A Scottish university with an important track record of independent, critical enquiry on the impact of religion in society is planning to scrap its pioneering religion department with almost immediate affect.
The shock news has been communicated to staff as preparations for a new term are already underway, and will take effect almost immediately, Ekklesia understands.
Neither the Principal and Vice Chancellor of the University of Stirling, Professor Gerry McCormac, nor the Head of the School of Arts and Humanities, Professor Richard Oram, have yet responded to requests for comment.
The university is proposing to end religion as an honours degree subject at undergraduate level. Plans for an innovative postgraduate degree in Religion and Politics will also be scrapped, and the university’s existing commitment to teach religion to Professional Education students appears to be in peril.
Stirling students wishing to become RE teachers can complete a single degree in Religion and Professional Education without the need to undertake postgraduate degrees. This approach has been pioneered by Stirling, and its integrated approach is highly sought-after by education authorities, specialists in the field say.
The jobs of all four of the members of staff in the religion department are now under immediate threat, but the university’s media policy means that Ekklesia was not able to secure direct comment from them.
Strong opposition from staff, students, former students, educationists and those with a professional concern for high quality teaching about religion and belief is expected to follow.
It is unclear how current research postgraduates will be supervised, with concerns for those who enrolled specifically to receive the guidance of an acknowledged expert in the field.
Neither is it clear whether existing students will be able to graduate with a qualification in religion, as they intended when they enrolled.
Religion at the University of Stirling has a unique place in the context of Scottish universities, coming as it does from the link between philosophy and religion forged by Professor (now Lord) Stewart Sutherland when he was at Stirling.
Crucially, the study of religion at Stirling is not linked to the discipline of Christian theology, as is the case in the ancient Scottish universities of Aberdeen, St Andrews, Edinburgh and Glasgow.
This is one of the factors, specialists point out, that has enabled Stirling’s small religion department to develop a distinctive analysis of the discourse around religion in the contemporary context, including politics, the media, academia and other spheres of public life.
One of the most significant developments has been the creation of an international scholarly network interested in these issues called Critical Religion (www.criticalreligion.org), which looks at belief in a postcolonial context.
University of Stirling staff operating in the religion field have been called upon by national and international media to comment on religion in current affairs. They have also developed positive relationships with other specialists, including the think-tank Ekklesia, as well as the capacity to make an impact with a range of professional organisations.
There is concern that the loss of religion teaching and research at the University of Stirling will further damage the wider provision of the subject in Scotland and the UK.
The news about Stirling comes in the wake of the announcement that Heythrop College, an internationally renowned philosophy and theology teaching college within the University of London network, is to close.
There has been widespread dismay across the world on social media about the decision to end the study of religion at Stirling (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/22008).
Professor Jolyon Mitchell, President of Theology and Religious Studies UK (formerly The Association of University Departments of Theology and Religious Studies, or AUDTRS) commented: "We are very concerned by the news that discussions are taking place to bring about the removal of Religion at honours undergraduate and postgraduate level at the University of Stirling.
"Stirling's approach to the study and teaching of Religion, as something distinct from Christian Theology, represents an invaluable element in the Scottish TRS landscape and a vital contribution to international efforts to understand the role of religion in the contemporary world. Following hot on the tail of indications that Heythrop College in London is under similar pressure, the news at Stirling underlines some of the challenges currently facing TRS across the UK," said Professor Mitchell.
“My concern is that Stirling's closure of religion is further depriving students of the opportunity to engage with subjects that encourage critical thinking, independence of mind and the exploration of new ideas. These are all things that a University is meant to stand for,” a former student has told Ekklesia.
She continued: “By removing Religious Studies as a degree option Stirling University is effectively saying that a degree in Religious Studies is not important, ergo, my degree, that of all the students before me and those still currently engaged in Religious Studies, is not worth anything. Stirling University's decision to remove Religious Studies from the degree programme list is devaluing our degree.”
The response to the news from academics, students and specialists in the field has been one of surprise, anger an deep concern.
Simon Barrow, co-director of the religion and society think-tank Ekklesia, said: "Closing a department that tackles one of the most crucial subjects in contemporary discourse - the relationship of religion and belief to momentous changes in the global situation - is the opposite of what a modern university that cares about applied knowledge should be doing. It is to be hoped that this precipitous decision, which appears to have been taken without any serious consultation, and just a few weeks before it is to be implemented, will be immediately reconsidered."
* Direct expressions of concern to the University can be made in the following way: http://criticalreligion.org/events/august-2015-religion-at-stirling-unde...
Further news and comment to follow on this. Ekklesia has a partnership with the Critical Religion project that originated from staff at the University of Stirling.