending cuts to the sector are likely to be announced as a result of the cuts of 25 per cent across government departments, an­nounced in the emergency budget.

A review of university funding and fees is also under way, chaired by Lord Browne, a former chief executive of BP. It is due to report to the Govern­ment this autumn.

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