Students and lecturers are warning that theology and religious studies departments in British universities could be under threat due to cuts in higher education funding.
Bangor University will this year accept new theology students for the last time, while staff at Birmingham have warned that they will consider strike action to resist compulsory redundancies.
Recent days have seen intense speculation and contradictory rumours about the government's plans for higher education funding. The threat of cuts is raising fears across academic disciplines, but some are concerned that there is a particular threat to small departments and those whose subjects do not appear to have an obvious commercial or vocational benefit.
The Student Christian Movement (SCM) said this week that they are “very concerned” about the closure of theology departments. SCM’s Charlotte Thomson insisted that, “decisions on higher education funding should not be based on narrow economic arguments but on what knowledge and learning we value as a society”.
Bangor University's School of Theology and Religious Studies will take new students for the last time this autumn. It will then be merged with a similar department at Trinity St David's, based in Lampeter and Carmarthen. Bangor University told The Friend, the independent Quaker magazine, that existing theology students will be able to complete their degrees at Bangor before the subject is “phased out” there. Some staff will move to Trinity St David's immediately.
The Friend also reports that staff at Birmingham University have been told to expect twelve or thirteen job losses in the School of Philosophy, Theology and Religion. Martin Machon of the University and College Union (UCU), which represents academic and teaching staff, told the magazine that job cuts could leave remaining staff with “excessive workloads”.
Machon explained that the UCU is opposed to compulsory redundancies and working hard to achieve a negotiated agreement. But he said, “The University of Birmingham is running the risk that there will be strike action, not just in theology but in other parts of the university, and that is something we’re bearing in mind if we’re not able to achieve a satisfactory settlement”.
The UCU and the National Union of Students (NUS) have warned that funding cuts will undermine the coalition government's stated aim of increasing the percentage of university entrants drawn from lower-income backgrounds.
“Hitting higher education is politically far easier than, say, cutting health spending,” suggested Chaminda Jayanetti, editor of A Thousand Cuts, a website monitoring the effects of cuts in the public sector. He predicted that, "The university sector will be broken, bloodied and battered by the time the government's funding cuts have taken effect”.
Speaking to Ekklesia, Jayanetti warned that, “The new government will look to fulfil Tony Blair's vision of higher education - a market where universities open and shut down, with the private sector competing against the state; where well-off students flock to the top universities while those from low income backgrounds study at their 'local' because they can't afford to leave home; where a degree's value is measured in solely economic terms, even as government funding cuts limit universities' potential to contribute towards Britain's economic growth.”