The University of Stirling has responded to concern over the imminent closure of its religion department, but the situation remains hugely uncertain.
News of a decision to end the University’s teaching programme on religion ahead of the September start, and to offer severance terms to departmental staff, was communicated to those involved as preparations for a new term were already underway.
Now, under huge pressure, the University says that it is prepared to talk about “sustainability” and to ensure that current students can complete programmes – but it is unclear what this means, and further details have been refused so far.
Ekklesia, which broke the story last week, has now received the following statement from an anonymous University of Stirling spokesperson via the institution’s communications department: “We are in discussions to secure a sustainable future for Religious Studies. All current students of religious degree programmes and those starting their studies in September will be able to complete their studies.”
Those involved are hoping that this response offers some real possibility of the reversal of the closure decision. However, deep concerns remain, and in response to specific requests for clarification, Ekklesia was told that “respecting confidentiality, we are not in a position to add anything further at this stage.”
In particular, there has been no indication that the closure threat and redundancy terms have been withdrawn, there is no information about how current students will be properly equipped by specialists, no specific assurance has been given that first and second year students will be able to graduate with a degree including the title ‘Religious Studies’ within two years, and there is no information about whether courses on offer for years three and four will continue or not.
No mention at all has been made about postgraduate research and teaching. A groundbreaking religion and politics programme that was being planned for a possible 2016 start is among those currently threatened.
Doubts also remain about the status of existing PhD students. Even if other supervisors are allocated to these students (not something to be taken for granted, given that the specialisms of the religion academics under threat), it is unclear if they will graduate with a PhD in ‘Religious Studies’ or some other subject.
The University has not responded to a request for clarification as to what the definition of 'sustainability' is in this case, what the procedure is for determining it in an open and fair way, and how it compares with existing definitions and procedures in relation to other departments.
Meanwhile, academics and institutions well beyond the circle of those who study religion professionally have been sending letters of concern to staff, to associates, and to the Principal and Vice Chancellor of the University of Stirling, Professor Gerry McCormac, and the Head of the School of Arts and Humanities, Professor Richard Oram – neither of whom has yet responded to requests for comment or clarification sent last week.
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 and the work of Professor Ninian Smart in developing a phenomenological approach to considering different beliefs, their practice and impact.
Crucially, observers point out, the religion programme at Stirling is the only one in Scotland not linked to the discipline of Christian theology, as is the case in the ancient Scottish universities of Aberdeen, St Andrews, Edinburgh and Glasgow.
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.
The University and College Union (the largest trade union and professional association for academics, lecturers, trainers, researchers and academic-related staff working in further and higher education throughout the UK) has taken up the case on behalf of staff at Stirling University.
Statements of support from leading academics and others, together with information about how to make expressions of concern, appear on the independent Critical Religion Association website: http://criticalreligion.org/events/august-2015-religion-at-stirling-unde...
Also on Ekklesia:
* University of Stirling to close pioneering religion department: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/22005
* Widespread dismay at university plans to end religion courses: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/22008
* Religion, higher education and critical thinking: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/22009
Ekklesia has a partnership with the Critical Religion project that originated from staff at the University of Stirling.