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University of Kent drops religious-studies degree

28 March 2024

Announcement comes as part of wholesale cuts to arts subjects


The School of Arts, Jarman Building, University of Kent at Canterbury

The School of Arts, Jarman Building, University of Kent at Canterbury

DEGREES in philosophy and religious studies are to be “phased out” at the University of Kent, it was announced last week.

Courses in anthropology, art history, health and social care, journalism, music, and audio technology are also to be dropped, in part because the university believes that it can no longer compete in these specialisms, but more generally because of recent “financial challenges including the fixed tuition fee, rising costs, and changes in student behaviour”.

The changes are part of its Kent 2030 plan, “which brings together a range of improvements based on suggestions from our students”, a press release circulated last week says. Students on the courses to be phased out will be taught and supervised until the end of their degrees.

“Like many in the sector, we are responding to a number of financial challenges including the fixed tuition fee, rising costs and changes in student behaviour,” the release says. “This programme of work is to ensure we get ahead of this, adjusting what we do to match changes in demographics while meeting the ambition of students and what they can study at Kent and the ways we support them in doing that.”

Religious studies no longer appears on the list of courses for the next academic year. The undergraduate course was previously outlined as “Exploring global religions and philosophies, as well as secular world views and approaches. We make connections between systems and beliefs to foster an understanding of different practices, cultures and worldviews.” Postgraduate study was described as taking place in “a thriving, research-active department”.

Canon Robin Gill, Emeritus Professor of Theology at Kent, where he taught from 1992 to 2013, reflected on Monday that the closure was a result of both national and local factors. “Nationally, all universities face a serious funding problem,” he said.

“Fees for UK students have long been frozen by the Government, and universities have coped mainly by recruiting more overseas students (who typically pay triple fees). Obviously, this favours subjects (such as business studies, economics and law) that favour the wealthy. Most arts subjects, as a result, have been badly affected.”

The small department at Kent had latterly focused on research excellence, he said. Staff had achieved this only by cutting two well-subscribed MA programmes — applied theology and mysticism/religious experience — that did recruit home and overseas students, but did not fit current staff research interests; by hiring three extra senior staff with similar research interests; and by narrowing recruitment of postgraduate students mainly to those with these interests.

“Sadly, what my successors were unable to achieve was recruiting a sufficient number of students to keep the department viable,” he said. “The economically gifted late Professor Ronald Preston warned me 40 years ago that, for theology to survive in a secular university, an economically viable staff-student ratio is essential. Wisdom forgotten.”

The University of Chester, an Anglican foundation, provoked an outcry in 2021 when it announced compulsory redundancies in its Department of Theology and Religious Studies. More than 800 religious leaders and academics protested, emphasising the crucial part it played in meeting the urgent need for religious literacy in the UK, and decrying the move as “an unnecessary act of vandalism” (News, 23 April 2021).

The department continued to thrive, however. It now boasts “one of the best employability rates in the UK in our discipline. Our courses develop subject-specific skills in empathy, cultural sensitivity and religious literacy — all valued by employers.”

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