THEOLOGY and religious studies departments in universities could disappear unless they recruit and promote more female and ethnic-minority staff, the Vice-President of Research and Higher Education Policy at the British Academy, Professor Roger Kain, has said.
A report published last Thursday, Theology and Religious Studies Provision in UK Higher Education, says that academic staff in theology and religious studies are ageing and largely male.
Only 37.2 per cent of theology and religious-studies staff were female in 2017-18, in contrast to all humanities and languages academic staff, of whom 53.1 per cent were female in the same academic year.
“The gender imbalance has improved slowly over time, but at the current rate it would take over 20 years just to catch up with the other humanities,” it says.
Furthermore, academic staff in theology and religious studies tend to be older than their counterparts in other historical and philosophical subjects.
The report also says that academic staff in theology and religious studies departments are “predominantly white”, although it notes that “the proportions of black and minority ethnic staff are more in line with all humanities and languages disciplines than they are for gender.”
In a press release accompanying the report’s publication, Professor Kain says that the declining popularity of theology and religious studies “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.”
The report says that there were about 6500 fewer students on theology and religious-studies courses in higher-education institutions in 2017/18 than in 2011/12 — the year before annual fees for full-time undergraduate degrees rose to up to £9000.
The report, published on Friday, says: “This is particularly concerning as, while other humanities subjects have seen a bounce-back in recent years, Theology and Religious Studies numbers have continued to fall.
“Decline in student enrolment at publicly-funded institutions may be being partly offset by an increase in study at alternative providers, but overall there has been a worrying fall in enrolment across undergraduate and postgraduate taught programmes.”
It concludes: “It is difficult to determine the causes of the decline in TRS enrolment, but the evidence . . . suggests that the increase in tuition fees has played a part in deterring prospective students and in pressuring institutions to change the courses they offer for financial reasons.
“The disappearance of many bursaries and scholarships for students, particularly for foundation degrees, may have also had an impact.”
The Revd Professor Diarmaid MacCulloch, Professor of the History of the Church in the University of Oxford, says in a press release accompanying the release of the report: “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.”
The report also notes: “In recent years, TRS departments at several institutions have either merged with other departments or have closed altogether. The UK’s specialist theological institution, Heythrop College, founded in 1614, closed its doors in 2018 after more than 400 years of teaching.”